I moved into a studio complex in Rixdorf in the fall of 2014, a charming village like area within the larger neighborhood of Neukölln in West Berlin. My room was part of a studio complex in a style very common to the area. Presumably a former boarding house, the complex takes up one floor of an apartment building with 9 studios and a shared hallway, kitchen and bathroom. I was lucky enough to share the space for a few months with Beate Köhne, an energetic woman with striking blue eyes that seem to be as bright and open as her paintings. Although Berlin is Beate’s home base, she is an avid traveller who harbors an enthusiasm for life and has a matter of fact way of managing it.
Standing among her paintings, Beate’s vibrant energy and candidness is immediately contextualized. Her paintings, which draw from natural forms, are full of kinetic energy and seem to produce their own light. Premeditation is not an important factor in Beate’s working process; her work is more the result of an intense search for moments of openness and heightened energy. Beate takes a head on approach to her work, planting herself in different places around the world where she discovers new circumstances of light and color that can enter her work and fuel her intense search-based mode of painting.
Beate’s former studio in Rixdorf, was lined with shelves crammed with paintings (albeit very neatly), evidence of Beate’s intense capacity and desire to paint and paint and paint. Immediately following our introduction she made mention of needing more space, more light. Naturally, when she found a new studio, a short bike ride away I had to request a visit. Beate is now working on a quiet street off of Hermanplatz, on the border between Neukölln and Kreuzberg, in a bright hinterhof (the back courtyard of an apartment). When I entered the space I understood the move right away. The new studio is indeed bigger, but even more striking is that it is saturated with natural light, which only makes sense for a painter so deeply concerned with openness, intensity of light and dynamic relationships of energetic colorful forms.
Maxine: How do you begin a painting?
Beate: I just start. There is no concept. But it is very important where I am although I don’t realize it at the moment.
M: Yes, I was wondering about that, because you’ve worked and lived in a lot of different places. Argentina, Mexico and the Netherlands to name a few. How does the environment affect your work?
B: That’s how light, and sometimes color enters my work. Often I only realize how it changed when I come back to my Berlin studio and say oh ok, here is something they all have in common. In Mexico for example I started to paint with really dark colors, which appear everywhere in my work now. Because of the shadows there, there was such a rich contrast of light and dark.
M: What kind of particular environment were you working in?
B: We had a house in a small city with a huge garden, so I could paint outside all day.
M: Was it a residency?
B: No. I will have two residencies this year, but usually it’s much easier to just rent something somewhere or to do house swapping. I’ve been traveling my whole adult life.
M: Was this for your work as a journalist?
B: Yes, but also privately, I began saving my money from the beginning for travelling. It was kind of natural that I began to write and paint abroad.
M: When did you decide to start painting, or were you always painting and at some point began to give it more attention?
B: I began to take serious classes when I moved to Berlin at the end of ‘98. At that time I took one day off each week. At some point it just became more and more and more, it wasn’t really a decision. The balance just shifted. Its been a long time since I wrote an article.
M: Your paintings contain a lot of open space animated by super energetic gestures, but the marks that you are making are very specific. Do you pull from drawings or specific references? For example, do you look at a flower and ask how can that flower be in this painting within the language of the painting?
B: Yes, I think that’s it. That’s the point. I started to paint much more realistic and it was good to study forms and elements. Nature was my theme right from the beginning, but the process was always more interesting for me than the leaf or the tree itself. I didn’t want to make anything sweet or decorative. I wanted to open more space. And I realize now that I achieved my aim because at studio visits or openings i am asked how I develop the themes for my abstract paintings., I say, well, for me they are not abstract.
M: Yes, a lot of the forms feel like plants to me. But more a study of their intense energy and growth than a study of their form.
B: That’s what I think is more interesting – the process. And in terms of color: – I discovered, quite late, why I love to use so much white. The forest near my parent’s house, has really dark soil with white Kalksteine. It’s a wide forest with leafy trees and everything is very dense and covered with dark leaves and plants, but this white always shines through. And I think this appears in my work somehow.
M: Do you work in series? How do your paintings develop in relation to each other?
B: I often work in series and I always work on many paintings at the same time. I need some time to finish a painting, not only because the layers have to dry, but because of all the decisions that follow the spontaneous beginning. It is a long process. The theme of energy and growth in nature is always the connection between them.
M: Is there something you are concentrating on at the moment?
B: Right now I am focusing on mixing thin layers with thick to achieve more variety, whereas at the beginning I was always painting with very thick layers.
M: They have a really lovely light and great joyous energy.
B: When people refer to my work and say they feel a lot of positive energy from it, this is a real compliment.
M: Yeah, they feel pretty exuberant, I mean the tension and intensity is there, too, but it is affirmative.
B: Yes, and I take this tension and intensity as evidence that I am not at all concerned with making something decorative.
M: On days when you have absolutely no desire or energy to work, what gets you to show up at the studio anyway?
B: You never know how your working day will be until you begin. So I just go there and start. Are you a swimmer? When you want to swim 1000 meters and jump into the water on some days you feel like a fish and on others every movement is exhausting. You have no idea how you will feel when you get in the water. That’s how it is for me with painting. Over the years I learned that on some days it is better to do nothing. It is so easy to destroy a painting which is already headed in a good direction. Then it is better to read or go for a walk.
Beate is a Berlin based internationally exhibiting artist. She will have a solo exhibition, at Galerie im Burgmannshof, Kunstverein Lübbecke on view from September 6th through October 10th and will be exhibiting at the Berliner Liste Fair for Contemporary Art in Berlin from September 16th through 20th.
You can see more examples of her work at www.beate-koehne.de