Charline von Heyl has developed a habit. “I’m addicted to the possibility of always doing another painting and not knowing what it’s going to look like,” the 58-year-old German artist told me as we wandered around the immaculate, whitewashed rooms of the Deichtorhallen Museum in Hamburg in June.
A major survey of von Heyl’s work from the last 13 years was about to open, and 60 of her large-scale abstract paintings adorned the walls in an exhibition entitled “Snake Eyes,” which runs until Sept. 23. The show will then be split into two and travel to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Ghent, Belgium (October 10 to January 13) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington (November 8 to January 27).
It has been a homecoming of sorts for von Heyl, who was wearing a slender gold pendant of a snake around her neck in honor of the show’s title. She studied under the figurative painter Jorg Immendorf at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg during the 1980s. The period was a crucial one in the development of an artist who now divides her time between studios in New York City and Marfa, Texas.
Her mentor, for wont of a better word, became Diedrich Diederichsen, one of Germany’s leading intellectuals, who edited the music magazine Sounds from 1979 to 1983, when punk and new wave had just begun to hit Hamburg. “I started to understand what was cool and what wasn’t,” von Heyl said. “Even if I understood that this doesn’t get you very far as an artist, especially if you hang onto it, I think that you shouldn’t underestimate this feeling of being with the right people at the right time in the right place.”
As for her painting classes, von Heyl has admitted in past interviews that she wasn’t the most assiduous of students. Instead she began to cultivate her own style and idiosyncratic tastes. She gravitated towards painters such as Bernard Buffet and Giorgio de Chirico, whose work has often been maligned by art critics.
“I’ve always liked to look at the works of so-called minor painters because there’s always one or two paintings that are absolutely insane and excellent,” von Heyl said. “If you look at the work of the major painters you have already seen what they’ve done over and over again in a way that doesn’t trigger anything anymore.
“I still look at some paintings from the 1980s which remain interesting to me because they’re ugly but somehow work. This is also something I’ve tried to achieve in my own work by painting something that feels to me uncomfortable but eventually finding a way to make it work. By doing this I alter my perception of what beauty can be.”
Von Heyl, who was born in Mainz, grew up in Bonn, where her father was a lawyer and her mother was a psychologist. From the age of 5 she had her heart set on becoming an artist.
“I wanted to translate imagery that I loved like the woodcuts in my childhood books,” she said.
Much of this imagery, such as the outline of pine trees, has worked its way into her paintings in a deliberately detail-oriented fashion. “I’m attracted to really precise elements and that was already the case when I was a child,” she said. “It was the little finger of the princess and not the princess that I found most interesting.”
Evelyn Hankins, who is curating the Hirshhorn exhibition, which will include about 30 paintings from the Deichtorhallen show and some new work that von Heyl has been completing over the summer, has sensed a dramatic shift in the German artist’s work over the last 13 years.
“Each painting seems to be more and more of its own object than her trying to do a group of paintings,” Hankins said. “In my opinion her work has just got stronger and stronger.”
This is borne out by the interest major institutions have started to show in von Heyl’s more recent work. The “Snake Eyes” exhibition includes paintings such as “Igitur” (2008), which was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art; and “Jakealoo” (2012), which is in the Tate collection. Meanwhile, respected curators like Gary Garrels have become strong advocates for her work over the last few years.
Indeed, “Igitur” is a fascinating work that von Heyl said was among her favorites. It is named after a short tale by the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, which he “addressed to the intelligence of the reader which stages things itself.” In a similar way von Heyl’s painting is an invitation for the viewer to have fun with it by making smart.
Like much of von Heyl’s more recent work, there is a tension in “Igatur” between the graphic use of outline and the painterly use of color and form. “I have to create a new aesthetic, so to speak, for my paintings where these elements want to be together,” von Heyl said. “I’m always thinking of how to invent my own rules that can enhance that.”
Though the “Snake Eyes” paintings each have their own aura, on an architectonic level they also have things in common. Von Heyl often employs triangular forms and stripes to achieve a framework that stops her work either veering out of control or becoming too commonplace. “The graphic element tends to come last,” she said. “I often employ stripes when a painting starts to lose its intensity and it needs to be called back to order. Then I can erase the stripes later but it gives me a structure.”
The use of stars in a painting like “Howl” (2015) can also produce a political tenor in the artist’s work. “I chose the title for “Howl,” which of course refers to Ginsburg’s famous poem, when I’d finished it,” she said. “It helped me to understand what the painting was channeling — this idea that society is ready to explode — without me actually being aware of it at the time.”
Another remarkable painting, “Woman #2” (2009), whose title is a wink to de Kooning, emerged after von Heyl threw black paint onto a canvas and went over it with a window-wiper. “I conceived this figure which turned out to be a woman and it turned out to be a woman who actually had a powerful presence,” she said.
However, it would be a mistake to categorize von Heyl, who is married to the American painter Christopher Wool, as a feminist artist. She has never been interested in labels only that her work be taken just as seriously as that of her male counterparts.
“When she was in Hamburg I think that she learned a lot from that generation of male painters about the practice of being in the studio every single day,” Hankins said.
“She set out to create work that put herself on the same level as the artists that she learned from. I think she can stand on her own as an artist and there’s no need to put her in any specific category.”
This article appears in the September issue of Modern Painters.
Founder: Louise Blouin