David Stern: Composites of Geography, Composites of Form

David Stern’s painting are commanding examples of technical achievement, cultural knowledge, and direct feeling. As the interview explains, he was born in Germany, where he studied and worked until 1994, when he moved to New York. His work is an accomplished unification of skills he learned in art school in Europe with his internalization of aspects of the New York School. The expressionist heads Stern painted in Germany might be associated with the work of Kokoschka or, from the London School, Auerbach. Whoever the influences might be, it is clear that feeling runs high in the paintings, which move from the figurative to the abstract and can deliberately take on political expression. 

For an American audience, Stern’s paintings need not be seen as ghosts of the past, although one intuits that German art history of the last century is alive within them. Instead, they are gifted in their constancy of feeling and craft, in the sense that he aligns with tradition even as he moves ahead in his work. It is hard today to rescue the past from what is wrongly considered a moribund display of historicity--in proper circumstances, such as those we find in seeing Stern’s art, the past is both background and spur to a point of view that is not anachronistic but genuinely new. As a result, his body of work succeeds in nearly overwhelming us--not only visually, but also by virtue of its moral force. His work is an exhortation as much as it is a visual ploy.

Given that Stern is now a mature artist, we can only admire his long path from Germany to New York, where he pursues a vision carrying him--and us--into places of unmediated emotion and ethical resolve. These qualities are not demonstrably evident, being more the result of our intuition that the vagaries of an artist with lives in two geographies and cultures are not so simply determined. Of a Jewish background, Stern carries both the greatness and the tragic weight of German Jewish history. It makes sense that he would end up in New York, but it is also true that he carries the gravitas, in person and in his work, of someone coming from the heart of Europe. His audience, then, understands his fine work as a merger of emotion, intellect, and, especially, place, at a time when such mergers are being given short shrift.

--Jonathan Goodman

1. You were born in Essen in Germany, studied in Dortmund and Duesseldorf, and worked in Cologne for a number of years before moving to New York in 1994. How did your experience as a student in Germany affect your painterly style and esthetic outlook? Was Germany a good place to be a painter as an adult artist?

I realize this only now, while answering your question, but I think I was very lucky to catch the end of the classical academic studio education in Germany. I studied at an institution, a direct successor to the so-called Werkkunstschule, which prided itself on giving you the tools to succeed in the applied arts: design, illustration, drawing from live models, printmaking, and the like. It was not unlike the school de Kooning went to in the Netherlands before coming to the United States. I also had the good fortune to have worked with a professor named Ulrich Haerter, who was himself a master student of Fernand Leger. Later, still in my twenties and already enrolled at the Duesseldorf Academy, I came across Professor E. Bert Hartwig, a Bauhaus disciple and student of Paul Klee. So, I got my share of direct modern art influence.

I took the idea of painting as a discipline-based art seriously, and retreated pretty much into myself in order to come into my own. Germany in the Eighties was infatuated with the New Fauves, the young wild ones, who fashioned themselves as the natural heirs of the German expressionism, although with considerably less understanding and skill. For me, it wasn’t the place to grow; everything was ideologized and packed up in nice little drawers.

2. Why did you move to New York? What does the New York art world have that an artistic life in Germany does not?

The move to New York had several motives. One was my Jewish heritage, which resulted in my feeling I couldn’t live in Germany after I had found my wife and had started a family. So, we looked for places to go. New York was, believe it or not, only my second choice, I wanted to go to Canada and there particularly to Toronto--it still mystifies me why I thought that would be a good idea…

I was somewhat involved in New York’s art world for the first 10 years and had more than a dozen solo shows here. But I mourned the absence of a meaningful discourse. All I came across were people who wanted to make it; moreover, the commercial aspect was overwhelming, not to speak of the cost of living and operating a studio in this town. So, after spending a decade of participating, I removed myself from New York’s art world around 2008--after a retrospective which went to several university museums around the country--and concentrated on my art, helped by a German benefactor and collector, who now owns a significant portion of my life’s work.

What does New York have that Germany doesn’t? Life! Everything is moving; as an artist, you’re an observer, and it’s your choice what to observe. I observe people--the human condition is my theme, and there’s no better place than New York to engage exploring this theme.

3. Your style in Germany was expressionist in the German tradition, your heads especially. Can you link this practice to earlier German artists? Who were they and how did they influence you?

I’m not sure that I would identify it as a style I was painting in--a tradition, yes, but I’m deeply suspicious of anything that finds a canon and then executes accordingly. I want to surprise myself in everything I’m doing, I don’t follow a recipe or style. I am trying to explore, I’m on a journey; otherwise, it wouldn’t be interesting at all. My influences are not limited to the few German Expressionists of lore, but Beckmann plays a large role, as do von Menzel, Corinth, Dix, Schaad, although these artists were not necessarily Expressionists. Then, of course, Soutine, and going backward from there, all the great painters of the 19th, 18th, 17th, and 16th centuries--particularly Bonnard, Matisse, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Turner, Delacroix, Courbet, Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Velazquez, El Greco, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, as far back as to the masters of the caves of Lascaux.

Additionally, the people who gave me hope in Germany at the time and in terms of discipline-based art were the masters of the London School: Bomberg, Andrews, Auerbach, Bacon, Freud, and Kossof.

4. Since coming to New York, your artistic style has evolved to include the abstract-expressionist brushwork that originated here. It is found in both your portraits and your non objective paintings. Can you comment on the merger of the style you developed in Germany and that which evolved in New York City?

Again, it’s not so much as a style as it is a particular way of finding one’s own voice and script. We were not ignorant of what had happened across the Atlantic, so I knew all the Abstract Expressionists, coming here. I believe that America is not necessarily the place to have ideas, but to enhance them and extrapolate on them. There has to be a nucleus, as there was with Rothko, de Kooning, Kline, and all the others, mostly immigrants, but also with Pollock, coming to New York City and expanding on his vision. For me, it happened only a few years ago, when shifting to a different medium in acrylics, that I became a painter solidly rooted in America. It’s about enhancing here what is already there, I was fortunate to have a substantial education and a healthy sense to ignore the rage of the day in my home country, to come here and naturally pick up the energy of this place. None of the “visitors” to the States can do this; you have to become what they call an American.

5. Your art now incorporates elements both of figuration and abstraction. Please comment on the joined duality.

Well, you have to have a close look at Frans Hals’ paintings, solidly rooted in the 16th century, to understand what drives painters like me, to find a way to reconcile the notion of abstraction with figuration, something Hals did more than 400 years ago without anyone noticing--except he was praised for his exceptionally “alive” canvases. There you have it: understanding that anything you do on a two-dimensional plane needs an “abstraction” from our daily, although limited, three-dimensional experience, in order to appear in space. All painting is about that---space --even in the flattest of paintings, a Rothko or a Pollock, space is what makes it move before your eyes.

6. Can you talk for a moment about technical aspects of your art? Why are you using acrylic paint, how do you achieve the drips that characterize your current efforts, how do you construct a coherent composition?

I have used pigments for almost four decades instead of being satisfied with what comes out of any kind of paint tube. I came across the work of Dr. Kremer when I lived in Cologne, Germany, from 1986 until 1993; he was the only source for genuine pigments, aside from industrial production. At this point in my development, I used huge amounts of paint in order to create some sort of independent notion of material on the canvas, paint being itself, paint. It was hugely expensive to use that much paint; it created independent surfaces, but each canvas was fraught not only with an incredible amount of weight but cost as well. Yet it worked for me and created unique works oscillating between material and figuration.

About 4 years ago I hit a creative roadblock, and in order to circumvent it, I resorted to a time-tested practice: the return to works on paper: drawings. I worked with almost any means available: ink, coffee, acrylics, graphite, pigments. I rescued myself with these drawings and started to wonder if I could translate the immediacy of them onto canvas/cotton as well. So, I now use a different medium to solve my pigments in and am very happy with the immediacy and spontaneity it provides. The possibilities are endless. Rembrandt and Caravaggio would have loved to have these kinds of solvents. Coherent compositions have nothing to do with the materials one uses; the drips are just a trace of the process. As Nietzsche said: “Art is the all-consuming fire; the work is the ashes left behind.” It’s okay to collect the ashes, but the fire is burning somewhere else.

7. In a number of ways you are a powerful traditional painter. What is your response to the increasingly broad array of current art expression-- conceptual, technological, politically direct?

I guess that’s some kind of a compliment--maybe also a relegation into the backseats of history?

What is my response to what I see? I don’t see much. I stopped going to galleries and museums around ten years ago. I am nonetheless aware of what is going on, and I am not happy with the discard of the idea of disciplined-based art.

What we see now has no bearings in any visual tradition and, for sure, no bearings in the discipline. We are seeing images which haven’t been fought for--images which come easy by way of digital alterations, conceptually conveying something, but currently there’s no need for that thrilling wrestling contest the artist has with his canvas, the physicality where the paint goes, splays, drips. Now there is no recourse for accidents, just the premeditated path. 

8. Politically, we are living in volatile times. Your recent artwork directly expresses political feeling, in opposition to the now-defunct Trump administration. How do your paintings communicate your anger with American politics?

I’m not sure how defunct this administration is. I see them questioning, on no rational grounds, the outcome of the election, and I feel alarmed. There’s no anger in me regarding American politics. I am a universalist; everything has to work on a universal, not just a global, scale. There is a troubling development, not only in this country but in many countries of the West--and that is the total disregard of what the West has achieved over the past 400 years. Freedom, not only of expression, but to move upward. It is only 500 years ago that societies across the globe had no social mobility whatsoever. You stayed in your social station, and that was it. That’s of course not all. We have now, in the countries of the West, unprecedented equality of gender, race, sexual orientation--and you can sue for it if the situation arises. But, even so, we are quick to complain; in comparison to where we were just 40 years ago, we have achieved a lot. Let’s build on it. My paintings have nothing to do with American politics, except as politics cross boundaries of geography, class, race, etc.


9. How do you respond to direct social practices in art such as identity art? Does this kind of work achieve its goals, or is it too heavily grounded in psychological and personal issues to be fully successful as a public comment on social mores?

Art is art; there is no special form of art aka Identity Art. Either you are capable of transforming a particular set of circumstances into an universal drama, or not. This task becomes the artist’s litmus test.

10. Can you name two or three particularly helpful historical figures, historical and recent, that have influenced you by their writing--not their art? How have they done so? You are welcome to include Old Masters.

I do have that German Jewish background, and of course the influences are just there in no particular order, with a particular bent toward Buddhism. Kurt Tucholsky, I read his entire life work. The same with Hermann Hesse, Eugen Herrigel, Emmanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Franz Rosenzweig. More recently, I have been enamored by the works of Timothy Snyder, Yuval Harari, Jonathan Sacks, Samson R. Hirsch, and many more. Sorry, most Old Masters didn’t leave any manuscripts behind. though I loved Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, and I did read the three-letter correspondence between Rembrandt and Ruffo.

11. How do you feel about the current art scene in New York? As a mature painter, what do you like or dislike about painting as it is now taking place here?

As I mentioned before, I am not connected to the current art scene in New York, so I don’t really know what is happening and don’t have a good account to judge it in any way. I do though keep track on what is happening globally and what I see is the extrapolation of what started in the Eighties--the discard of the idea of discipline-based art and its transferal to conceptual art. There are still original paintings around, though a lot of them are being made in a third-generation mode of the great American Expressionist movement. That is fine and good, but we need to move ahead.

12. Do you see your style changing in the future? What would you like to do, artistically speaking, in the next five years?

Again, there’s no style, just search--and yes, things always change, and I am open to it. Anything else would be insane. I don’t know where I will be in five years, I have no plans. I hope to be alive in 5 years