Walter Dahn: I grew up in a tiny village near the Dutch border — working class background. The only thing for a boy in this village was to go to the movies on Sundays and listen to the top twenty on BFBS [British Forces Broadcasting Service].
Prince: Your contemporaries don't seem to allow the idea of American culture into their life. You seem receptive but in a strange way it doesn't show up in your early work. Your paintings, for instance, are European.
Dahn: That has to do with my studies. I studied with Beuys and there was also the influence of Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel at the Düsseldorf academy. When I was eighteen, I was completely impressed by those guys. They were in their mid-twenties. Immendorff was a "star." At this age you're not so open to international art, you just want to work. You see those guys next to Beuys like your heroes.
Prince: That's one thing I noticed going through your catalogues today.
Dahn: It's really something you absorb and after a while it shows up. It has to come out. It's good to get rid of it early on.
Prince: From 1981–84 you were sampling. Looking back, you went through an incredible number of styles of painting very quickly. Still it was your subject matter.
Dahn: And that hasn't changed. Now it seems like a way to move forward is to look back, sometimes to my teens and twenties. I work with memory.
Prince: You certainly have that luxury, the convenience of hindsight. You have enough bodies of work.
Dahn: I'm not sure.
Prince: You've gone through so many changes in something like "look."
Dahn: But the content didn't change.
Prince: And that's what your advantage is now going back and being reminded. You've said that your teachers were a big influence. Who do you think you've influenced?
Dahn: Some friends, maybe. I don't see it in a formalist way. There are other ways of influencing people. If you talk to them, or say: you have to read this book, hear this record, see this movie.
Prince: I was thinking that someone like Donald Baechler may have been influenced by you.
Dahn: I met Donald early, through Georg Dokoupil. We got along very well. We shared an enthusiasm for "outsider art," work of the so-called insane.
Prince: And how do you think that came about? That seems to be what took place in the early eighties as opposed to what was happening in the late seventies. The idea of the outsider, the crazy, is almost a romantic view of who the artist is. As you had said one time, your subject matter is infused with passion. I was always very impressed by your use of the word passion.
Dahn: A very romantic view.
Prince: In a strange way, we both, or, let's say, a lot of artists of our generation, even if they don't want to admit it, share this view.
Prince: What kind of music was there at that time, in 1979?
Dahn: Punk. Then Punk changed and became what we now call New Wave.
Prince: Everybody was picking up a guitar and had a band.
Dahn: We were this group of painters, it was like a band. We went to every concert we could see.
Prince: I think that's the big difference in what came out, the fact that you were receptive to what was going on in the rock and roll music world as opposed to your teachers.
Dahn: Absolutely. Imi and Palermo were influenced by jazz. They would paint and put on Coltrane or Mingus. Palermo was a very open person. He was kind of late beatnik. He read Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. He played lots of black music, I remember, early Bob Marley stuff, Stevie Wonder and jazz, of course.
Prince: You weren't afraid to collaborate in the "Mühlheimer Freiheit"?
Dahn: Not at all. It was a kind of mixture of an insane asylum, kindergarten, and art school.
Prince: And everything was very spontaneous and fast.
Dahn: Fast, very fast. One night I remember I did twenty paintings with Georg and that was that. We had a good sense of time, of rhythm, of speed. You can't say we were punk painters but we had all the records on and got a lot of stimulation and speed from them.
Prince: It seems to me your personalities were more up front and equal to the painting equation. There was always lots of photographing. You'd always be aware of photographs being made of you. And that to me relates to this idea of how album covers are just as important sometimes as the music. You have an album cover of yourself, or yourself with other artists. That seems to be very different from previous generations.
Dahn: We took a different approach, at least we tried to. Sometimes it worked and sometimes the work would look completely shitty, messy and stupid, but still it was honest. We worked with mistakes, tried to switch them around, put them on another level as qualities. Learning by doing.
Prince: So what's the best thing you did between 1981 and 1985?
Dahn: My favorite thing? I don't know. The best thing was probably when I stopped painting as painting and did the first silkscreens.
Prince: And that was when?
Dahn: December, 1984.
Prince: So what about this idea of moving into silkscreen?
Dahn: After my show with Marian Goodman in '84 everybody told me how I worked surfaces so beautifully, blah-blah-blah … a very American approach. I hated those statements. I couldn't relate to them. That was the least I wanted to achieve, nicely worked surfaces in the traditional American sense. I went back to Cologne and I tried to paint again and I just couldn't. I wanted to get the images out that were floating around in my head but I felt I had to find another "technique" for doing things. Something appropriate for my "found drawings."
Prince: Found drawings?
Dahn: Found, yes. Sometimes I forced Georg to do a drawing and I blew it up and painted over it or combined it with something else. A bit later than that I started to do the ones from photographs.
Prince: Basically this is a one time silkscreen deal. It's somehow anti-silk-screen, say as opposed to how Warhol did it.
Dahn: I only did one. Always.
Prince: And then the photographs came in?
Dahn: Yes, I started to go through my "collection" of photographs; things from catalogues, books on anthropology and ethnology, art history, details of paintings, newspapers. I put all that together and screened glass, wood, dirty canvas, even a stone or a briefcase.
Prince: What do you think it is about, sitting here in your studio, and you have an incredible amount of different types of images around from art history, advertising, to art photographs, books on Elvis or African images? What do you think it is, that you are able to incorporate them and not distinguish between them? You're sort of creating your own magazine with your own sections.
Dahn: I seek a certain quality. Of course, you have to be critical. It was important for me to find that there is no high or low culture. Like in your work, Richard, I can see that too. You can transform the low, the most shitty and obvious things, into high quality art, recycle them into an art context where they take on different meanings. Their reception changes, like if I were to produce an image of Elvis next to a white lily. That's my strategy, working with these kinds of mass or working class icons. I show similarities and differences at the same time. After a while I really get absorbed in this kind of psychology, everything becomes meaningful and meaningless at the same time.
Prince: I hear the same and the difference, that's always been very structural to my own work. You organize it in a way in which you find there is a similarity and in that similarity there is a fascination. It becomes a surprise. It's very unreal at first but once you make the connection then it turns into something meaningful. Something meaningless turns into something meaningful. I think it's the turning that's really artistic. One doesn't expect it at first. It's almost like, you were a child and you're struck by it.
Dahn: Or a mad scientist.
Prince: "Mother's in the basement mixin' up the medicine."
Dahn: Yeah, well I'm also "out on the pavement looking for the government."
Prince: Do you read the newspapers?
Dahn: I like the popular ones. I don't read Der Spiegel any more or the Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Prince: Do you watch TV news?
Dahn: I got so sick of TV last year.
Prince: Do you have discussions with other people about politics, what's going on?
Dahn: Almost every day. It's funny, we meet in a cafe around noon, you always find somebody there, you instantly start to talk. Here's where I see a difference from the eighties when everything was very fast and about competition. Now it's more like crossing borders. You're trying to communicate with people you would never have talked to in the eighties. People are starting to talk again without giving up their own ideas. You have to talk about differences, of course, but it's opening up in Cologne right now.
Prince: Open in what way?
Dahn: All of a sudden you find yourself talking to somebody from a different "school of thought," or gallery background, like the old Hetzler-Maenz feud. I had a long talk with Markus Oehlen just recently, who showed with Max. Eight years ago that would be completely unthinkable.
Prince: That's happened to me too.
Dahn: Again artists can share or exchange ideas. It's good to get beyond that threshold. That's how I see it. Not that I want to feel warm and cozy again in a group or family. Definitely not. My work, my everyday life, is communication. It's an exchange of ideas. Even if I'm labeled naive, I couldn't care less. I just want to go on here in Cologne.
Prince: I get the impression, it's probably a wrong impression, certain cities are interchangeable in art. At one time it was Dusseldorf, then Cologne, and now everybody talks about Berlin.
Dahn: I just had a show in Berlin. Things are starting to happen there. Berlin has a lot to offer but I would never move there. To me the city is still so Prussian, you know, really German.
Dahn: I get the feeling there that the pre-war tradition of German Expressionism, of macho-painting, isn't dead yet.
Prince: And what is in your show coming up at the Klein Gallery in Bonn?
Dahn: It's going to be more open. I'm not sure yet.
Prince: But this is coming up Saturday?
Dahn: No, Friday.
Prince: Friday, and you haven't planned it yet?
Dahn: I have certain things in the back of my mind that I want to put there. I'm going to put my objects and photographs together for the first time. But, you know, I always start with the empty space, like a painter still. I see the whole space as an empty canvas where I have to find the right place for the right thing. Sometimes it's crowded, and sometimes it's empty, and then you find something here, or over there, just like here in my studio. I need three or four days to 'paint' with these things, to build up relationships.
Prince: So nothing is really finished before you go in.
Dahn: There are things made, but I never know where they are going to end up or even if they're going to be in the show.
Prince: Things can change, physically change?
Dahn: First I put in a lot of material and then I'm open to taking things out until I'm satisfied.
Prince: That's strange.
Dahn: It's not so strange. I can't work any another way these days. I'm a fluxus artist, don't forget, ha.
Prince: Before I ask you about the music, you mentioned your relationships. I don't know if you want to talk about them?
Dahn: We can talk about them, as long as I can find the right words in English.
Prince: Are you living with anybody now?
Dahn: No, but I fell in love just the other day. It's true. I didn't expect it at all.
Prince: And this someone is from Cologne?
Dahn: Yes, she's an artist too. It's all so new.
Prince: Is she in love with you?
Dahn: I hope so.
Prince: You have a child, right?
Dahn: Yes, Felix, he's four and a half.
Prince: Did that affect you?
Dahn: More than anything else. How can I describe it? Anything I say would sound too obvious. It changes your view of the world.
Prince: Of all the artists I've known, and do know, that have a relationship with music, you seem to be the only person who really does it on both levels,where it's just as important.
Dahn: Definitely. We just made our fifth music video and I'm happy we were on MTV.
Prince: When you started your band, music videos didn't really exist. Music has become something visual, totally different than, let's say, how one represents oneself on what was once an album cover. Now you wouldn't think of not making a visual presentation in music. But still either the music's there or it's not.
Dahn: I think people in the music industry take more care about these things today, and the audience as well. I still buy some records just because of the sleeve.
Prince: That's why I bought the first Smiths's album, only because of the album cover. It's like, if they know this then they might know something else. It gets back to the way you said you want to communicate. It's very difficult to be specific about how you do that but there is a way in which you communicate and share. There are experiences simply by being musical or being visual. It's not like a secret language. And it's not like sign language either.
Dahn: Very direct. If they know about Warhol movies …
Prince: They know enough to put that image out.
Dahn: Music video now is very much influenced by photography, maybe even by your work.
Prince: I lived with this woman who made the first Smiths video. That was the very first music video that I thought was really out there. She had never even met the band. She used existing footage of the band and other types of things like out of focus black-and-white super 8 and mixed it all together. That was the starting point for this kind of look.
Dahn: Now you find it everywhere, also in a lot of M.O.R. music videos.
Prince: My impression when I first heard your music was how incredibly upfront rock and roll it was and also, I could have heard it and said: here's another American bar band, that's how back the beat was, and how strong. It wasn't like some kind of flaky Italian or French rock-and-roll. It was rock-and-roll.
Dahn: We could have played every American bar, I tell you.
Prince: You could have gone on the road and played the bars in Maine and New Hampshire.
Dahn: And we would rock the house. We were so completely into it.
Prince: The "Drive" song from your new CD "Let It Come Down" has that impact.
Dahn: Is this becoming a rock-and-roll interview now? I feel like I'm talking to Rolling Stone. A whole bunch of cliches, but okay. Yes, we are really tight. My singing, my voice is getting better. At first I couldn't stand it but now I can listen to it and say, this take here is cool, or let's do an overdub there.
Prince: How do you react to the people who resist the thought that you can have two working levels? I'm sure you don't care that they cop this attitude that, well, he's into his rock and roll now, and no matter what he puts in his shows, I can't take that seriously now. Do you find you get that flack?
Dahn: I feel that flack but it's slowly changing now. I did a couple of shows that must have been surprising to some people. Shows where I, like Joseph Beuys said, "showed my wound."
Prince: People want to pin you down when they collect you. They shouldn't collect an object. They should collect you.
Dahn: And that would include the band. I'm at the point now where the band is catching up to my art and it's good for my art. I feel good when I come out of the recording studio. There were a lot of preoccupations because of this whole hobby bullshit, you know, a successful artist, or a movie actor, living out a rock and roll dream. I got that a million times and it was really hard but now I feel accepted on both levels.
Prince: Let's say a rock and roller of well known status or a movie director suddenly has a show of art work, you know …
Dahn: Yeah, yeah, "Joni Mitchell: Recent Paintings."
Prince: That is never, ever tolerated or accepted. Or someone like David Lynch, he's very serious about his work, his drawings.
Dahn: I know.
Prince: I think there's a strong prejudice against this.
Dahn: But funny enough, I do like his paintings. I have a feeling it's a little bit easier crossing from painter to guitarist than from guitarist or movie star to painter.
Prince: I wouldn't have any problem, for instance, with Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] having a show because of the type of music she does. Or Thurston Moore, if he suddenly started painting, I'd check it out and I wouldn't have that kind of ingrown impatience. I wouldn't be thinking about my tolerance.
Dahn: It would be very different in the case of John Cougar Mellencamp.
Prince: Exactly, or Bruce Springsteen.
Dahn: Imagine that!
Prince: Even Bob Dylan paints. Joni fuckin' Mitchell paints all the time but why wouldn't we have any problem with, say, Thurston Moore?
Dahn: It's a generation thing. Musicians and artists have more in common now. Like with Kim Gordon, we definitely draw upon similar sources. We share perhaps a couple of ideas and issues more than say with Mitchell or Mellencamp. Do you think Mike Kelley or Richter would do their album covers?
Prince: A couple of years ago, I had this really strange feeling, will he, you, be welcomed back into the art world?
Dahn: You're right in a way. I was kind of out.
Prince: I have to put it specifically. It was about a welcoming. Will he be welcomed back? I think a lot of people thought they had lost you to the music world?
Dahn: That might be the case.
Prince: And you still get a charge out of putting together visual art shows?
Dahn: Absolutely, much more than a year or two ago. I'm really more absorbed and obsessed with my visual work these days. I really do want to put out the best I can. I've become more and more aware of the rules and regulations of the music context. I use some of those experiences. For instance, I've translated some of my "conceptual coolness" and detachment into the making of the records, which I think is needed if you don't want to be just a stupid rock-and-roller who beats the shit out of himself and the audience. On the other hand, the music gives me the ability to see through and find out what I don't want from the art scene. I see so many problems there that are definitely not mine.
Prince: Would you ever want to make a movie?
Dahn: I'm ready. But maybe before that or parallel to that, I would do music for films. It's looking like that will happen in 1994, soundtracks and scores.
Prince: But the idea of making a whole movie, would you be interested in directing, writing?
Dahn: Not directing, acting. I'd make a good actor, don't you think? What's interesting about this again is that it's a completely childish dream. But I want to fulfill it anyway. It sounds completely naive if you say you want to be an actor and you want to make movies but I have this funny sincerity incorporated inside of me. I honestly do. So maybe I should go to L.A. and hang out.
Prince: Hang out at Duke's coffee shop and get discovered.
Dahn: Small parts like Chris Isaak in the movie "Twin Peaks," or a Tom-Waits-type character.
Prince: Waits is an interesting example of someone who definitely is accepted as an actor.
Dahn: A good actor and singer. His last video "Bone Machine" should be in MOMA's film and video collection.
Prince: One would describe him as a sort of marginal character but that's interesting, his marginality. The fact that he exists on the outskirts. It's not like being a superstar, and not even really a star but like being a sub-star.
Dahn: Seems very appealing to me too. That's also the point where people get nervous because you're doing something that they might be dreaming of themselves and all of a sudden you're there in the record shop, the video shop and the major museums.
Prince: What has happened is that you've definitely become what I term "Mainstream Cult," although that's a contradiction of terms. It's sort of how I describe someone like Vito Acconci. He's no longer cult; he's Mainstream Cult.
Dahn: But does that mean that some sort of edge and quality gets lost?
Prince: No, no.
Dahn: Do you see Mainstream Cult as a completely new value in art history?
Prince: I see the idea of being "MC" as a new position in how an artist functions in society. It's no longer like he is a complete outsider, yet he maintains one foot in the door and one foot out.
Dahn: I accept that description because it is definitely the way it functions in my everyday life. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I spend more time in the bars and cafes hanging with musicians and writers than here in my studio.
Prince: I think your being associated with "MC" lends you an amazing amount of freedom.
Dahn: That kind of freedom can also lead to big tension. It can drive you crazy at times, like waking up and asking yourself, what day is today, what the fuck am I doing, where do I belong?
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.