In Bed with Abstraction
Franziska Maderthaner talks to Maria Rennhofer

Maria Rennhofer: Art always thrives in the tension between reality, nature and object, on the one hand, and the transcendence of this real basis, on the other. In your visual worlds it seems that the virtual world, which we are all inundated with today, appears as an added dimension. Is your painting an attempt to bridge virtual reality with real virtuality?

Franziska Maderthaner: In a1999 interview, I categorized these two realms of reality and virtuality. Today, I differentiate much more between the natural and the artificial. It’s become important to me to try to homogenize these two concepts in my paintings.  My new paintings stem from abstract paint pourings. I begin my new paintings by pouring paint onto the canvas. This diffused, almost organic-appearing space enfolds horizontally. Viewed from above, this surface (where colors run together, where gravity and pools of chemicals allow for clouds, rivulets and other effects to emerge) looks like Google Earth. You might call it suggestive of nature, but it is also something that is virtual simultaneously. This basis is then further processed with elements from nature and citations from art.

M.R.: Art dealers, collectors and art critics mostly classify you as a figurative artist although your paintings have very different, even also abstract, elements.  What does the term “figurative art” mean to you?

F.M.: I admit that I am committed to figurative art. What’s important here is not the percentage of concrete representations in a painting, but the artist’s intention to have the figurative elements perceived as such.  It is about people recognizing a rabbit, a tulip, a baguette or a pigeon because this object (regardless of the quality of its color or form) is making a contextual or symbolic statement.  Pure abstraction would not be enough for me, because I believe the possibilities of abstract painting have been exhausted in the 20th century. It was an important development, but Abstract Expressionism and what followed—Analytical Painting or chemical experiments à la Polke—has brought us to a place that in this two-dimensional arena we operate in, cannot be topped. My formal decisions on color and placement of the figurative elements in the composition all are based on established criteria of Gestalt psychology, although I mostly look to the Old Masters for guidance. After painting for decades you get a sense of the physical laws of a good painting. And you can build on these principles, stretch them or even break them.  In this respect, I was lucky to have a very good teacher, Herbert Tasquil, who was incredibly good at analyzing the physical laws of painting. At the same time, I also studied with Bazon Brock. That was a total contradiction: one concentrated on reflection, communication and language, the other was concerned with conveying the laws of good art on a purely figurative level. I have internalized all this as a kind of hand luggage or a repertoire.

M.R.: The general term “figurative painting”, of course, has branched off into totally different manifestations—in which of these directions do you feel you belong, more or less?

F.M.: Probably with Pop Art because I have always been very interested in surfaces. Of course, narration also plays a role, even though that term seems too arbitrary. My work, however, has moments of paradox that play with quotes, but leave the story open to the viewer. People can project a lot of their own ideas onto the paintings and get caught up in surfaces that maybe don’t even have stories to tell. There is a fine balance between story and surface, between beauty and banality, between attractiveness and brutality. There are also political themes, such as putting a homeless person in a Baroque ambience and calling it Rating Agency. I cite incredibly arrogant looking goddesses or angels from Fragonard, which call to mind the affectations of some bankers. 

M.R.: This side by side existence of diverse elements—political topicality, citations from art history, abstract passages, echoes of myths, but also very stylized figures—are we to understand this juxtaposition as an expression of our day and age, where we think we know and believe everything through the Internet and other media and have unlimited access to knowledge?

F.M.: Absolutely! It’s especially important to have access to all available images. Dealing with images of art has always been incredibly important to me. I spent half of my student life at the library of the University of Applied Arts Vienna trying to absorb this information in the pre-Internet era. Over the decades, I have amassed a huge archive of paintings in my head and I still use these resources, because I am very fast in classifying paintings. The Internet is a great tool for me, because now I can have access (at the click of a mouse) to paintings by Caravaggio, Fragonard and Beuys, among others.  I know how to handle this because I have this background knowledge: I can arrange it and make it work for me. Now the knowledge that I accumulated in the pre-digital age is an enormous help to me. It enables me to get my bearings straight in this limitless universe. I’ve noticed that my students have trouble recognizing these cross connections. They still don’t know to make productive use of this infinite world of images.  Another thing that I’ve noticed is that many people who are not involved exclusively with art, also, do not know how to approach these pictorial worlds. There is a sense of loss of direction and oversaturation that leads to a kind of blindness. I often watch people walk through a museum; they don’t know how to look at a painting. I find it sad that people have almost forgotten how to really see things in this excess of visual stimulation we have at our disposal.

M.R.: Since surfaces are obviously very important in your paintings, how do you approach your work? First, you pour the paint for the background…

F.M.:…exactly, it might look easy—but it’s quite complicated to get this overall effect.  I let the manifold unforeseeable aspects of pouring the paint be my starting point, and then contemplate how to proceed, trying to find what additions or transformations of the figures might interest me. A painting finally emerges out of this mixture of accident and intention. The idea behind this work process comes from watercolor painting.  I wanted to transpose the lightness of my work with watercolors onto the canvas. After I experimented for a few years with watercolor-like tones that worked well on canvas, I finally managed to solve the technical problems. This has enabled me to work more freely, as I do now. Around 2006, I began to quote my own watercolor paintings, but still in classic oil painting, that is. As of 2007, I began to pour onto certain sections, but it has only been a year since I have been pouring whole surfaces and then, classically working in oil paint.

M.R.: The completed painting is varnished, which is not something people usually do these days—how are we to understand this, does it mean that the painting is finished off and set free?

F.M.: Yes, the varnish is a sort of protection and distance in one. It not only homogenizes the poured parts with the painted sections, but is also actual protection in a chemical sense. If, during a wild party—these days we call them tastings—for example, someone throws red wine at the painting, you can simply wipe it off. And these glossy surfaces always give the impression of distance as well, which is important to me. In my eyes this is part of the appreciation of art and corresponds to the way I view art. The art that I love, I always approach with great respect. In regard to this I often have very lofty feelings. An old-fashioned word, but this loftiness in experiencing art is very important to me. And distance is a part of that.

M.R.: Your paintings are swarming with quotes from art history: Ingres und Caspar David Friedrich, Brus and West etc., etc. Did you every try to figure out where this need to cite and paraphrase other works comes from? Is it an attempt to legitimize yourself through art history?

F.M.: No, I feel an affinity with artists who use appropriation. For someone like me who studied art in the 1980s there were two options. One: you could do “Neue Wilde”—which I tried. I was in the same class with Brandl, Zitko and Rockenschaub, who at that time was a “wild” painter.  Two: (something I was more interested in), you could approach painting from an intellectual standpoint. In those days there were the Americans, like Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman or Richard Prince. They were also citing pictorial worlds.  And this became a kind of collective common property. But when you think of Cindy Sherman, it is another sort of quote than we are used to in the classical sense.

M.R.: You also quote things from the daily media…

F.M.:…those are more like placeholders. Women depicted from the back—
with me it is almost always women—are actually Caspar David Friedrich quotes. The first figures with their backs turned were women standing in front of a work by Franz West or Daniel Buren. He is someone I really like to quote. I have a whole series of women in striped dresses looking at Buren’s artwork—which is very obvious but also highly ironic. They are viewing this art as if it were a wonder of nature. Showing them from the back is also a trick I employ, because as soon a figure is turned around you can’t see the face and automatically the viewer has to project a face onto the figure (their own face or a face they like), and the painting has a much more personal feel to it. More room for the spectator to identify with the figure than if it was looking straight at the viewer. That was something very clever that Caspar David Friedrich came up with.

M.R.: Experiencing art is one thing, producing art another. What are the intentions behind these new paintings?

F.M.: Initially, the perhaps strange thought that I wanted to create paintings that I myself have never seen before. Paintings which take me by surprise, confuse me, which I myself do not really understand. Why do I even do it like this? Maybe so I won’t go crazy. Especially when it comes to oil painting, you need to be incredibly focused, very consistent and keep at it for hours every day. Sometimes it’s not creative, freeing or artistic at all, but more a very disciplined, straightforward process, almost like office work. It is time consuming and exhausting. I feel poisoned by the turpentine, you get a little high on it, but I need that. The fact that I teach and communicate with others for half the day is the flipside of this and rounds out my existence. But certainly, like with most artists, the rationale behind this lies in my childhood. My parents are both architects, who, although they taught me to draw well, were also very strict. My mother, especially, only accepted drawings from me that I spent at least three hours on. Maybe pouring paint out is my way of easing this psychological pressure, or at least questioning it.

M.R.: Art is always a testimony to our times and to be taken in the context of time, space and in a historical and political framework. Is this true for your art as well? Do your paintings tell us about the here and now?

F.M.: These new paintings don’t just deal with the here and now, but I do keep building in elements dealing with the current political situation or financial climate. In one of my paintings I paraphrase Jean Louis David’s Marat and place a young man in the Occupy Movement in New York before it. In doing so I wanted to bridge the tension between historically different ideas about revolution and freedom in one painting. I also did a series of paintings of women in burqas. Basically all my subjects go way beyond the private sphere, they have a certain public and political background. Besides a few exceptions, I also don’t have any self-portraits, or any intimate paintings. The way I come up with images is strange. It’s like I put all these many pictorial worlds and all my knowledge of art into some huge mixing machine and then clone together weird images that I have never experienced before.  The rabbit in one of my paintings, for example, comes from a Dutch still life, but the title Erklärungsbedarf (Need for Explanation) stems from Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. So after the varnish, I come up with the titles. It’s fun to try, often together with friends, to find titles for my paintings.  This can sometimes lead to lively and enjoyable “title inventing” parties. Titles are also red herrings. I like to compare successful painting with successful poaching. Not only in the visual field do you need to know quite a lot to be able to set good traps; I place the titles as bait. They should, however, not be mistaken for the actual “traps”.


Cultural journalist and publicist. For many years, she headed the contemporary cultural radio broadcasts of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). Since 2010 she has been active as a freelance journalist and author as well as working independently on cultural and media projects.