Q&A with Theo Altenberg + Previously Unpublished Paintings

Q&A with Theo Altenberg + Previously Unpublished Paintings

The Internet world really is incredible sometimes. Although there can be some hateful stuff out there, for the most part it allows for incredible connections between people all over the world who otherwise may never have crossed paths.

Following my recent post about Theo Altenberg’s incredible oil paintings, the German artist contacted me. I thought it was such a lovely gesture for an artist to reach out to a blogger on the other side of the world. I’m not going to lie, his lovely comments about my article left me on a bit of a high for quite some time! Anyway, after some back and forth, Theo answered a few questions about his work and his artistic life in general. He was even kind enough to share these two previously unpublished paintings exclusively with EVE & FALL.


Theo Altenberg, O.T. oil on cardboard/pigment print, 2012.


What made you decide on a life in the “nomadic land” of art, particularly what made you decide to work in the paint medium?

When I was younger I guess people thought being an artist was not a real profession and that artists had no possible way to survive in society. But since my youth I’ve always been inspired by art, music and dance. In the art school I attended from 1969-1973, we had a multi-faceted education across different art media like film, photo, color theory, drawing, morphology, woodwork and art theory. It was a follower school of the Bauhaus idea from the 1920s.  So painting was a very late decision for me. I began with photography and film, then performance, dance, acting and language. Around 1988 I began to seriously experiment with oil colors.

One experience that might be an important key for what I do now is the “Liquid Crystal Environment”, a kind of chemical reaction slide show that Gustav Metzger created in 1965 in London. I saw the re-installation in 2002 at the Migros Museum in Zürich. It was always part of my intention in painting to create color as a kind of “liquid space”.

What artists, or styles of art, inspire you and why?

My major influences came from the musical revolution of the 1960s. When I first heard James Brown and the soul musicians from Stax and Motown in 1964-65 I was sure about the meaning of life: finding your own groove. I then began dancing. A bit later I was caught through artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann, and in art school it was first Vasarely, then Pfahler and “geometric color art”, Land Art, and Joseph Beuys. Around 1971 I became interested in Viennese Actionism through Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.

In art school during the summer of 1972 we visited Documenta 5 in Kassel, Germany. It was unbelievable how many works and installations were like a “birth experience” for me. The idea of “art is life, life becomes art” became three dimensional for me during this period.

Paul Thek’s “Death of a Hippie” installation also touched me profoundly. Until that time I was sure I would die at the age of 37. My life from 10 to 14 was a nightmare, a traumatic period. Death as a kind of metallic horror vision stroked me every time I was alone. Documenta 5 excited the idea of becoming part of something completely different and new, and living as part of an artist collective became my concrete aim.

Are your paintings a conscious choice of subject matter or are they developed organically and unconsciously as you create the work?

My paintings develop organically and spontaneously. Of course the mind has the knowledge of what is being processed, but sometimes I interrupt and decide to go another way. In general, as long as I am surprised about the result it ends up making sense.

How do you hope viewers of your paintings will respond to what they see?

A painting is an independent subject, so the viewer has to create his own relation to the artwork.

How much time do you spend on each individual painting?

Nearly every day I am working, always for hours at a time. Most of my time is spent sitting in the studio looking at the results of my last session. Many works “grow” at the same time, some are finished within one session, and some take two or three years to finish.

Are most of your paintings oil-on-cardboard? If so, why do you choose to paint on cardboard?

I work on different media, sometimes it’s canvas or hardboard. But my most recent works process the best with preprinted cardboard.

What have been the most mind-altering moments of your life as an artist?

  • The first night with the “Wien Buch” (Vienna Book, Compendium about Viennese Actionism) in 1972.
  • The day I began to live in the Commune Praterstrasse in Vienna in 1973.
  • The decision to work with Joseph Beuys and the FIU on the project  “7000 Oaks” in 1980.
  • The moments when I stood in front of masterpieces that hit through my consciousness.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment, to date?

  • To see life as an ongoing process of experiments.
  • To recognize that our brains are primitive collections of old decisions, dominated by programs like fear and hunger.
  • Often in my life it was important to jump out of my well known contexts and step into unknown areas.

If you could give a young artist some advice, what would it be?

  • Help save the planet.
  • Play with children.
  • Living in a basic democratic collective with creative and responsable people is an important experience.
  • Visit all the important art museums to develop a sense of the original creation.
  • And, of course, love and passion are the basic emotions for every process in life.

Theo Altenberg, O.T. oil on cardboard/pigment print, 2009.


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