FOTOS: FRANÇOIS HALARD
LAURA HOPTMAN: We’re going to have a conversation about your life and work.
UGO RONDINONE: That’s a big topic.
LH: A good topic. When did we meet?
UR: We met in spring 1997. I had a grant from the city of Zurich to come to New York City for a year. But I never left. Life just evolved from there. I met John Giorno (my husband now) in the Winter of 1997.
LH: Do you feel like an American?
UR: Not at all. I still have a very strong relationship with Switzerland where my parents live to and to Eva Presenhuber, and her gallery in Zurich
LH: Where were you born?
UR: I’m born in Schwyz in Switzerland which is in the center of the country. My parents are from Matera Basilicata in the South of Italy. My father came to Switzerland in 1959 and my mother joined him in 1963, when she was pregnant with me. I was born in November, 1963.
LH: So, do you feel Italian? Or Swiss?
UR: I’m kind of a bastard. In Switzerland they call us Secondos, meaning “second round”. I grew up in Brunnen. Brunnen is a small picturesque town on the lake of Lucerne. When I was growing up there was a big anti-Italian movement going on. And in 1970 a petition was circulated called ‘Against the excess of foreigners’, to kick out 90% of the Italians. It was voted down by a small margin . I remember very well that Sunday afternoon my parents waiting for the results to be announced on the radio. My mother thought that if the vote was yes , that we would be deported the next day. That’s way she had twopacked pieces of luggage ready just in case.
LH: In school did you have a problem because you were an Italian kid?
UR: Italians where considered as filthy and stupid. Many times my teacher in elemetery school would send me to dention for weeksas punishement and to humiliate me in front of the class.
LH: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
UR: I wasn’t exposed to art at all growing up. I come from a working class family. There was no real culture besides annual events like circuses, and fairs. I was 18 when I first started to look at art.
LH: What motivated you to become interested out of nowhere?
UR: I was never good in sport, but I was good in drawing. And I would draw people sometime for a dollar or so. People would get excited about those drawings. I got a reputation among the school children for doing this. After three years at a teacher training college,I decided to do a sabbatical and went to Florence, to SACI, a private American art school, for six months. Florence was the first encounter I had with art and artists – I was just fascinated. I absorbed everything at the school. There was a big space with maybe 40 people all making their own paintings…I was so fascinated by actual making of art, I didn’t visit any museums! I would go to the fish market.
LH: You didn’t go to the Uffizi?
UR: I didn’t go to the Uffizi. I mean I did see Michaelangelo’s David outside
LH: No churches?
UR: I went to the Duomo because I passed it on the way to the school. No, what fascinated me was more was the peasant life at the fish market and I took many, many photos there. I would use them as aides memoires for my oil paintings. The paintings were all made with a palette knife.
LH: How did you learn how to oil paint? You just taught yourself?
UR: I just started, yeah, just started. After Italy I went to south of France – to Dordogne – to learn pottery. I wanted to go back to continue the teacher training college but I was late with the application by a week and the director kicked me out. He wanted me out because I set a precedent in the school by taking a year off to travel. My argument was if you become a teacher, you have at least to know something of the world. You have to get out in the world in order to teach. So in 1982 I went to Zurich and got a job in an art bookstore attached to a gallery called Pablo Staehli which was, back then, probably one of the more prominent galleries. Fischli and Weiss had their first breakthrough exhibition there in 1981 with “Suddenly This Overview,” the piece with all the small unfired clay sculptures.
LH: So it was in this environment that you began to envision your life as an artist?
UR: Yes. I felt like I was an artist by then. Marlene Frei, who was the director of the art bookstore, opened her own Gallery in 1984 with my first show.
UR: Actually, no. I made objects kind of influenced by Fluxus- language and imagery-related.Through Marlene, who’s program was Fluxus related, I had met artist Dieter Roth.
LH: Did you find out about Duchamp through Fluxus and Dieter Roth?
UR: Yes and I would follow the Kunsthalle Basel program very closely. Zurich didn’t have a Kunsthalle back then, but Basel did. Jean-Christophe Ammann was the director there, and I remember Jonathon Borofsky’s exhibition in 1981 very well. It made a big impression.
LH: That makes a lot of sense, especially because he uses a numbering system to count time like you do in most of your series.
UR: I liked his system of evolution – where a dreams become a drawing. The drawing becomes a painting. The painting becomes a sculpture.The sculpture becomes an installation or an environment. I liked his self-contained system and his free spirit to go from one medium to another.
LH: That kind of progression – of an idea into an object is something that’s throughout your practice over the past 25 years.
UR: But Borofsky showed me it’s the openness of a thought, and that the medium is just a vessel and whatever vessel is needed, you use it.
LH: How did you decide to leave and go to art school in Vienna in 1985?
UR: That happened because in 1984 Viennese Actionist artist Hermann Nitsch who showed at Pablo Staehli Gallery was looking for an assistant to prepare his three day and three night performance in Prinzendorf.
LH: Oh, my God. All these things I don’t know about you. What did you have to do? You didn’t have to kill animals or anything, did you?
UR: No, it was all preparation. You know, he never used real meat, or real blood. Instead of blood there was red water. When he was thrashing around in what looked like pieces of meat, it was actually sandbags.
LH: So, you went to Vienna for Nitche’s performance?
UR: No. He did it in his private castle in Prizendorf. I stayed there for four months preparing that. And after that I applied to art school in Vienna.
LH: Who did you want to study with there?
UR: I studied first with Bruno Gironcoli the sculptor.
LH: He made these large, fantastic sculptures- crosses between beasts and machines. He was kind of surrealist. Could you call him that?
UR: Gironcoli had many influences. Catholicism and Existentialism were primary influences and, of course, the whole notion of surrealism and the distortion of reality.
LH: So, you went in for sculpture?
UR: Yes. At the school you would get a bag of clay and a bag of plaster for each semester with the idea that you would do something out of each of these materials. The end of your first year, you would have to present your work. All I did was summarized in two objects.One was a plaster architectural ornament one foot long. It was something obvious that you made out of plaster. I wanted just to pinpoint something obvious and basic.
LH: What was the second object?
UR: The second object was made out of clay. It was a little pot. I was ironizing this task of doing something with these materials. I wanted to boil it down, to the very basic material that you associate with a pot. Just like you associate plaster with architectural ornament.
LH: The absolute function, the first function of each one of these materials, right?
UR: Yeah. But, for Bruno Gironcoli it was something else. “I have limited studio space,” he said, and then, “Probably this is not the right class for you.” And he kicked me out.
LH: That’s funny. All the artists that I know whom I love have gotten kicked out of whatever class they were in. Where did you go after that?
UR: There are two art schools in Vienna. One is the Academy of Fine Arts and the other is the University of Applied Arts. This is where I went after I got kicked out of the Academy. I took a class with Oswald Oberhuber, who let you in the class without looking at your work. So, his class was overcrowded by 150 people. Everybody was free to work at home. It suited me.
LH: Who were your friends?
UR: Very early on, I met Eva Presenhuber.
LH: So, Eva was an art student?
UR: She was an art student in a painting class of Maria Lassnig. We became friends immediately. The Vienna art scene in the early ‘80s was very small. It involved three bars where you would meet and see all the Viennese artists, like Brigitte Kowanz and Gerwald Rockenschaub, but also Martin Kippernberger and Albert Oehlen who stayed in Vienna for prolonged periods because of their affiliation with the Pakesch Gallery. In 1981 Peter Pakesch opened his gallery in Ballgasse. He showed Franz West and Heimo Zoberning but also international artists like Kippenberger, Oehlen, Mike Kelley and Christopher Wool.
LH: What kind of artist did you see yourself as?
UR: During those four years, I was mostly reading. I didn’t do much work at all. Then in my last year of study in Vienna, I started to make the large ink landscapes.
LH: So, tell us a little bit about those; how did you do them?
UR: First I have to say why I started them. In 1987, my first boyfriend died of AIDS.
LH: I didn’t know that you lost a boyfriend from AIDS!
UR: Yeah, Manfred.
LH: Was he an art student also?
UR: No. He was a student of biology. He died 5 months after he tested positive. And of course I thought that I would be next. I avoided being tested. I didn’t want to know. But it made me think that I wanted to make the most out of my life and get out of the studio and enjoy life. That’s when I started making very simple sketches of the woods. There was no intention to make them into artworks then. And two years later, I made the firstlandscapes by blowing up the sketches and projecting them on big pieces of paper. They’re all dated. Each one was like a condensed memory of the rest of my life – of my remaining years. And, during the same time, I started to make a film diary of my life called Days Between Stations. which is a video diary – which I still continue to today. I just put down my tripod, turn on the camera and document my life without sound.
LH: So, you started that at the same time as the drawings and they have a connection in that they are marking time as well. Did you know who On Kawara was?
UR: Yes, absolutely. So, it was On Kawara with a personal emotional content.
LH: Of course.
UR: Those large sized drawings opened up a space; like a doorway into space. By enlarging those small drawings into a wall-sized drawing you open up a space and together with its title,they were about space and time. From then on all my drawing and painting groups are showing a space and are titlted with a date.
LH: What was your first important show, the show?
UR: That was in ’91. By then, Eva Presenhuber had opened her gallery in Zurich.
LH: So, you went back to Zurich because Eva was there?
UR: Because Eva was there, right.
LH: What was the nature of your relationship?
UR: It was a very tight and close relationship. I lived in Vienna for six years. So, we were both strangers in Zurich and we would just support each other.
LH: Did you live together?
UR: We lived together.
LH: When did you get married?
UR: We got married in ‘92.
LH: Did you get married for Eva to stay?
UR: Exactly, yeah.
LH: But still, you were married and did you help with the gallery?
UR: We discussed things and we’re still discussing a lot. Because she is an artist herself, it was easy to talk.
LH: What was Zurich like at the beginning of the 1990s? Was there an art world? Did you jump into one or did you create one?
UR: Zurich in the late 80’s had a small local art scene. Susan Wyss and Elisabeth Kaufman were the only galleries with international programs; like Parkett Magazine. Susan Wyss closed by 1991 and by that time Elisabeth Kaufmann’s program had lost the urgency it had in the 80’s when she worked with artists like Miriam Cahn or Martin Diesler.
LH: Was it more exciting than Vienna?
UR: I mean the art scene in Zurich was exciting in the sense that Eva’s gallery created a scene!
LH: You and Eva or Eva?
UR: I mean it was the gallery and it was really a point of reference for Zurich itself. All of the significant artists would be at Eva’s openings. And early on, she started to work with Fischli and Weiss with Franz West and Pipilotti Rist. Jean Frederik Schnyder, Heimo Zobernig and Gerwald Rockenschaub. The Viennese artists were her starting point. Marcus Geiger was the opening show, followed by Heimo Zobernig, Franz West,Gerwald Rockenschaub and Bruno Gironcoli. So in her first year in 1990 the gallery showed five Viennese artists. I had my first show there in ’91. I showed four landscape drawings.The gallery has a very exposed, big window. I closed this window off so you felt isolated in this time capsule with drawings of natural scenes without signs of industry or any human traces … just nature. It was a vacuum of suspended time.
LH: So, that was really your beginning of your international career?
LH: And from there –during the decade of the ‘90s –you lived in Berlin?
UR: From 1993 until I moved to New York in 1997 I lived between Zurich and Berlin.
LH: What brought you to Berlin? Just because that’s where things were happening? Did you know someone? Did you have a boyfriend?
UR: I knew an actor- Udo Samel, whom I met in Zurich and through him I met other actors from the Schaubuehne Ensemble like Gerd Wameling and Libgard Schwarz. I lived in East Berlin, which still was a no mans land with few street lamps and few bars. The art scene was small and the gallery scene hadn’t yet moved from Cologne. It was a beautiful adventure that gave me lots of possibilities..
LH: What kind of work did you make when you were in Berlin?
UR: In Berlin, I continued doing the landscapes and Sun paintings and the video diary and the fictional annual diaryof 60 drawings.
LH: The sun paintings are the circles, the targets? Spray painted on round canvases a little off-register so they look blurry if you stare at them?
LH: So, let’s talk about these works because I think they are your most emblematic paintings and the works you are best known for. Did you make the first one yourself or did you always know you were going to have it fabricated?
UR: I knew that I would get them fabricated and I did the first one when I spent six months in ’91 in Bratislava, Slovakia. Through an artist Laco Teren I meet Paolo Megesi, who still makes the Sun paintings to this day.
LH: Where did you get the idea to do the targets?
UR: From the sun.
LH: I never knew they were called suns!I have a yellow one in my house. I never thought of it.
UR: Yeah, you look at it and you can’t focus on it, no?
LH: No, you can’t.
UR: Like when you stare into the sun. But what was important was the dynamic between the landscape which were remnants of the past and the suns which pointed towards the future. This dynamic of opposites informs my work and its continuity.
LH: When you think about your work from that time period, those are the two kinds of work you think about,but you don’t usually think about them together.
UR: And I never showed them together either. One shows the past and one shows the future.
LH: So, let’s talk about the Suns. So, when you plan them – you once told me how you did this –It was kind of like a Donald Judd gesture, wasn’t it?
UR: Not really. First, I did many watercolors- automatic drawings. It was all about how passing time.The colors are chosen intuitively. That’s why I call them automatic; something that you don’t have to think about, you just do it. The same way when you do a drawing of a landscape, it’s not something you think about. You just do it. Then I would translate the watercolors into a graphic; Later in 1994 when photoshop became available for everyone, I started to make the graphic with the computer. I had access to a computer through my friend Andy’s silk printing business in Zurich.
LH: When were the targets first exhibited?
UR: At Eva’s in Zurich in 1993. I closed off the big window again to close off the outside world. And I showed four Sun paintings together with drawings from a fictional diary I did every year. I photocopied 60 pages of the diary and crumpled them on the floor of the gallery. You had the juxtaposition of the ordinary recounting of a person’s life with the extraordinary suns.
LH: You had already done the suns by the time you moved to Berlin but your work wasn’t that well known yet
UR: My first international exposure was at the 1996 Sao Paulo Biennale. I represented Switzerland. I showed a large cube of 12 by 10 meters with an outside and an inside work. On the outside walls of the cube was a landscape. The inside was covered with plywood with its psychedelic pattern and, on each of the four walls – was a projected video of a clown laying on the floor or leaning against a wall. The room was filled with a slowed down breathing sound. I had used clowns once before at the Migros Museum in Zurich in 1995.
LH: What was the significance of the clown for you?
UR: The clown is an entertainer and, as an artist, I am an entertainer. In my work the clown doesnt entertain. The clown just sits or lays down, sometime with its eyes closed
LH: They seemed sad and bored as I remember.
UR: I don’t attach any value on them, like sad or dreamy; It’s just passivity. I wanted to confuse different layers of reality. The reality of a fictional diary is different than the reality of a filmed diary of my real life or the reality with a nostalgic black and white landscape or the reality of a pulsing colorful sun. These are four different realities, and all four document my life. I felt in need of protection in my real life and passivity offeredthis because if you are active, if you are for something and against something, you are defined. And I wanted to keep my view as open as possible
LH: I see. So, you’re making yourself sound like someone who doesn’t want to be attacked.
UR: Yes. Though if you expose yourself as an artist, it doesn’t mean that you have to sell yourself out.Those drawings that I did that I enlarged to make the landscapes they never went into the market. I regarded them as personal items as were the watercolors I made to prepare for the sun paintings. They never went in the market either.
LH: So, you were putting out the detritus of the art, and keeping the actual art.
LH: Do you still have them?
UR: Yes, of course.
LH: Do you still do that to today?
UR: No, those translations didn’t happen anymore, that kind of translation of small to big. They just happened with those two groups no three groups; also with the striped horizons that came after the sun paintings. First therewere the landscapes; then the suns, and the third exhibition at Presenhuber gallery was a cast of myself sitting on the gallery floor. My passivity was translated in same year into those seven passive clowns on video that I showed at the Migros Museum. There were seven monitors – each showing a passive clown – juxtaposed with four painted suns on the walls.In the Biennale in San Paulo, I juxtaposed clowns on video with landscapes by having the landscapes outside the box and on the inside, a projection of a clown. I like to show the same subject in different contexts, because it changes its content.A clown shown with a sun is different than showing a clown with a landscape.
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