Marco Fiedler in conversation with Franz Erhard Walther

MF: In 2007, I visited you in Fulda for the first time, along with Pierre Bal-Blanc. But I had known your work before that: the first time I saw it was in Geneva, as a young student there in the mid-1990s. Later I saw more, at the MMK in Frankfurt. They were showing your Word Pictures (Wortbilder) from the late 1950s: simple, punchy words rendered in tempera on paper. That was my point of entry into your work, since in Vier5 we also work closely with words and perception of them. What’s up with those works on paper? What’s the story behind them?

FEW: Early in 1957, I had started my studies at the School of Applied Art in Offenbach (Werkkunstschule Offenbach). The work we were given on the foundation course, which was based on the preliminary courses at the Bauhaus, didn’t mean a lot to me. So I wandered around the various workshops and ended up in a lettering class. The course was meant for students who wanted to be typeface designers or wanted to learn about typefaces for commercial graphics.
I was fascinated by the constructed typefaces. I signed up for the class, and started drawing all of the important typeface families. At some point I also began to design my own typeface alphabets. But I really wasn’t interested in applications, like poster design. I wanted to create my own works using the letters. I called these Word Pictures: through the spectator they were connected to ideas of action. Individual words – in conjunction with the typeface, its colors, the colors of the surfaces, and the format – were meant to prompt the viewer to imagine their own picture. In other words, they were meant to bring about an action. At the art school, almost no one understood what I had in mind. The Wortbilder were regarded as practical exercises only, since I had excluded any form of traditional design. And creative design defined what counted as art.

MF: In your work, writing, words and language come up again and again. What position do words occupy for you? There is this sentence of yours: “Concepts create forms and forms create concepts.” So what does projection field mean for you, for example, and as an outsider how can I work with this concept?

FEW: Typefaces and letter forms have been an integral part of my work up to the present day. With the diagrams and work drawings of the 1960s, I wanted to capture the ideas, experiences, work projects, action concepts, demonstrations that emerged during the activation of the First Work Set (1. Werksatz). In doing so, concepts created forms and forms created concepts. At the same time, drawings and writings flowed into each other. The action situations can be a projection field, but so can their linguistic-graphic formulation. As a concept in Work Drawings, it creates an open field of ideas for the reader/viewer: it can be associated with an action, but doesn’t have to be. The actors in the work are their own audience, so they aren’t “outsiders.”

MF: In 2011 at the Kunsthalle Vogelmann, I discovered a large work on paper that you made, a very sober, subtle work: Air Enclosures (Lufteinschlüsse) from 1962. What was the starting point for that one?

FEW: To put it in simplified terms: air as a material could be an artistic challenge, because it was historically fresh. The basis for it was the technique of gluing, which helped to determine the form. In doing so, I wanted to transpose the painting process of the “informel” – for which I had a high regard – into a material process. That raised the question of form, which I wanted to displace into the imagination, in a way that called for inner action: the idea of the work as a projection.

MF: Drawing plays a large role within your work, either in fully worked-out form or as partial, sketch-like pencil drawings. How do you see the place of drawing within your work? Are drawings an autonomous work for you, or more like a preliminary phase, a sketch or guideline for a sculpture? What are the Work Drawings all about?

FEW: Drawing is one of the foundations of my art. That includes any kind of drawing you can think of: sketches, notation, designs, plans, constructions, autonomous drawings, diagrams, work drawings… But the “work drawings” only relate to the First Work Set. They don’t correspond to what the term usually means: a preparatory work sketch. Instead, I gave work drawing a different meaning: in conjunction with the Work Actions (Werkhandlungen), these drawings have the status of parallel works, irrespective of their fragmentary character.

MF: You have these photos called Attempt to Be a Sculpture (1958). As you once told me in Paris, they were created during your first exhibition in Fulda. How did this exhibition come about? And how can we imagine that period, the way art was received back then?

FEW: The photographs were not created in connection with an exhibition. I wanted to put concrete gestures alongside the ideas about action from my sketch drawings of 1955–56, and Word Pictures and Symbol Pictures from 1957–58 – these gestures would also be related to action. That couldn’t be achieved through traditional sculptural means. So I had the idea of making bodily gestures which would be recorded as photographs. I considered a whole range of gestures and asked a friend of mine who was a photographer to come to my studio. I arranged a special lighting set-up for the photographs: instead of traditional lighting, with light coming from the left and shadows to the right, there were a number of spotlights pointed from different positions. In doing so, I wanted the photographs to have their own inherent value. They shouldn’t just be pure documentation. Since shadows were meant to play a role too, I hung up large nettle-cloth sheets, and did the actions in front of them. The gestures and poses were partly biographical.
I was involved in a group of artist friends in Fulda, and in 1958 we founded a gallery to exhibit contemporary art, the first one ever in the town. It would have been unthinkable for those works to have had a reception within that circle; and that was the only serious artistic group in Fulda. It was the same even when I was studying in Frankfurt in 1959. In Düsseldorf, where I began studying at the art academy in early 1962, people regarded them with tolerance. But no one would have exhibited them.

MF: At that point were you already concerned with photographic documentation, or was that a coincidence?

FEW: For me, those photographs were not “documents,” they were works in their own right.

MF: Back then, you defined the concept of “sculpture” quite clearly for yourself. Particularly now, when people work a lot with performance, people tend to avoid that term. But sculpture is what you explicitly speak about. Within sculpture, what do you think is the significance of the body and the use of the body?

FEW: I used the term “sculpture” because it connects physical actions to art and its history. In the early years, there was often a tendency to remove them from the context of art. In the Work Actions (Werkhandlungen), the body can become a sculptural material. It can define space, and articulate time in the actions. In this way, time and space become artistic materials – connected to the body and its movements. Sculpture is given a temporality, it has an ephemeral character.

MF: How is it with these works: is the object itself already a sculpture or is the sculpture only activated by the action?

FEW: In material and formal terms, the works are sculptural, and can be seen as sculptures. But this status changes in the course of the activation. The works become a pedestal, and the actors can think of themselves as sculptures.

MF: What role do textiles play in your work?

FEW: The main material in the Work Pieces (Werkstücken) is a wide range of different cotton fabrics. In 1963, when I began working with it, that was unique in the art world. Back then, textiles were seen, at best, as a material to be used in the applied arts.

MF: How did your first textile works come about? Who sewed them, and what was the conceptual design like? Did you have previous training in craft techniques, for example in cutting techniques, or did you have help in turning the designs and ideas into the “cut”?

FEW: It was a continuous process. The first Hand Pieces (Handstücke) were glued together. But I wasn’t happy with that. Action was at the heart of it, as an integral part of the work, and the gluing technique was too reminiscent of the idea of “collage.” I wanted to get rid of that historical ballast.
By coincidence, in early 1963, in a tailor’s workshop, I saw a particular pillow shape used for ironing out suit patterns, which had some formal similarity with my glued-together forms. But the pillow was sewed at the sides. Eureka! The technique is stitching, the stitch! I immediately drew forms to be sewed. Johanna, my girlfriend, who was studying textile technologies in Hohenheim and was on vacation from college, turned my drawings into stitching. Incidentally, I had seen the pillow at her parents’ tailoring workshop. The Work Set pieces made afterward required cutting skills and particular experience with materials. Without Johanna, those works would never have been made.

MF: What was – and is – your selection criterion for textiles?

FEW: The selection criteria for the material were a mixture of aesthetic and functional questions, with the latter more important. The circumstances for that choice were extremely constrained: I didn’t have the financial leeway to choose whatever I wanted. Nonetheless, I made no compromises.

MF: It strikes me that you follow a certain color code when it comes to textiles. How did that come about? Are they industrial colors, or did you develop colors for your work?

FEW: In the 1960s, I chose fabrics according to the possibilities I was given. Since action was the focus for the Work Set pieces, in most cases color was of secondary importance. Anyway, for the strength of material I wanted, it wasn’t possible to have a choice of colors.
In the 1970s, I was fortunate enough to find the fabric colors and strengths I wanted. When a more powerful visuality returned with Wall Formations (Wandformationen), I was lucky to be in a position to have fabrics dyed according to my specifications.
I don’t choose the colors – there are around twenty of them – on the basis of beauty. They have to correspond to my visual-sculptural ideas. Within me, obviously, there is a color iconography. With just two exceptions, the Word Pictures have the same colors as the ones I developed for the Wall Formations – although there is twenty years between those works, and I had long forgotten the colors I had used back then.

MF: To come back to language and writing: there are works with books, like the Action Book (Handlungsbuch). You transpose the book, liberating it from its rigid paper-and-cardboard corset. The book is taken out of its determining context: it no longer simply creates fantasies, it is materialized and can be experienced in a physical way. What is your interest in books? What prompted you to turn books into “physical bodies”?

FEW: The form of the book as an Action Body developed from the stack form I used between 1961 and 1963. As well as the stack form, there were also book-like forms in cassettes. The earliest book form is the Rosa Lackbuch of 1963. After that came the Action Book (Handlungsbuch) in eight copies, which was related to the First Work Set (1. Werksatz), and was created between 1963 and 1969. Then I developed a second Action Book, with a print run of eighty copies. In 1969, there were two large-format book-bodies, which were engaged with through the entire body. Their physicality is connected to actions. That was my idea of how to preserve a complex work. Reading can’t achieve something like that.

MF: What is your favorite material?

FEW: In the Work Actions (Werkhandlungen): the body, space, time, language and memory.