“When there’s two of you, you only need half the courage”
Imi Knoebel is a German artist, who creates his works in a minimalist and reductionist perspective. His concept involves re-evaluation of color and shape in a given space. Imi Knoebel is surrounded by so many colours he has lost count. “I have 600, maybe 700,” he says.
This is a man who once refused to work in anything other than black and white, but who also enjoyed hunting for the perfect green in local paint shops with his artist friend Blinky Palermo. When Blinky died in 1977, aged just 33, Knoebel paid tribute to him with his 24 Colours for Blinky series. Since then, colour has been his driving force.
‘If you want to stay alive, you have to do something radical’
Before starting creative work, he thought that everything was already done and he had nothing left to say, but after seeing Malevich’s “Black Square”, the push he needed came giving him “the overwhelming feeling that I could start at nothing”.
He was born in Dessau in 1940. His family moved soon after to Dresden where, at the age of five, he witnessed the firebombing of the city. As an awestruck child, he remembers it as a “superb sight”. In 1950, scared of the prospect of life under Soviet occupation if they remained in the communist east, his mother – who had been abandoned by her husband after the war – escaped into West Germany with her five children. They settled in Mainz where, he says, they were treated “like unwanted refugees – the dislike only compounded by the fact that my mother was a single parent”.
Today, it’s not art he wants to talk about. The shy artist – who would rather not be interviewed at all, calling the process a “coercion” and asking “what can I say about my works that they don’t say?” – instead draws attention to photographs of his two daughters and his grandchildren. One of his daughters runs a cake shop nearby, using decorations inspired by his artworks as the icing on her treats.
Entering his studio triggers a childlike excitement in the visitor; the whole place feels like an installation in its own right. The presence of Malevich is everywhere: in the triangle colours above the doorframes, the simple red-roofed, house-like forms in paper. Knoebel and his close friend Rainer Giese, who met in 1962 at art school in Darmstadt, idolized the avant-gardism so much that, like him, they shaved their heads, wore shoes with no laces and long capes without fasteners. The duo called themselves Imi&Imi, an abbreviation of “IchmitIhm” (I with him). It was also the name of an East German washing detergent sold with the slogan “a guarantee for uncompromising purity”, which gave their own radical brand an ironic motto.
Their breakthrough came when they encountered the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys shortly after he was attacked at an art happening. “We saw this art professor with a bloodied nose in the newspaper, holding up his hand in messianic fashion, and we said ‘We have to help that man’, without knowing why he had been attacked,” Knoebel laughs.
They packed their bags, hitchhiked to Düsseldorf, and managed to enroll at the city’s arts academy, where Beuys taught. “We had absolutely no talent, but we mustered the courage to approach him – when there’s two of you, you only need half the courage – and told him we didn’t want to show him our art, we just wanted him to give us a room of our own. He was both taken aback and sold on our cheekiness.” He gave the Imis free run of the room and told them they had a year to show him what they could do.
While Giese punched holes in paper, Knoebel drew lines – literally millions of them, later graduating to light projections. Undisturbed, they covered room 19 with layers of fiber board, “building it like a picture, like designers or craftsmen”, so that everything became part of the creation. Something like Malevich in 3D. Beuys more or less left them to it, though occasionally he’d appear and physically throw something away in disapproval. “But generally, he seemed to suggest: ‘you do your thing, I’ll do mine,’ says Knoebel.
When Imi&Imi left the academy, the room’s contents came with them. “Parts of it were integrated into a children’s playground, parts were stored in a friend’s cowshed”. The eponymous installation, made up of 77 parts, now exists in four versions, including one owned by the Dia Art Foundation in New York. This is the work that, arguably more than any other, defines Knoebel’s oeuvre.
When they weren’t ensconced in their studio, the Imi frequented the Rattinger Hof, a pub that brought Düsseldorf’s music and art scenes together and was run by his wife, Carmen Knoebel (who now manages him). It offered Knoebel yet another room to redesign. “We threw out the tatty sofas and installed red, blue and yellow neon lights in the ceiling,” Carmen recalls. “You were not supposed to be able to hide in any dark corners. This was a place for self-confident people.” Regulars included Beuys and his art students, such as Sigmar Polke, Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberg. Guests typically dressed in plastic and leather and the place became a venue where punk rock met art.
He has never recovered, he says, from Blinky Palermo’s untimely drug-related death, and especially not from Imi Giese’s suicide in 1974. He has kept “their” name in tribute to him. “The loss is with me every day,” he says. “Our friendship was so valuable. I’ve never experienced such a closeness and intensity like that again.”
While prices for Knoebel works sometimes hit six-figure sums – small fry compared to the stratospheric amounts commanded by his acquaintance Gerhard Richter (also of the Dusseldorf school) – he remains largely indifferent to an art market he feels has got out of control. “Having once thought I can never make a living from my work, I’m very happy that I no longer need to worry about whether it sells or not, or whether people like them or not,” he says. “I just get on.”
But he isn’t immune from the market’s whims. The artist and his wife have a children’s charity called Kinderstern (child star) which is largely financed through painted wooden stars by Knoebel – everyone who donates more than €4,500 receives one. But Phillips in London has just auctioned two of his stars for £60,000. “I am completely horrified,” says Carmen Knoebel, furious at the auction houses. “It is monstrous how a work of art has become nothing but a commercial object. And the joke of it is, if these so-called ‘art collectors’ came to us and made a donation, they would only pay a fraction of the auction price.”
Knoebel’s Drachen Serie (kite series) is a arguably the highlight of the White Cube show in London. Seven kites – light, bright aluminum shapes that hover high up on the eight-meter wall – take up one room. Nine other works – aluminum shapes and mirrors, in fluorescent and pastels – fill another. A piece called Ort-Rosa (rose place) resembles the open corner of a room, inviting you to step inside. And there are several hovering paintings, simply named Bild (picture), that look as if a Malevich had been made out of wax and left in the sun to melt. Knoebel resisted the gallery’s attempts to place his kites lower down the walls, presumably to make them easier to sell. “I wanted them to be as high up as possible – they are kites after all,” he says. “They said to me: ‘but no one will see them!’ I said: ‘Well, all they have to do is look up.’
Author: Dodochi Gogia
English Edit: Nutsa Namoradze