A tour of Charline von Heyl’s studio at the edge of the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, provides clues to the construction of her big, exuberant, and sometimes baffling abstract paintings. Marfa is the town Donald Judd put on the map in the 1970s, after buying up property to establish an “anti-museum” surrounded by spectacular desert scenery, but von Heyl’s work is a far remove from the austere sculptures of the high priest of Minimalism. Her paintings revel in unexpected collisions between the geometric and the organic, the decorative and the figurative; in some works her jazzed-up images threaten to cartwheel right off the canvas.
The studio, once a warehouse for a lumber yard, is a low-slung industrial-looking structure across from a gas station. Its brightly lit interior is divided into three large work areas. In the first is a wall covered with abstract shapes, all in black on white grounds—rudimentary faces, squiggles, crudely suggested tendrils and leaves—on which von Heyl spent two or three weeks when she first started plotting a new body of work in January. Painted on cheap canvas boards, “they’re like warm-up exercises,” says the artist. “I’m feeding my head with these images. They’re an alphabet of shapes that are often anecdotal or have private meaning.”
Gesturing toward four large canvases in various stages of completion on the far wall of the middle room, von Heyl says, “With those two paintings over there, you can see how in a subtle way the shapes just crept in.” In fact, it’s not all that obvious, and the visitor’s confusion is only exacerbated by the dozens of photo-prints that cover the floor almost wall to wall. These were made from plates in old books on Eastern European folk art. There are images in a variety of colored inks—but mostly velvety black—of wooden Madonnas, horses, crucifixes, birds, and other objects. None of these pictures appears to have been recycled into a final work.
Von Heyl, a fresh-faced blond with a high forehead and wide-set blue-gray eyes, does her best to explain, in a voice accented with her native German: “I’m obsessed by the way the printing works in these books,” she says. “It’s photogravure, not photography. And the intense velvety black translates in an exciting way into the ink-jet printouts.”
Switching subjects slightly, she adds, “I’ve always been a big friend of things. When I was a kid I would go to flea markets with my grandmother. I’ve always liked to have things, and to contemplate them—just the thingness of them, the way they feel, their history and hidden meanings.” She pauses briefly, and laughs. “Then I throw them away because I don’t actually like to have things.”
In the last room of her studio, which doubles as an office, are 36 “exercises” (von Heyl is wary about using the word “study”) on one wall, with several more scattered on the floor, and still more on an adjacent wall. These are combinations of drawing and collage, and one can see in them whirling shapes and patterns that would later appear in canvases.
“In these collages, I can test out what the eye is willing to accept,” von Heyl says. “I can test out what my eye is willing to accept, so I can stretch the intensity there, and then I’m able to translate that into painting. “I’m never cutting,” she adds. “I’m always ripping the photos to pieces. The process needs to be arbitrary, not deliberate, so that it can surprise me.”
It seemed an awesome amount of labor—possibly hundreds of printouts, small paintings, and collages—that would be translated into the 14 large canvases von Heyl showed at Petzel Gallery in Chelsea earlier this fall. (Her large works are priced at $75,000 to $120,000; smaller collages go for $7,500 to $10,000.) “I have an alphabet of tricks, an alphabet of colors,” she says. “Every artist has that, and with every body of work I’m trying to enrich it with new possibilities.”
In some works, bits of figures and faces emerge. That’s a total accident in the process of completing a large painting, the artist says. “I stumble over something and then I explore that. I push things so that I will stumble into something new. I push things to the point where I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Born in Mainz, Germany, in 1960, von Heyl grew up in Bonn, the oldest of three children. Her father was a lawyer; her mother, a psychologist. She describes her parents, both now retired, as “lovely, lovely people, extremely supportive” and says she had a “very undramatic, normal, small-town childhood,” but she has no memories of that time and no inclination to reconstruct the past. “I’m not interested in memories per se,” she says. “I always think that’s how you spend your last years, when you’re in the old people’s home.
“I absolutely cannot remember faces or names,” the artist continues. “I can talk to you, but I can’t remember you, so don’t be surprised if I see you somewhere and I don’t react.” Could this account for the large number of preliminary works she makes for her paintings? “I’m not sure how much the face blindness has to do with all this,” she replies, “except that it is perhaps linked to my not being interested in representation.
“My parents tell me that when I was five I said I wanted to be a painter. I don’t remember a single moment from my childhood when I didn’t regard myself as an artist. Whenever someone would ask, ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ I would always say, ‘I’m going to make art.’ I was so convinced of that prospect that for the longest time I didn’t think I had to make any paintings.”
Which may be one reason she failed to get into the art school at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg on her first try. But she had a boyfriend who was matriculating, and she could audit classes without being enrolled. She was eventually accepted and found the curriculum stifling. “The whole German art-school system is so annoyingly hierarchical,” she says. “I was never interested in becoming a ‘master student,’ because most of what they did meant copying the professor. That always felt counterproductive to becoming an artist.”
But outside the classroom, Hamburg provided a wealth of intellectual stimulation. “Always, when I was a kid, I looked for mentors, people who were slightly older and much smarter than me,” von Heyl says. “I met somebody who turned out to be the perfect mentor at the time, Diedrich Diederichsen.” A prominent music journalist and cultural critic, Diederichsen introduced her to other artists and intellectuals in his milieu.
In Hamburg, she also studied with Jörg Immendorff, who was known to work on his own paintings in the classroom, and when von Heyl moved to Düsseldorf soon after, she worked for him as a housekeeper and personal assistant. (She also supported herself with such odd jobs as waitressing or working as a night porter in a seedy hotel or in a ketchup factory.) She was involved for several years with the American musician Mayo Thompson, another “fascinating and anarchic mind,” she says.
It was a heady time in Düsseldorf, where von Heyl lived for about ten years, often visiting nearby Cologne, where she eventually showed at Galerie Christian Nagel. Her friends and associates included Andrea Fraser, Cosima von Bonin, Michael Krebber, and Albert Oehlen. “Martin Kippenberger was the king of Cologne at the time, so we were all affected by him, because he was such a mercurial personality and so extroverted.”
In 1994, von Heyl visited New York for the first time, to take part in a group show at Petzel. She was immediately smitten by the “freedom” of the art scene, and the city stoked in her a hunger to investigate new places. “Even when I was five years old, I was always running away from home,” she says, “not because I didn’t like it at home, but I was always curious to see what else was out there, what might be better.”
When a friend offered her a tiny apartment in the East Village for $400 a month, and another said she could use his studio in the Meatpacking district while he was away for a year, it seemed pure kismet. She had also met painter Christopher Wool on that first visit, and he soon became an ardent suitor. “He just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t have any money, and he had money, and I was really keen on having good dinners. He became such a close friend, and then I fell in love and the whole thing suddenly fell into place.” The two were married in 1997.
“I’m really happy that he’s such a good artist because I think the worst thing that can happen if you’re in love with someone is not to be able to respect the work. It will eventually destroy your relationship,” she continues. “There’s not much dialogue between us about work. Our marriage is really a counterworld, about giving us strength to be good out there.”
The couple divide their time between Marfa, which they discovered on artists’ residencies in 2006 and 2008, and New York, where von Heyl has a studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and where Wool prepared for his midcareer retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum (through January 22). In their off hours, Wool likes to go rock climbing, while von Heyl spends hours hiking in the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Von Heyl’s working day starts after lunch, when she arrives at her studio and then devotes several hours to reading and looking. “Reading is a way of holding myself in a separate space for a while. And while I’m reading I can look in a disinterested way,” she says. “I’m always glancing up at stuff, and then suddenly I’ll jump up and do something I hadn’t contemplated before.” Her literary interests have varied from philosophy (Heidegger) to art history (Aby Warburg) to poetry and fiction (Jean Stafford’s 1947 novel The Mountain Lion is a recent favorite). She has also become interested in object-oriented ontology, a metaphysical movement “that takes the idea away from the subject and puts it on the object,” she explains. “It’s about the life of things.
“It sounds like I’m really deep into philosophy, but I’m not,” von Heyl says. “I have such a butterfly mind that I’m always diving in to get a little bit of nectar and then fluttering away to the next book.” She doesn’t listen to music—“unless I’m doing something really mind-numbing like overpainting”—and at home likes to watch low-budget foreign movies because “it’s like traveling,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a good movie or not, I just like to have glimpses of life in other countries.”
The books on her studio shelves reflect a range of artistic enthusiasms: Bernini, Robert Ryman, Tiepolo, Caravaggio, and, surprisingly, Bernard Buffet, a French painter who was promising in youth but later turned to treacly images of clowns and kitschy still lifes. Von Heyl admired him for a certain spiky quality, which, she says, taught her how to hold a painting together primarily through line, as in a 2008 work called Dialogue Solitaire. On the walls of the studio are images culled from magazines: a picture of a young girl in rodeo gear, Matisse’s Open Window of 1905, and a photo of a group of Chinese girls gleefully attacking a canvas with paint and brushes like a mob of wannabe Abstract Expressionists.
Asked if she’s ever been tempted to work in other mediums, like sculpture, von Heyl says, “It’s something that I want to do eventually, but there’s so much that I have to do with painting. At the point where I can relax with painting and think, ‘Now I have done something that is really pushed to the limits,’ then I can finally think about trying other things.”
Judging from the plethora of input and output on her studio walls, that day may be quite a way off.
Editor’s note: After this story went to press, the artist was named as a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize 2014.
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.