“Oh, it was absurd!” – Abstraction, Painting and Photography: An Interview with Jochen Hein, Part Two


“I gladly share the wealth of my wisdom with others.”
This part of the interview is more like a chat among old buddies, for old times sake… full of sentimental reminiscence… Indulge!

Peter: So losing your utopia was a relief?

Jochen: I wanted to be nobody’s fool. But I was a fool, after all. Just like everybody else.

Peter: Tell me about it… I remember you back in secondary school… we were a bunch of hippies… You used to be a big fan and avid reader of the works of Carlos Castaneda

Jochen: Those were the days! That was born out of an overwhelming desire for transcendency. Man! Castaneda! My daring attempt to overcome the limitations of adolescence! I wanted to know so badly what the hell is going on! I wanted so much! And I couldn’t get it! Well, just like any other boy at that age… So, in order to be cooler, wiser and more powerful than my peers, I would just have to acquire some secret knowledge, you know… so it had to be the occult… magic powers… the hidden lore of the Yaqui people… Thus I could be wiser and more powerful than anybody else – on a completely different level! On a level which others couldn’t even hope to understand… And I went wow! That’s it! Castaneda! And presto! I am the master! Yessir! Well… I still am. The master, I mean… It’s still the same. I’m still the same. I retreat into my shell. Paint my stuff. Explore regions I never went before… I paint to satisfy my desire for transcendency, for the sublime. But on a profane, down-to-earth level now. Secular. Nowadays I gladly share the wealth of my wisdom with others. Rejoice! Quite the contrary to Castaneda’s arcane system…

Peter: At that time, you’d been delving quite deeply into Castaneda’s strange universe.

Jochen: Among my peers, nobody else had. That way I could keep a high profile! Seemed pretty athletic to me… And I didn’t even have to be concerned about the inconsistencies of Castaneda’s system… The sheer possibilities of his crazy universe were so alluring. It was like playing the stock market without a clue… Let’s go for it! For the hell of it! He can’t be all wrong after all… Crap. Castaneda, like everybody else, just wanted to sell something, something only Castaneda himself would understand…

Peter: Well, I’ve read Castaneda and I must say, it got weirder and weirder from volume to volume…

Jochen: Because it had to make some sense, after all. Castaneda didn’t know what it was to become when he set out on his strange journey. I didn’t care. I was seventeen, and the whole thing reflected my relationship with the world. And I still appreciate some of The Teachings of Don Juan…

Peter: “Don’t join the battle you can’t win”?

Jochen: That was ever so helpful! Don’t go where you can’t succeed. Besides, I hate to be forced into something. I hate force. Ever since I finished my Zivildienst* as a paramedic, I’ve always done what I wanted to do.

“Do what I want!”

By doing so you can easily lose your way. But it’s still your decision. Castaneda was all about that “Freiheit im Geiste”. Freedom of the mind. Spiritual freedom. That was vital. I might have found these ideas elsewhere, but Castaneda presented himself on my way, at that time and place.

Peter: Speaking of your job as a paramedic – how was it to be so close to death at that age?

Jochen: I remember a heart failure… a bowling alley… the wife, his drunk brothers, subdued in a corner… Us tired paramedics riding the old ambulance, trying to reanimate, waiting for the doctor on call… It was disgusting. It was disgusting to be in contact with life in all its banality and mortality. I was twenty. I wanted to be in close contact with the pulsating heartbeat of life and not to be concerned with the technical details of death and dying. It was my choice, but I was shocked and depressed. Death was on my mind. But I couldn’t figure out the meaning of death. There seemed to be no sense in dying. The ambulance station was on Parkstrasse, north of the Schlosspark. In between shifts, I’d take a break and lie down in the park, under those big, old trees, often. I put on mental sunglasses. Frosted glasses. Immunity.

Peter: Like that pop song… “Immunity – my way of hiding when the truth hurts me…” It was you who turned me on to Rupert Hine in those very days, dude… And I remember your legendary Parkstraße parties.

Jochen (wistfully): Yes, those were always a full success. Despite my gloomy mood.


Putting on mental sunglasses…? – Jochen Hein: Untitled (Schlossgraben – The Moat), 2000


Peter: Then you went to art school in Hamburg. You got any closer to that pulsating heartbeat of life?

Jochen: To be honest – no. Back in Husum, I was rather glamorous. It is easy to pose as an artistic type in such a small town. It was all different in Hamburg. Much more anonymous.

Peter: Well, Hamburg isn’t exactly the home of the arts either. Money rules here. Trade and commerce. Advertising.

Jochen: Right. But as a student, I had the chance to try out a couple of things there. I was determined to learn something. Things I was interested in. Things I had never done before. Nudes, for example. Life drawing. I had to realize, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get a grip on it. It was beyond my grasp. I guess that’s why I wanted to do it in the first place. To try and find out. Experience. Gradually, I got hold of something. I came into my own. I drifted into a flow of my own. I was able to do things which were artistically satisfying and gratifying. That was exciting. I didn’t went out a lot, I didn’t spend much time in clubs or so.

Peter: What – you didn’t hang out with Lehmi and Paul at the Bar Centrale? The Subito?

Jochen: Maybe for a game of table soccer… I didn’t drink at the time… I was a tee-totaller! Hanging out with those stoners was always a bit of an effort, really. Exhausting.

Peter: You went abstract for a short period of time, back then. I saw those bright, colorful abstracts hidden in a corner of your old Grindelhof studio once … as if you were ashamed of them. You told me then, that you had totally abandoned non-figurative painting. Not your cup of tea?

Jochen: Oh, it was absurd! I had gone abstract under the influence of one of my professors. I don’t want to remember. Too painful. Too embarrassing. I gave it up as soon as I discovered the hyperrealists and the airbrush. Eventually, it turned out that I didn’t like to paint with paint, actually. I figured that there were no future discoveries to be made in the field of traditional painting. Everything’s been done and tried and practiced already. I wanted to develop a new technique, and I found the airbrush quite adequate. Appropriate. You know, Chuck Close had become a hyperrealist because he wanted to distinguish himself from the abstract expressionists. And to abandon direct contact to the canvas, to transfer paint by air – I found that idea fascinating! At the beginning, I just wanted to be different, do something different. It was as simple as that. On the other hand, I wanted to go directly into the paint, into the color as well. That’s why I had gone abstract in the first place, well, at least temporarily. So I started to use big scrapers. To get abstract, painterly subject matter. Something Gerhard Richter was doing at the same time, actually. On huge canvasses. I went to see “Von hier aus”, the legendary Düsseldorf art show in 1984. There I stood before Richter’s giant abstracts, awed, crushed. Great, Jochen! So you’ve had the same idea. A certain impulse to go with a certain subject. Never again have I felt it so clearly, so explicitly… You have an idea. Somebody else has the same idea. But his implementation is so much better, so infinitely superior. Gerhard Richter had an entire universe of experience at his disposal. A different dimension of non-figurative painting altogether. So I gave it up, then.

Today, it’s different again. The way I use my material now, I’m going towards abstraction as a matter of course. There is a lot of abstract color in my paintings now, because I have a different approach towards the image now, the image object, the image matter. I used to walk around with a vision of an image in my mind, with a vision of a painting. My visual memory used to be the primary tool to create an image. Now I want to create a thing, a thing to be convincing not only as an image, but as an object as well. My paintings aren’t any longer meant to be the result of cortical vision, of neuro-imaging only, but there’s come into the picture, literally, another level of imaging – the physical element. It took me many a detour to bring together the vision and the material.

Peter: Well, good for you!

“I need only very little information!”

Jochen (patronizingly): You know, Peter, the collages you’ve shown me the other day… I like your stuff!

Peter: They date back to 2006, when I still had a studio. I don’t have that any longer. So I don’t do any paintings or collages any more. I do a lot of photography now. And lots of editing. My right shoulder hurts from a million mouse clicks. But it’s fun. What I get is pure eye candy, though. Mostly eye candy. I like to work with contrast and gradation.

Jochen launches into a vivid and erudite lecture on image histograms and gray scale values. He’s an expert. I’ll skip the details.

Jochen: It doesn’t have to be eye candy, you know? If you find the perfect form for your theme, your subject, it isn’t eye candy any more.

Peter: I like to emulate analog b/w photography. Filter simulations. High-key lighting. To get a certain late sixties documentary look… Günter Zint… RD Brinkmann… I just want to get decent pictures. Technically okay pictures. Without any artsy pretensions. Just like twenty-five years ago, like, with my first camera, a Canon AT-1…

Jochen: Yes… I remember that one… I had a Minolta XD-7 then but let me show you how I do it… See here? Lago di Comomonumental light, the sparkle, children on the beach…

Peter (unimpressed): This looks like a textbook example…

Jochen (animated): But look what happens when I take this detail… I’ll do this… and this… now this is interesting… you have a totally new and free composition – and you can be totally oblivious to the fact that this comes from a camera! Take this effect… look how little it takes to get this overexposed, white frosting! I need only very little information! Indeed, only a little negative information here, a little positive information there – and I’d be a whole lot wiser!


“…something evil, something malicious…” – Jochen Hein: Tree Trunk, 1998

I’ve learned something! I’ve understood something I can use in painting! The photograph has taught me what is required to create this particular spatial illusion. I hadn’t expected this. But I’ve seen it now. And I like it. Different exposures. Now here’s a dull, boring photograph. But here… let’s cut out this detail… the water has a new look here… something else… it’s turned to oil or whatever, something strange! What I mean is, it wasn’t there before. It wasn’t on my inner screen. I had no vision of this, no preconception. But now it is there. It was given to me because I did something. I did something to the image. I was active. And it would take on another meaning still, if I decided to paint it. Another dimension. It would be interesting.

This is why I like to take pictures. I throw away most of them. But what remains is full of surprise.

Peter: Sure. I know. I do the same.

Jochen: I make a lot of eye candy, too… but while doing so I’m bound to find something new… Some artistic angle. Unintentionally. Involuntarily. A view, an aspect which really fascinates me. Something I want to translate into – something evil, something malicious, like this here oily water… A still posing as slow motion… It doesn’t take much to get me interested. Free association photography. All doubts and misgivings included!

Peter: Now I get it! What you meant, when you told me why things look like how they look like! Thank you for the interview!

(*Zivildienst: Alternative service for conscientious objectors)

Post Scriptum:


The Death Metaphor

This nasty artefact is a model spacecraft made of plastic scrap. Jochen used to be a big fan of space movies. For more than twenty years he’d been harboring a secret ambition to build a model spacecraft entirely made of plastic scrap. Always procrastinating and postponing the deed. Until now. I’ve spontaneously christened this super-aggressive, evil monstrosity The Death Metaphor, and I’ve got my reasons. According to Freud and Lacan, death drive and libido are one. I feel this is a very healthy and highly libidinous abreaction of dormant anger and frustration. Congratulations, dude!


“Hate, as relation to objects, is older than love.” — Sigmund Freud

All the shots of Jochen Hein and The Death Metaphor by Peter Bies. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on ““Oh, it was absurd!” – Abstraction, Painting and Photography: An Interview with Jochen Hein, Part Two

  1. I was also interested in Castenada, and disillusioned as the books got harder and harder to believe until one knew they could not be true. The aching for transcendence, of a real entity out there who will tell us what to believe and do, never leaves us.

    Very interesting interview. Thnak you, Peter. Good to explore some of Jochen’s thinking, but I have a hunch there is more there that has not yet been explored. But very good to read.

  2. Thank you, Charles.
    I’m glad you like it – with the interview being a bit of a hodge-podge.
    You’re right, there’s probably more to be explored.
    As a matter of fact, knowing Jochen for such a long time sort of got in the way of asking the questions that really matter…

  3. Don’t agree. I think you asked many of the right questions.

    I have known my best friend for over 50 years, and with some regularity he manages to surprise me with some aspect of his personality or some interesting happening in his past which I never knew about. So anyone is a bottomless well. But you have done fine in bringing up much good water from this one.

  4. I too was enamored of Casteneda. I wanted transcedence but I also wanted personal power in my universe. The interview explains so much about Jochen’s work. It is so strong that at first I was intimidated by it. I find the ‘fantastic’ within it now.

  5. Pingback: ARTDOXA blog » Blog Archive » Member’s Voice: Originality - A Waste of Time! By David James Doody

  6. Thanks to Peter I spoke about things I usually would not talk about. We know each other for so long. So I had no chance to hide. It was the brillant translation from Peter that made these words new even to me.

    Good to hear that some of you have regarded this with favor. So thanks for this too, Charles, Michael …

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