by Maria Doubrovskaia and Andra Bilici
Artist and architect, Caspar Baum is in possession of a rare gift: the ability to approach the world from the standpoint of two disciplines at once. It is not uncommon for architects to excel at drawing: Le Corbusier’s sketchbooks, for example, display artistry as well as excellent craftsmanship. Some artists choose architecture as their primary subject. The eighteenth-century artist Giovanni Piranesi was a trained architect, but ultimately his vision was that of an artist. His body of work culminated in the well-known “Carceri” etchings: a series of dark improvisations on the theme of architecture. However beautiful Le Corbusier’s drawings and impressive the architectural fantasies of Piranesi, both stayed within the parameters of their chosen art, using the language of the other discipline to develop their own.
Caspar Baum is a different type of artist. Equally passionately involved in his work as a painter and an architect, Baum uses these two disciplines as two modalities of exploration. Three-dimensional structures offer the opportunity to explore space, light, and color as functional environments. His drawings and paintings investigate the aesthetic capabilities of these elements in two-dimensions.
On a sunny day in February, Agora’s Andra Bilici met with Caspar Baum at his studio in Athens, Greece to discuss Caspar’s life and career in art, his perspective on the relationship between his two occupations and his love of travel.
How do you successfully reconcile and practice architecture and painting? How do you do it?
Space connects both disciplines. I find that the core element of architecture is space: a functional space and an aesthetic space. Also in art, there is always an intellectual space. Even if it’s two-dimensional: a painting on the wall. Wherever the art is exhibited, there is an intellectual space. You can see that a lot of different artworks look very different in different spaces. It makes a big difference if the space is big or small, if there is a lot or little light. So for me, this mix makes it much richer. As an architect, you understand the space better – perspective, constructional space. As an artist, you work much more with the sensorial experience of the surface, color, of the haptic value of something that you can touch. I believe that for me this is the biggest connection. I used to also do stage architecture, which is almost the transition from real space into virtual space.
Have you ever designed a house and then decorated it with your artworks?
I haven’t. I have worked on projects where later they would ask me if I would be interested to sell them my artwork. Actually, this happened in a big building in Athens. But the house was not created for the art. What I would love to do is to design a space for a specific work of art.
Do you prefer classical architecture or minimalism?
I prefer the minimalist style, like Japanese or Scandinavian architecture, or the bungalow style with glass, and wood, and stone. Outside Copenhagen, there is a museum, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, that influenced me a lot. It has the best Giacometti collection in the world. This museum is basically built around art. So they have certain sculptures or sketches in spaces that interact with nature. There is glass that plays with light. I think that’s very interesting. In Houston, there is another museum-the Menil Collection- with a great Cy Twombly collection, also built around the art. The building is built around the paintings, which I find fascinating, yes.
Aside from the obvious difference between art and architecture, are there any other distinctions between the kind of space that you create as an architect versus a painter?
Yes, for example, I think a virtual space is very interesting. In art, you can create virtual space. Look at my paintings: they have different layers and deep space. In art, you can open the constructed space into a virtual reality space. In the Baroque times, they call that Trompe-l’œil. It is kind of like almost a semi-sculptural space that is enclosed, and then, usually, you can see a garden beyond it, through openings in the walls, doorways, terraces, or windows. In art, you can also create an experience of the material, for example, when you look at Japanese art. I am very fascinated by the way material is treated in Japanese art. For instance, they use a certain paper which has a specific material quality, and when they put it on a wall or put it in a building they actually use it to cover the building. So, they might have a very minimalistic building and then the art on the wall provides the decoration. In Arabic art, there is a similar idea, but they use carpets to cover brick walls. In principle, it is an extension of the real space into a different material, which is sometimes an artwork. That’s why I find that the architectural space versus artificial space has a very interesting contrast. Currently, I have an idea to do an exhibition with only one big painting in a limited space.
I see that you are traveling a lot due to the nature of your work. What is the relationship between travel and art for you? Have the places that you saw influenced you? Do you have works inspired by Europe?
Yes. So, I have works inspired by Greece, especially by ancient Greek architecture. I did a show in Athens almost twenty years ago with only paintings of ancient temples, very large paintings. I was very lucky because most of them are actually in various collections in Athens. Then, I also did works about Gothic architecture. I was very inspired by the Gothic churches of France, Germany, and the cathedrals which are very vertical, with lots of light coming through these vertical structures. I think travel and different cultures are extremely important for artists unless you make very introverted art or very esoteric art, like a monk. It is important for architects too. Travel exposes you to different perspectives on things and different light, different colors, different cultures.
Recently, I have been working on some new pieces which I haven’t shown yet. What I find interesting is how life changes, and how it influences the way people change. I find that we live in a very difficult period. People are permanently globally connected. But as a result, they are losing more and more of their individuality, becoming too drawn into and influenced by the internet. I value friendship and good friends very much, and I see a lot of people around me who are depressed. In recent times depression, disappointment, uncertainty about targets and focus in life are very common. I try, with a lot of sketches and other work, to translate that into art. I want to depict this change in life, this change in people, in my art. You start to see life changing for the worse, and the change inspires you to make art because ultimately art is a reflection of inspiration and ideas. At the moment, I am trying to figure out how I can do this. I have tried to work with dark colors or with a bit of contrast between dark and light. The other thing which I do is to study in depth, so for example, for the last two-three years, I have been really into Asian culture. I studied Asian culture. I learned, for example, that in traditional Asian culture paintings are not put on the wall. They are either decorative elements or they are kept in drawers. When you want to see a painting you have to open the drawer. You basically take out the painting to have a look at the painting. So, you focus on one particular painting at a time, which I find very interesting.
This is really different from how we look at art in the Western culture.
Yes, exactly, yes. Very different. When I spent a lot of time in Italy, I spent some time in a German monastery in Venice. I was able to see Venice at all times of the year. I was very much influenced by different kinds of artmaking. In old Venetian schools (“scuole”) art was more like a technique. So they would have big studios with employees. People would be very specialized in something, for example, in the color blue, or they would have a specialist in the color red, or they would have a specialist who would work with gold and high-value metals in the color. The painting would be a combination of different people working on one painting and the master would supervise the painting. Tiepolo, for example, had almost an industrial production of paintings for big churches all over Europe. So then, this philosophy gets very much into what I am doing at this moment. It influences my work and for a certain time period, I’m trying to focus on this specific influence.
Do you have a specific series that you created or one work that you consider your favorite?
Yes, the Gothic Visions exhibition in a museum in Germany. I showed huge drawings. These are like seven-eight meters long and about two-three meters high. They are very much influenced by Gothic architecture. For me, this was one of the most intensive phases of my life. They are huge, really some of them only three people can carry them. Then I did this in charcoal and pencil.
Then I did oil paintings based on drawings and then they became more and more abstract. For example, there is one which is basically the view into the tower of a church. I was very lucky, I got a big studio next to one of these Gothic cathedrals. I would go to work every day in the cathedral and work on these large scale drawings. So this was the most intense period for me.
Are these all sold? Or do you keep one? It’s your favorite and you didn’t keep one.
Yes. They’re all gone. I have one or two left. But the majority is gone.
Is there a question that you wanted to answer but nobody ever asked you about your art?
It’s funny, I’ve always had difficulties talking about my art because in art you always start in one place but end up in a completely different place. It’s like that with architecture as well. You have a different idea and then it develops, and you find new things on the way, and end up somewhere else. And the ending can be better or worse than the beginning. For me, it was always very difficult to answer what I am showing in my art and actually, I often don’t like to talk about what I am feeling and why I’m painting. I prefer that people experience art for themselves. But, interestingly enough, no one has ever asked me why I paint. I could be making music or sculpture. Why painting? I don’t know. I often ask myself. Maybe it’s because when I was a child my parents took me to museums a lot. You travel and then you go to the museums. Normally, kids hate that. I was always fascinated by painting. I always found oil painting fascinating. The different colors, the textures, the mixing of color, especially in some of the very big late Medieval and Baroque paintings. Most probably, I always thought that it’s something you can learn. I always liked sketching. I can’t be without having a pencil or sketching. For me, it is the nicest activity. Painting, doing art, being creative is meditation. I love paper. I love different pencils, different media on different papers or canvas. It is a very sensitive process of doing art.
You mentioned opera. Do you have a favorite opera?
Yes, I do. Yes, it’s a modern opera. I used to work with a composer, Hans Werner Henze. He has passed away. But he was a contemporary music composer. He wrote a lot of operas. My first real access to active theater work, where I was as a stage architect, was called König Hirsch (The Stag King). That was in Stuttgart. For me, it was a turning point in my art career because we worked in the opera and the opera is a fairytale in the forest. It’s beautiful. It’s romantic, with modern music and modern instruments. There are also ballet scenes. So I got access to the Stuttgart ballet which is quite famous. They asked me if I could do some drawings of each of the ballet dancers. This was a huge project for the whole ballet. They gave me a month to make big drawings of the ballet dancers, which I did. I received an award for it. I started to do a lot of the sketching and drawing in the theater. I spent a lot of time in the theater. It almost became my studio. Many people don’t like opera, but you need to have access to it. For me, opera is something between reality and theater. It’s something that’s carrying you away and…
Do you listen to opera when you create?
Yes, a lot. Permanently, I actually almost only work with music. So, I have two very big spots for music – opera and specific opera. I very much like modern and contemporary opera, for example, by Henze. I also like late eighteenth century opera and I like Russian piano music. I like Shostakovich: all this fully passionate music. I’m working a lot. I would say am very hard working in my art. I produce all the time. Energetic music provides very good support. I’m also not working long. What I do is work for four or five hours a day in a very concentrated way and then maybe I do technical work, like preparing canvas or buying things I need. I have a very intensive work window. I cannot be disturbed, very concentrated. When I see that it doesn’t work, I just stop and then wait for another day. That’s how I produce. I produce a lot of work. I’m not sure if it’s good or not good but it’s what I like.
You say that in your paintings you are influenced by the light and structure of objects. When looking at your work, darkness not light is the prominent subject. Certainly, your interest in light differs from that of the Impressionists for example. What does the relationship between light and darkness mean for you as a painter? If there’s a symbolic aspect to this relationship?
It depends on where I am. In Greece, there is a lot of light. For example, when I was working in Greece, a lot of my work you saw in the studio, the garden, the structures were very much illuminated. There was a lot of light on the objects. When you travel in Asia, particularly in the tropical landscape, become very interesting at night. They’re not illuminated but they themselves illuminate. If you look at this painting, you can see, the background is dark but the nature reveals itself through its color. There’s no light on it, it’s just its own color. The works selected for the exhibition at Agora all have a dark background. The color of the nature is on a dark background. When you look into a tropical forest, the first thing you see is the dark. The tropical is so dense, it’s dark and then you see the different greens, colors of flowers, of animals. I find darkness inspiring because it’s by far more sensitive. It isolates the elements in a sensitive way. When you look in old churches, in particular, the late Renaissance churches and Gothic cathedrals, you see that in the majority it is dark. So you will see a dark background and everything that you want to crystalized comes to the foreground. It’s the process of painting reversed! You paint dark behind and then you move with the color towards the front, to the front layer. So this is how I am working in the majority of the paintings we are showing in New York. In the majority of those paintings, I have been working from the background to the front.
Then, in the end, you can see that there are these little white or light green spots, which crystalize closest to you. It’s very different from nature that we see here, particularly in the Mediterranean area. When you look at the olive trees in the wind, when they move, they get this silver-green color. It’s just illuminated by the sun. Whereas, in Asian landscape paintings, it’s actually very much by itself illuminated.
Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Center Stage and Artist Techniques categories.
Caspar Baum’s works will be on view at Agora Gallery from May 11 through May 31, 2019. You can view more of his works on ARTmine.