The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

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DEC 18-JAN 19 Issue
Art In Conversation


Portrait of Gregor Hildebrandt, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Gregor Hildebrandt, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.


The Berlin-based, West German born-and-raised artist Gregor Hildebrandt was in New York for the opening of his show at Perrotin Gallery on the Lower East Side. It’s a disarmingly huge, three-story, former hardware emporium on Orchard Street, where the blaring signage announcing Beckenstein Hardware, remains intact as a reminder of the building’s history, and underscores the persistence of the past in the ultra-modern light-filled interior. The play on the past and varicultured present reverberates throughout Hildebrandt’s work, playing on tradition and a steady stream of avant-garde moments.

The tall, forty-four year-old artist is a wry and obsessive accumulator, ebullient as he walks me through the fairground-like assemblage of partitioned off rooms and enclosures containing his installations. A stack of vinyl bowls made from molded records forms a Brancusian tower extending three floors up a stairwell as well as walled-in “rooms.” A series of paintings made of audiotapes and alluding to Mondrian line the walls—no paint involved, while a large image from a film covered with strips of tape like a vertical blind has a wall of its own and underscores how what is concealed is also revealed. 

Installation view of Gregor Hildebrant: In meiner Wohnung gibt es viele Zimmer. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Near the entrance hangs a large, mostly white, minimalist-looking painting, titled Das PAAR COVER BILD (WEIB)/PAAR’s sleeve painting (white) (2018). But from up close, Hildebrandt divulges its secret life based on strips of audiotape and its inner rhythm. And that’s not all. Hildebrandt’s enterprise back in Berlin extends beyond the literal art world and into the ersatz commercial realm with a closet-size gallery space where he features such eccentric productions as piles of publications by Robert Schmitt. He also started a recording line titled Grzegorzki Records, whose first release is an album by the German band PAAR. Here he melds tradition and the new strains of dystopian Berlin and LA Bladerunner. All of which leads me to wonder what were the roots of the non-musician artist’s steadfast attraction to recording materials.

Barbara MacAdam (Rail): To begin, were you steeped in art history and art-making as a youth?

Gregor Hildebrandt: In my youth, I was in a kind of self-help studio with other “hobby artists” and two good friends of mine who also spent most of their time there with me. They knew much more than I did, and I learned a lot from them.

Rail: Did you study both?

Hildebrandt: No, initially I studied painting with Friedemann Hahn at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz, and then I switched in 1999 to the University of the Arts in Berlin, where I studied fine arts.

Rail: What mediums did you work in?

Hildebrandt: Painting and collage.

Rail: Clearly, as your work reveals, your view of art and the world around you is very eclectic. Music, science, history, and literature—also philosophy?

Hildebrandt: That’s not quite correct. In the beginning I was also interested in philosophy, but then I didn’t really get it.

Rail: Are you from an artistic family?

Hildebrandt: No, but my mother has always been very interested. And now my father is also getting increasingly interested.

Rail: What kind of art did you look at and make growing up?

Hildebrandt: In kindergarten, we made mystery drawings: usually a landscape or a picture of stripes which was then completely covered with black wax crayons and then, using a sgraffito technique, some of that was scratched off again so that the colors shone brightly, but the motif remained hidden. It would probably go a bit too far, but I do see a parallel to my current work. In the beginning, I really didn’t know much about art, Chagall monographs at home, the Saarland Museum as a destination on rainy Sundays. 

When I was sixteen, my mother registered me for a summer academy, and that was quite decisive. Francis Berrar and Thomas Gruber, two of the lecturers, became my mentors—later I did a stint as Gruber’s assistant stage designer. At the summer academy I also met Johannes Lotz, whom I encountered again later in my self-help studio; I owe it to him that I began my studies in Mainz.

Johannes’s uncle had a gallery in Hainfeld (in a wine-growing region), and he supplied Johannes with catalogues and art magazines, such as, for example, Wolkenkratzer Art Journal. And whenever there was an opening, I was allowed to come along and visit. The Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken had a really good program at the time. For example, they presented Thomas Huber’s solo exhibition Ideale Bildtemperatur, in which the artist held a performative speech (Bildrede) titled “Das Studio.” And I absorbed Documenta 9 (1992) like a sponge, with Luc Tuymans, Olav Christopher Jenssen, Bruce Naumann, and Peter Kogler who today is my colleague in Munich. 

Installation view of Gregor Hildebrant: In meiner Wohnung gibt es viele Zimmer. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

As a student, I had lively exchanges with the class, but also with Gert & Uwe Tobias, Jürgen Krause, Katja Strunz, and Axel Geis—we were all in Mainz at that time. When I moved to Berlin in 1998, Katja helped me to connect to the art world here: Anselm Reyle, Thomas Zipp, Thomas Scheibitz, John Bock, [Wawrzyniec] Tokarski, [Michel] Majerus . . . 

Rail: When did you get the idea of integrating music into your art?

Hildebrandt: I developed the cassette-tape collages in Mainz. I wanted to put a song into a book, and in Berlin this became a series that is ongoing to this day. The idea was that the song is hidden in the painting, but that it can’t be heard. I’m interested in the immateriality of a song, also in its temporality. Even though music triggers strong emotions for me, I’m not really a musical person, which is to say that I don’t really “get” a song that I really like, but I listen to it again and again.

I like the idea that my black monochrome painting is a certain song, and that it really is in the painting. 

Rail: Does this relate to memory?

Hildebrandt: Not necessarily. To some works, I ascribe a song associatively that reminds me of a certain situation. The viewers have the opportunity to obtain information about it.

Rail: Were you a fairly traditional painter to begin with and, if so, when did that change?

Hildebrandt: I was always a rather bad painter, which I didn’t want to hide. I chose my motifs according to my abilities—such as bar tables seen from above—but I also painted a twenty-two part painting consisting of twenty-two self-portraits (the number corresponded to my age), which was my big breakthrough as an art student according to Friedemann Hahn. (The tables I painted the previous year, twenty-one of them.) The inability I just mentioned led quite early on to a conceptual approach to painting, and this then developed into the cassette tape collages.

Rail: You seem to maintain a reverence for the past and a desire to integrate it into the present.

Hildebrandt: That might be so. I think I’d like to extend beyond the present. Also, I don’t really like change. In my studio, nothing can be thrown away.

Rail: Do you aim to re-create the sense of remembering by storing music and stages of production in the tapes? Is it enough that only you know what is being stored and when you’re not there to explain it? Will the viewer be able to relate to it all?

Hildebrandt: It’s important to me that the song remains, even if it’s in a different, or rather an additional form. For the painting, everything is recorded over again. The title of a painting, which always also contains the name of the singer, points very clearly to the painting’s information.

Rail: You have explained how you take lines from songs and produce them on strips of audiotapes. How does this communicate the content when the strips are assembled as a painting or installation? Is it the density of color tonalities that create a mood?

Hildebrandt: That is only the case with my Mondrian covers, since they are only individual lines of cassette tape that couldn’t accommodate the entire song, so I try to limit myself to lines of text—or rather of lyrics—and then I’m able to position these quite precisely, as for example in the painting la fleur bleue, la tulipe noire (Blume E.N.), where the tape at the very bottom bears a recording of the line “I heard you call my name.” The colored areas are the beginning and end strips of the tapes. The atmosphere of the colorful areas or the painting influences the choice of song, out of that moment.

Rail: What role does playing and strategy have in your art? You have that large installation of chess pieces—all white and lining shelves along the wall of Perrotin’s shop. The pieces range in size from tiny—about a quarter inch in height—to maybe four inches. What made you collect them and how do you choose them? Are they allusions to Duchamp? Do they suggest playing by rules?

Hildebrandt: The wonderful thing about art is that you can make your own rules for yourself. Then you have to stick to them. Unfortunately I must admit that I greatly respect authority, and have marked out a narrow space for freedom within my work. But within that confined space, I move quite freely. The rule in my so-called pawnshop is: the shelves should be four and a half centimeters deep, and there should be ten centimeters space between them. The field or format—in this case filling an entire wall—is determined by me depending on the space or the size of the wall. The pawns should only be of one color. They are to stand at a distance of about seven centimeters from each other, and no two alike pawns should stand in direct proximity, though I take every one that isn’t too large, so that it fits into my shelves.

I got the idea when I saw at my friend Roger Eberhard’s place, a photograph by Will Steacy of a pawn shop. I didn’t know what that was, and got the idea that it is a huge store where you can only buy chess pawns (what else?). That was around 2014, and I liked the idea so much that I wanted to do it myself. Consciously, it doesn’t have anything to do with Duchamp, but I admire him very much indeed. You can buy a pawn and then you can do what you want with it. It’s a sculpture. My girlfriend’s is at home on a picture frame and watches TV with us. 

Rail: What are they made of?

Hildebrandt: They are all wood; they are all vintage, they are all from the flea market and eBay. And they are all signed. There is one piece I would do in the future. It’s connected to the Pawn Shop. I love to play chess you know, I’m not good but I really like it. I have the idea to make an addition of nine queens. The queen is the most “theoretical” of what you can get in chess, because a pawn becomes a queen when it lands on the last square. 

Rail: What fiction, from the past and present, interests you and even influences your work?

Hildebrandt: That’s difficult to say because it is different, depending on the group of works. At my last exhibition in Berlin at Wentrup, Ein Zimmer im Raum [A Room in Space], I had the walls of the exhibition space papered with in-grain wallpaper, and then painted over five times: Die Dinge um mich bilden ein Muster [The Things Around Me Result in a Pattern]. The atmosphere this exudes reminds me of my childhood and youth.

The Schallplatten Säulenwand mit Reutermuster in my exhibition at Perrotin I associate with the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s, even if the model of the pattern of the building on Reuterstraße was only produced last year.

It does something to me that I can’t grasp properly, perhaps something of an idea of the notion of a good feeling. I also like a new context for my paintings, which this creates. The installation Die Hoffnung der Notwendigkeit [The Necessity of Hope] in the last room in the back refers to a performance by Georges Mathieu from 1971. This fascinates me a great deal and inspired me to produce this remake, (or better: homage), because this form doesn’t seem to be possible anymore. I’m also interested in transferring his approach into the vocabulary of my language.

To quote Karl Valentin, “Everything has been said already, but not by everybody.”

Rail: And by the same token, is there a philosophical aspect to your work—to the design-architectural sense of Ludwig Wittgenstein, with his purity and obsessiveness and his posing of questions?

Hildebrandt: If there is a connection to Wittgenstein, it’s not intentional.

Rail: Also music and films—which engage you most?

Installation view of Gregor Hildebrant: In meiner Wohnung gibt es viele Zimmer. Photo by Dario Lasagni. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Hildebrandt: That varies greatly. Music in a film can also be very important and indeed decisive, as for example in [Otto] Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958). I made several works about one of my favorite scenes, this one filmed in black-and-white: Jean Seberg dances first with an admirer and then with her father (or vice versa), while in the background Juliette Gréco sings the song that also gives the film its title. In addition, the viewer hears her thoughts until the song and thus the scene ends with the camera zooming into the colorful past.

Rail: How did you come up with the idea of molded-record bowls as a building material?

Hildebrandt: I always was buying records at the flea market and Thomas Scheibitz—an artist friend of mine—was saying [of the dealer], “He is actually your first assistant and he doesn't know this.”

Rail: You have a world here; it’s a whole environment.

Hildebrandt: Thank you. This piece is made of woven tape.

Rail: Who weaves it?

Hildebrandt: My assistants: Anyit and Claus.

Rail: Do they have a loom? 

GH: First, we have a frame and then the tape will be vertical and then...

Rail: So, you weave it around the tape and the tape becomes the loom?

Hildebrandt: At first I was starting to make patterns based on Anni Albers and then I was doing paintings with patterns from Anni Albers, and then people were asking me which song they should tape for this painting and we should make this pattern. My assistants took a song by Mike Bloomfield called “Flower Field” and it's a song about love songs.

The first year was 2003 when I was making the big paintings with tape. For old people in Berlin, there was meaning in them . . . all this music on them. Then I got the idea to make a vinyl record out of cassettes. And I was rolling one cassette after the next one to have the size of the vinyl record, and then I was super happy. And it looks like a record but it's made of cassette tape, so it's something else . . .

Rail: It is itself but it isn't. 

[There’s another huge “painting” with rectangles in various shades of brown and tan that together resemble a blanket with shifting tones—that come into focus as in an Ad Reinhardt painting.]

Hildebrandt: It reminds me of a blanket I had in Munich.

[Hildebrandt is referring to a large work Dein Kissen umarmt Dich (Blumfeld)/ Your cushion hugs you (Blumfeld).

Rail: From a distance it’s a little like Agnes Martin, but also like Rothko, no?

Hildebrandt: Ah, a big compliment.

Rail: Tell me about how you made this large room-size installation In meiner Wohnung gibt es viele Zimmer. 

Hildebrandt: We rented a special studio and we were using a fire extinguisher. This airbrush with a fixative you can paint it with a brush but also with a fire extinguisher because I want to have the whole thing in one short time period, so the mode of painting was ten minutes or fifteen minutes. The important thing for me was that the paintings are in the negative and the movement moved out into the positive and in through positive into negative and then it goes in the positive again. One movement over the painting and then switched. When I made this one, I also did the opposite. The paint brushstrokes here are white, and the strokes here are black. This one I now have in Künstlerhaus Palais Thurn und Taxis but it’s only temporary. 

Rail: Can you tell me about this floor piece from In meiner Wohnung gibt es viele Zimmer? It looks like a reflection. 

Hildebrandt: It is reflected in the floor piece. And the black painting here. 

Gregor Hildebrandt, Mit Henkeln aus Nephrit, 2018. Cut vinyl records, acrylic, canvas, wood, 60.6 x 11.8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Rail: So, it’s like every aspect of this is self-reproducing. 

Hildebrandt: Yeah, it exists twice: one time in white, one time in black.

Rail: From the tapes to the records, everything is reproducing itself.

Hildebrandt: The idea of the show was that I can show many aspects of my work, because . . . this apartment has many rooms, which is the title of the show: In My Apartment There are Many Rooms.

Rail: And there is also nice humor from here to the yellow painting Mit Henkein aus Nephrit/With pot handle made out of nephrite, (2018) (made of cut up records). Did you count the number of records?

Hildebrandt: No.

Rail: [Laughter] Did anyone? 

Hildebrandt: No. Nobody knows this, because there are so many. 

Rail: When did the title In My Apartment There are Many Rooms come to you? 

Hildebrandt: I have show in the Wentrup [a gallery founded in in Berlin in 2004 concentrating on young international artists] called in German One Room in the Space. Here, in America, you propose all your shows. Why you want to do a show, a gallery might ask you, “What’s the theme?” They might say, “We actually like this style of your pieces, we like that show you did in Paris, can we have piece like this or different pieces?” I might say, “Okay.” But when I hang one piece next to another and there is no connection, it is not working. But out of music, I can build my whole house. I can show one piece next to another, because you can’t see it all.

Then there’s the video VHS curtain and the record . . . Then you have this yellow moment in one room. Then you have this white room. There’s many rooms.

And then, for me, it means also my life has many aspects: the Mondrian paintings, but also the past, when I was studying. So everything is different. 

Rail: So, what courses are you teaching? 

Hildebrandt: Painting and drawing.

Rail: At what level? Is it practical and theoretical?

Hildebrandt: It’s more . . . in a way I am enjoying them. They do what they want; then I teach them what they were doing themselves. 

Rail: So critique.

Hildebrandt: Yes, they have their own ideas—different ideas—about what they want to do and we talk about it.

I have twenty-seven students, and they all have different ideas. We discuss together what they want to do, what they don’t want to do, what they have done previously. We don’t go see so many gallery shows. Because they [the students] are more connected by Instagram. 

Rail: How does that inform their practice? When did you join Instagram yourself? 2016?

Hildebrandt: Yes, because of them, and now I am the most addicted! I had this low follower count and it was like coming home after school and telling them you didn’t do well at school. “How many followers do you have?” they ask. I say, “Not so many.”

Rail: So you are saying the students no longer go to galleries because they are connected. But when you see something on Instagram, you didn’t see that at all really.

Hildebrandt: It’s very hard on galleries, you lose foot traffic. Somebody yesterday told me young people are no longer collecting.

Rail: It’s an economy of experience rather than possession.

Hildebrandt: And they don’t have the room anyway.

Rail: But you have students who don’t have the time or discipline to go to galleries so how does it work: how do you know what they were reacting to?

Hildebrandt: It’s hard to say, but they are also art students. Their only purpose in life is art by themselves. Because in this profession, you have to work all the time and there are only two in my class doing this, and they survive too. And they are a little lazy, because they want to have dinner, too.

Rail: When they work, is the work in relation to the artists selling their art, or is it having other things going on at the same time?

Hildebrandt: No, it means you have to be fully committed.

Gregor Hildebrandt, Ins Blaue, 2018. Cut vinyl records, acrylic, canvas, wood, 75.6 x 55 in. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Rail: Are you teaching them to do things besides their art practice?

Hildebrandt: No, but I remember how it was. When I was studying, there were not so many shows—I was traveling to Frankfurt to see different shows. I was very hungry for it. It’s not the same spirit. My girlfriend and I would have competitions to see who had the better portfolio; all we would talk about at home was art. And I feel this generation is interested in different things.

Rail: You need to do that in order to survive now. Are the students incorporating that other kind of work into their art the way you do? 

Hildebrandt: It’s now the rule for existing. A person can be very busy doing this and nobody sees it. So that’s also not good. The guys who are helping me set up the installation are also artists, and they are working hard for me, but they are also working hard for themselves. When you start creating your family you have to give attention to your wife and children. Then you need more money to support this child and you have less time for your work. But if you’re a good artist, you can move this energy into making something else.

Rail: Each thing emerges out of the last; it’s a continuum just like your art. 

Hildebrandt: It’s different. You have people that will sacrifice for their passion—and that’s necessary—but there are a lot in my class who don’t want to sacrifice. It’s not necessary to cut off your ear, but it’s not always fun to go into art.

There are no rules, so you can’t say this. When you have to create a work, figure out what comes next. All in all they are doing well. They are staying by their work. And also Munich is more expensive than Berlin. I came up in Berlin where everything was cheap: rent was cheap, space was cheap, food was cheap. You had more time to practice.

Rail: Your feelings about Instagram?

Hildebrandt: It’s both good and bad, now people have a voice.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 18-JAN 19

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