A Thousand Windows
“I don’t take anything when I’m painting. When I take psychedelics I get very horny, and I start going out to nightclubs and cruising.“
with Mati Klarwein
Andy Warhol said that Mati Klarwein was his “favorite painter,” and some of Mati’s admirers have included Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dali, Jackie Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot, and Miles Davis. Yet he told me that he was “the most famous unknown painter in the world.” This is because almost everyone has seen the widely reproduced, visionary piece that he painted in 1962 and was used in 1970 for the cover of Santana’s album Abraxas, or his painting “A Grain of Sand” that the Chambers Brothers used for an album cover, yet few people know who painted them. Using a technique he learned from his mentor Ernst Fuchs, Mati’s work is brightly colored, often full of dense intricate imagery, shamanically juxtaposed together. There is a rapturous blissful quality to his paintings.
Even his “ordinary” landscapes look psychedelic in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on– until a friend pointed out to me that the hallucinogenic quality was created by the dazzling amount of detail in the painting that normally wouldn’t be visible from the distance depicted. Timothy Leary told Mati that he didn’t need psychedelics.”I painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics,” Mati told me, “It’s like what Dali said– I don’t take drugs, I am drugs.” His latest book A Thousand Windows was recently released by Max Publishing. Mati lives in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. This interview took place on March 11, 1992 while he was visiting Santa Monica, California. Present at the interview was acclaimed computer graphic wizard Brummbaer. Mati and Brummbaer are old friends, and there was a festive spirit in the air.
David: What was it that originally inspired you to become an artist?
Mati: It was by elimination. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was a child. I became an artist because I couldn’t become anything else. I was living in Israel as a child, and then I moved to France at the age of seventeen. Because I wasn’t French, I had to continue with school and study if I wanted to stay in the country. I wanted to become a movie director, so I tried enlisting in a movie directing school, but they wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t have a high school diploma, as I had stopped going to public school at the age of fourteen to go to art school in Jerusalem. And that’s how I became an artist. (laughter) I also didn’t want to have a job where you work from nine to five, because I don’t like to get up at 8:00 in the morning. (laughter) I like to have the option of getting up or sleeping when I want.
David: Who were the major influences in your artistic development?
Mati: Well, it started off with the Renaissance, mainly because my father was into modern art and abstract art.
David: Where did you grow up?
Mati: I grew up in Israel. My father was an architect there; he built the Israeli Parliament. He was influenced by the German Bauhaus and all that. So we had nothing but abstract paintings on the wall, and Bauhaus magazines around. Because for me abstract art was old hat, I became attracted to older work. I got into the Renaissance. I went to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, and France, and saw all the old masters’ paintings in Europe. Then I met Ernst Fuchs, and started to paint. I mean, I was always painting, but I was doing a lot of drawing. He taught me the technique. Fuchs is the most psychedelic painter of all, except Dali and Bosch, of course.
David: What are the basic messages that you’re trying to communicate with your work?
Mati: There are no messages.
David: You don’t see art as a medium for communication?
Mati: For communicating images, yes. I mean, I don’t know if I would have painted on a desert island. I paint for others.
David: Right, so where does the inspiration to communicate originate?
Mati: Well, I like to look at paintings, and I like to paint paintings that I haven’t seen, or that I’d like to see, so I paint them. That’s as far as it goes. And if there are any elements in the paintings which look like messages, that could be misleading, because I paint a message like you paint an apple. Anybody can interpret their own message in the painting. That’s the message. I give clues or material for interpretation. Critics have said that I don’t leave anything in my work for the imagination of the viewer because my technique is so tight. But what I leave for the viewer is the interpretation. And if I ever have the opportunity to make movies, I would do films like this, where you don’t know what’s going on, but afterwards when you think about it, you make up your own story. I actually did a movie once, but I wasn’t happy with it. I’m planning to do another one, as soon as I get twenty million dollars.
David: Have your dreams had an influence on your work?
Mati: No, never. If they did then I would be painting some guy running up and missing a train all the time. (laughter) Flying in dreams is about the only thing that comes close– to my aerial view paintings or “inscapes”, which start off as abstractions, really.
David: How have psychedelics influenced your work?
Mati: They haven’t. It was more the spirit of the times. I think it all goes together. I painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics. When Tim Leary first saw my work he said, “You don’t need psychedelics.” And that was before I took them.
David: How do you account for the fact that people who do psychedelics are so attracted to your work?
Mati: Because it’s like what Dali says, “I don’t take drugs. I am drugs.”
David: How do you feel about being classified as a psychedelic painter?
Mati: I think it’s subjective. Anybody can classify me as they wish. In the fifties I was classified as an illustrator, even though my work consisted of paintings. And in the sixties my work was classified as psychedelic. So I took psychedelics to find out what it was all about. I found out I couldn’t paint on them. I’ll tell you about a funny episode. Jean Houston and Robert Masters put together a book called Psychedelic Art in the sixties, and they came to me. They did an interview with me, like we’re doing now, to include me in their book. And they asked me, “What kind of psychedelics do you take when you’re painting?” And I said, “I don’t take anything when I’m painting. When I take psychedelics I get very horny, and I start going out to nightclubs and cruising.” (laughter)
So they said, “Well, we can’t put you in the book.” I freaked out, because I wasn’t in any book yet (laughter), and I said, “But I get my ideas when I’m high.” And they said, “Alright, we’ll put you in the book.” Next they asked me for the names of other psychedelic painters, and I gave them a whole list, including Fuchs. I called them all up right away, and I told them, “Tell them that you’re taking psychedelics!” And they all got in the book. (laughter)
David: What are some of the frontiers that you see in the realm of two-dimensional painting, compared to something like computer graphic art?
Mati: Two-dimensional painting? Meaning what? This is two-dimensional? (Mati holds up one of his paintings.)
David: Working on a flat surface.
Mati: This creates an illusion of three dimensions. I like to play with perspectives. I don’t like to make them obvious, like with vanishing points. That’s why my paintings are always on flat surfaces– because I like to create a tension between the flatness of the surface and the illusion of perspective. So if you look at this flat surface you see an abstract painting. But if you keep looking at it, then a reality comes out, and that’s how I work these paintings. I start them off as an abstract design, and then I create a story, something like life on the mountain or whatever. Then I see to it that there’s always a texture. And that’s the problem with a computer screen– there’s always the flatness of the glass. Therefore in order for me to forget the glass in computer art, there has to be an illusion of three dimensions and reality, even more so than with a painting. This is because with a painting you have a surface of thick textures to deal with. Painting is like cooking, and texture is very important in cooking. You have flat things, you have grainy things, and all this is very important.
David: How has living in Spain influenced your work?
Mati: Living by the Mediterranean has influenced me greatly. I grew up on the Mediterranean, and there’s a familiar feeling to the surroundings. I suppose one always returns to a place that’s similar to where one grew up, or something that reminds you of it. That’s why I feel at home here in Santa Monica– because it looks like Israel with its palm trees and modern buildings, and I feel at home. And I like Spanish music. For me, it’s very important to live in a country where I like the music. I couldn’t live in a country where I don’t like the music, like Austria or Mexico.
David: So does music play a role in inspiring your work?
Mati: Very much so, yes. I don’t know how, but it does. I mean, I can’t live without it. I listen to music all the time while I paint.
David: What kind of music do you listen to?
Mati: Every kind of music that I like. I play chamber music and classical music. I like Bach. I don’t like symphony music– I think that’s sort of commercial art really. I like ethnic music very much– dance music, rap music, juju, mazi, nigerian, senegal, and zaire music.
David: You paint to rap music?
Mati: Yeah, especially when I feel tired. It wakes me up.
David: Does it make painting more of a kinesthetic experience?
Mati: Yeah, I stroke my brush to the beat, and it keeps me going. It keeps the blood flowing around and circulating. Because if you sit and you paint, you don’t get exercise. Rap keeps your adrenaline flowing.
David: What are you excited about these days, and what future directions do you see with your art?
Mati: Well, I do all kinds of art. Now I’m doing three exhibitions of these improved paintings. These are paintings done by other people that I buy in flea markets and things like that for about five or ten dollars, which I then paint into and “improve”.
David: What an interesting idea.
Mati: Yeah, it’s more conceptual than my other work. I can do one of these in two days. That I can deal with in regard to the galleries, because when any of paintings gets sold in galleries, they take fifty percent. If I work six months on a painting, then they take three of my months away in five minutes of their work. I have my own collector for my other kind of work. But these I can do in two or three days. So it fits into the fast-paced modern market, where they can be created in massive quantities like everything else. So I can work in several galleries at the same time, and turn out a lot of them. Some day I’ll make a book about them.
Brummbaer I think what I’m going to do is, I’m going to digitize your paintings, and improve them. (laughter)
Mati: And I’ll tell my attorney about it the next time I see him. (laughter)
Brummbaer You’re going to sue me?
Mati: Hell yeah, I’ll sue you. That’s how I make my money.
David: What’s the title of the new book?
Mati: A Thousand Windows. The text, written by yours truly, is in Spanish and English, and is available by mail order for $45 from Max Publishing, C/ Archiduque Luis Salvador, 9 – Deia, Mallorca 07179 Spain. You can call 34 (9) 71 – 63 92 81– or –63 93 93 for more information.