top of page
Johnson - overalls
Johnson - Novy
Johnson - desk

That’s particularly interesting because the question I just wrote down was, ‘why architecture?’ You’ve explained the things that touched you at school and this love of craft across a wide range of subjects but, as you say, clearly architecture is something that really does appeal to you, and I’m curious as to why and also when you realised that that was something that interested you.


I grew up in a home where there was a great deal of destruction. I had a father who was somewhat generous with his physicality [laughs]. He broke a lot of things; he would throw chairs through windows, on one extreme occasion he almost destroyed our whole house in a fit of rage. I rather admire people who put things together [laughs]. I don’t know if there’s a connection but it seems as if there might be. But also I think it’s within the human psyche to build, to make. I’m fascinated by the way that you’ll see children who’ll… they don’t need elaborate toys, they’ll put blocks together, they’ll stick things together, they’ll draw lines together to make something bigger and better than the starting point. And I do admire people that make things, and when we’re making, we’re not breaking.


That’s incredibly striking because you mentioned earlier that you think the Neues picture marks somewhat of a maturity in your work. It seems to me that actually your work would and could have a lot of resonance with subjects that do actually reflect damaged things, broken things, ruined things and I wonder whether, without getting too personal, I wonder whether the fact that they don’t, until now, does have some linkage to the things you were explaining about your childhood, if you don’t mind me saying that


No, not at all, no.


It seems to me your work would actually work very very well with those kinds of subjects and yet as you said, up until now it hasn’t.


Yes. It is something that’s increasingly coming into my work. Even a few years ago, there was a period when I was making paintings of peeling doorways and decaying surfaces, but it was, it was rather gentle decay. I’ve become more and more interested in quite violent decay and the more negative aspects – well, it’s not always negative, it’s very positive – of man’s intervention in the built environment, where there is blatant destruction and a desire to abuse the environment which they find. What worries me about this journey of discovery that I’m making at the moment is whether painting is the right way to do it, because if I paint it, it’s not in my nature to make a fragile painting. My paintings I think are quite robust and very thoroughly painted and they’re very strong paintings in that they’re made in a craftsman-like way and they will last for years but what I’m trying to deal with is quite the opposite, it’s something, a frozen moment before a building or a space completely collapses. And therefore I’m wondering if perhaps a photograph would be a more appropriate way to explore that area of abandon, destruction, isolation, desolation or whether painting… whether I just need to develop a broader vocabulary, or whether perhaps there is a danger that I make something unattractive and really fairly unacceptable acceptable through painting, and I wouldn’t want to do that.


That’s very interesting because your technique is very specific, very precise and you’re absolutely right about the depth of it; it’s very interesting that you see that as a potential risk in terms of portraying those kinds of subjects. What would the attraction be of a photograph particularly, would it be a question of honesty, is it a question of reality versus something artificial, or….


There is a certain objectivity about either, if we go back to film, the film surface and its ability to record, or […] digital; […] it’s me pressing the button that is the subjective element, but the material itself, the way it is realised, on a chip, and then transferred to a printer, is objective, and therefore has a lack of artifice. It has an honesty and a straightforwardness. I’m worried that if I make a painting, will there be a danger that I try to make it look a bit prettier? You know, I try and make it aesthetic, […] because the subject matter I’m talking about I think is not to do with aesthetics.


But then do you not get into very obvious areas around an assumption that photography is that objective, because of course the flip side of that is by, as you touched on, your choice, fundamentally, of recording medium, film or digital, your lens, your lighting… we’ve just been looking albeit in a completely different context at the ability to manipulate photographs.. I’m not suggesting you would, but it’s very interesting that you mention that as a more objective medium and yet in many ways you could argue it’s as subjective as anyone’s paintings.






















Yes it is…


I’m being devil’s advocate, obviously!


No, no, you’re right, and I do recognise that all photography is very subjective, but it’s just the means of realising the final object [laughs]… but I’m talking about the material object and not the object as it survives above and beyond its materiality. Now I’ve not thought it through very well [laughs]…


It’s all right…we’re on part of the journey of discovery, clearly!




But that’s interesting because that implies also that you are as interested in the object above and beyond what it actually is as the object and I wouldn’t say they’re in conflict but there are two different elements there, aren’t there; there is the physical, as we began talking about at the beginning, there’s the physical reality of the Neues Museum, but there’s also what it represents, both to you, to Berlin, to others; so you clearly are interested, again, in both of those elements.


Yes, I am. And also when you confront it, an artwork, let’s say, yes, you have an image; yes, you experience the craft and the way that the concept has been realised through the craft, but ultimately you won’t have the object in front of you, but you may well have been changed forever, your own psyche, your own position, can be changed by another person’s manipulation of materials, and one is left as a new person, or with a new element to one’s makeup, one’s emotional, psychological, intellectual presence, so… It’s a difficult one for me because I don’t find photographs as satisfying as I do a painting; it is too much about image. It is not enough about the manipulation of raw materials and the way that raw materials can be manipulated to create an emotional response.


The show that’s on at the Tate at the moment, the Gerhard Richter, what I find fascinating about that is that whether you look at his… and for want of a better word, call it his realist paintings, as opposed to the more abstract paintings; when I leave the gallery I can see absolutely no difference in those two paintings. What I enjoy when I stand in front of the paintings is the presence of the artist. And I think that when I was there I wrote down a statement he’d made which was what he felt painting was about […:] ‘Paintings show what isn’t there’. And that for me is fascinating. All that acres of canvas, acres of paint, gallons of paint, and what you’re left with is nothing to do with the paint, it’s all about a person who has chosen to spend their life making mud pies, but communicate very eloquently through pushing mud around.


There was an exhibition on at the Whitechapel a few months ago…


Thomas Struth.


Did you see that? What did you think?


Yes I did. I was very surprised that I wasn’t as impressed by the show as I am by the images. In fact some of the images I almost prefer on a small scale. I’m very interested in that school of photography. They all came out of – most of them were taught by the Beckers, and they nearly all use large-format cameras and there is this very classical, tough stance that they take. And I find them very interesting as a movement, and I’m  surprised that I found so little interest as an individual show.


I wonder why?


No, I don’t know. I think they were the Dusseldorf gang [laugh]. I think they all went to the same art school at roughly the same time.


I was also thinking of Edward Burtynsky. You touched on it earlier, we were talking about ruined buildings but you took it into ruined landscapes and that’s what made me think of it, because he does a lot of images of quarries, mines, things like that, where landscapes have been damaged and torn, and I was wondering whether that might have some attraction at some point?


I grew up in north Wales, and if you grow up in north Wales – and I used to spend a lot of time in Snowdonia – you can’t help but be impressed by the power of landscape. I can remember journeys to where I’d spend most weekends at the foot of Snowdon, where you go through extreme weather, rain going horizontally, hardly able to see out of the car windows, and then you’d find yourself at the top of a hill that fell into a lake; you would go down, and all of a sudden the weather would change, there’d be a different environment, these dramatic lakes and incredible rock formations… I wish I had the courage to make landscape paintings but I don’t think I could do it well enough.


Do you think you’d be out-competed by nature herself?


Yes, I think so, mmm [laughs].


Now that is particularly interesting because that leads to a very obvious question about the kinds of images hanging behind us and over there; how you grew up in a natural landscape, but you very much identify with semi-artificial landscapes, cityscapes. How did that come about?


I don’t know…


Can you think how it came about?


From growing up in north Wales I went to art school at fourteen, just fifteen, spent three years trying to decide whether I’d stay at art school, prolonging my course by another year because I thought there was something more to be discovered, and I increasingly started to make paintings. And I was then accepted to the Royal College [of Art] aged eighteen to do a post-graduate course, not having graduated and not having actually even studied painting, because I was at a very general art school that was covering all areas, and no area in any real depth.






















So I was very much out of my depth, I was very much a non-intellectual who had stumbled into the world of painting and I was surrounded by people maybe four years older than me, which is significant when you’re eighteen, to be with a twenty-three, twenty-four year old, and they all seemed to be SO together, and they seemed to have really thought-through why they wanted to be a painter, and I… there was a great deal of abstraction going on, particularly abstraction from America, New York was influencing many of the art schools, and I just felt very very uncomfortable with it, and I was desperately hunting around for a supporter. And I found support not through the Bauhaus, which I’d been fascinated by, but through Max Beckmann and German Expressionism, particularly Max Beckmann, because I saw an extraordinary painter, I saw somebody that’s handling paint in a very muscle-laden way, and I found the paintings very moving.


It happened to be my first year in London, first year, first big show that Max Beckmann had at the Tate and all of a sudden I’d got an ally to follow. So I made quasi-German Expressionist paintings and I like the fact that the paintings were about something substantial. However, I had a show, on leaving the Royal College, at a very fancy gallery in New York… it was sort of like a dream come true, but it was more like a nightmare in a way because I saw the show, I saw my work objectively, and realised that it had nothing to do with me as a person, it was all to do with my admiration of Max Beckmann and a fellow student called John Bellany, and really I was a very second-rate John Bellany and a second-rate Max Beckmann. But it meant that I spent six months living in New York, and I’d already enjoyed three years of living in London, but all of a sudden I was confronted with contemporary architecture, predominantly twentieth century architecture, and I think that’s what made the big impact on me.


And I came back with enough money to work for two years, and I exorcised Max Beckmann, German Expressionism, and all of a sudden I found the background of the paintings, which was often a room, some aspect of architecture, that became the dominant feature. And it was almost as if I was designing a stage set which I would paint in and then I’d put the figures on the stage to act out their story – in fact I was reading a great deal of plays as well at that time and I was very interested in theatre – but then I decided that I should let the background become the most important thing, and I changed it from being a stage set into reality, an environment that I could go out and see. And I think the very first painting I made was based on a James Stirling building and then Mies van der Rohe. I didn’t even know it was a Jim Stirling for ten, fifteen years, because I used to take cuttings but I used to cut the words out because the pictures were more important than the words[!] It was Leicester [University’s] engineering building. And also I made a painting of a Norman Foster building on the Isle of Dogs, and I had a show at the ICA and somebody said, oh, that’s a Foster, and I didn’t like to tell them I didn’t know what a Foster was so I went home to look it up in a dictionary and and I found out it wasn’t an architectural detail but the name of an architect[!] So my depth of ignorance is quite profound.


Did you see the film on Foster, ‘How much does your building weigh?’?


Yes, I did.


What did you think?


I think Deyan Sudjic added a very sensitive narration and he certainly knows his subject almost inside out. I think what comes over very well is how beautifully shot it is; that the images are very very powerful. And for me it was a strange experience because I’d been to every one of those buildings because I’ve done a book on Foster, I’ve spent forty years looking at his work, so [my wife] Sheila and I sat through the film thinking haven’t we been privileged to go and see those spaces, [but] it’s a very interesting introduction, and for me I can’t separate it from having had some wonderful experiences, having the privilege to be on my own in some very well thought-out buildings. The thing that moved me most is to find out how unwell Norman had been in the last three or four years, and he’d managed to keep it very quiet, because it’s not the sort of thing he’d talk about.


You mentioned Stirling; did you see the ‘Notes from the Archive’ show at Tate Britain?


I saw the show, yes.


I wondered what you thought of that, because that was almost exclusively concerned with the process, because it was all about his notes, his drawings, his sketches, and I wondered if there was any resonances there?


For me there was too much reading to be done; I prefer looking at images. Again the thing that moved me most is what moved me all those years ago when I first discovered Stirling, is, one, the toughness of the man, the intellectual and physical toughness of the buildings, but also the fascinating process of drawing, the sheer perversity of drawing from under the ground[!], the worm’s-eye view. And I just find that… it’s almost perverse, in the way that my depth of exploration is above and beyond what is actually necessary, but perhaps it is the only thing that counts. For him, yes, he wanted to put up great buildings, but he just wanted to be an architect and he had to draw and he had to explore shapes. And I’m wondering whether he would have died an unhappy man if he’d never put up a building but if he’d just got a collection of wonderful, wonderful drawings.


I know that Norman Foster once said to me, when we were looking at a model of the Renault building, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York had just taken it into their collection, so he’d had a new model made, and he said ‘Just look at that model’, he said.  ‘Why do I bother to go through the pain of making the building when I can have something as beautiful as that?’.



                                                                                            Page 3

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

bottom of page