How I came to the color white. An interview by: Ulrike Lehmann

Leo Erb: In the beginning I studied graphics with Joseph Wack, the father of Mrs Wack, my current gallery director. In addition, I learned how to create perspective and work with shadowing effects. This is a white matter. Structure is nowhere more strongly contained than in white. Light and shadow have great plasticity. So I began to work with the plastic form.

I always admired de Chirico and his paintings of train stations. They were so quiet, and I love the silence. Since I did not want to become an imitator, I searched and found my way even in the shadow of construction in the kinetics and shape. If you put two cubes one upon the other, this creates a shadow, and new forms. This aroused the basic- constructivist in me. Because I have worked only in structural and light to reach plasticity of form, I did not use any color. Color, did not provide depth and also color did not interest me. Enough plasticity in the shade structure was available. I preferred the plasticity. This is no abstraction, that is pure poetry.

When looking at the "The endless staircase (monument to Ernst Bloch)" by Max Bill in front of the Wilhelm-Hack-Museum :

I'm for the systematic, but with poetry or philosophy. The Systematic without poetry is not art. I wanted to write books, but then I thought, writing books need a lot of time ...

Ulrike Lehmann: How did you come to work with lines?

It was through the letter that I was inspired in lines. The line is the image carrier of the Scriptures. In some of my works scriptures can be found. I have written documents for the Clergy, night after night.

One day I was so tired of writing that I stopped to write and I just made use of the line. The line was for me the pictorial means. 1968 is the book "Vie et mort de la ligne" originated - shortly after the death of my wife, who was run over by a locomotive, and in the year of the revolt in Paris, I've written this book. As a German, one could not be seen to print such books. So I looked for a printer and met an Englishman who lent us a printing press. Within four weeks we have printed the book. At “documenta 6” Kassel 1977, curated by Manfred Scneckenburger, the book was released.

How did you decide which materials to work with?

I had studied the Johannes Itten Bauhaus design and form teachings ‘Ittensche’ learning about working with specific materials. I had no money and had to look for material, what I could find at no cost.

In the West Palatinate Printing company, St. Ingbert, I could use paper as much as I wanted and pictorial work. I have bent paper, torn - there are many ways you can tear paper. You can stick it, crumple or saw it - this I learned from Max Ernst works on paper.

You see, it has now become plastic. If you tear a piece of paper and imagine something else, the front appears whiter than the other as childhood memories are awakened…

Which memories?

Every child has learned paper Mache at school. We have torn it, cooked it and made stuck it to figures, like Kasper heads. What other memories are there?

My father beat me once at five years of age. This has irritated me for all my life. He has not apologized to me and he disinherited me. Then one day came someone from my family and purchased a piece of art for DM120,000! You see, since then it was settled. But that has nothing to do with your art?

Yes and no. My father broke and burned my art.

You were grown up when you began as artist?

He broek my art objects with an axe and burned them when I was 50 years old.

Nevertheless, I have done more, not let myself be browbeaten. My father wanted to be an artist and he did not achieve this.

In Bad Godesberg he worked as a servant to the Count. In the Nazi war period, he had to work as a welder, which annoyed him.

During the war I spent some time in Russia. Then I was at the Leuna Works near Merseburg, which Helmut Kohl later sold to the French. They had produced gasoline from coal and rubber.

We have obscured the air view of the plant, 30 square kilometers of defense in white. We were able therefore to protect the Leuna plant from air strikes as they were not able to find it.

An Acidic fog was used everything was white, completely white. Only the leaves on the trees became brown, caused from the acid.

In Russia, I froze my feet. Everything was white and minus 30 degrees.

When were you there?

1942/43 I was in Russia and for half a year in Merseburg. I did not notice when the war ended. For two years I was in the military.

You were first at the air defense and then in Russia?

No. I was in Czechoslovakia, in Olomouc in the army barracks. There I had my room painted white.

"Himself a man and sends the others not moving forth". This and other sayings I have written, adorned with ribbons and hung by the door of my captain. That is why I was sent to Russia. And you know how I came out of Russia?

I said the first war we have won and this war we are winning to. This statement meant the disintegration of military power. I have been sent to the Leuna factory and worked in the air defense, a separate department 1943/44.

Then I was in Bretzenheim in starvation camp. Then I painted the Americans, this way I didn’t starve. There I also painted the vineyard views and with fascination viewed the lines in the mountains.

What happened next?

After my stay in Bretzenheim I was billeted with a doctor in Langenlonsheim.

One day an American came and introduced me to a girl, an artist from Sieben­gebirge (the Seven Mountains). She sat at the window and cut cards with a scalpel for the American. As the paper leaped, it 'clicked for me'. I have mastered this method and in the late '40s scratched with a scalpel in wood and paper, such was my beginning with paper cut art.

After the war I returned home, to Saarbrücken. There, the French reopened the College of Arts and Crafts, which had been closed by the Nazis. Kuhns from Ludwigshafen and Frans Masareel were the most popular teachers there.

The students who had not been killed during the war, stood again. I formed a new group ‘ The New Group Saar’. I wanted to catch up the lost time, but that does not work. That cannot be done. Time that has passed is lost, you can no longer catch it up.

The 'New Group Saar' I founded with Professor Boris Kleint. Then the group Zero came about co-founded by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene. We began to exhibit together.

Where was your first solo exhibition?

1957 in Saarbrücken, in the gallery Elitz. The newspaper editorial heading read “ A Moonstruck exhibits”

Why did they write that?

I do not know why, Journalists come to every conclusion. My exhibition was a great success. The people came to look at the moon addicts. My wife once said; “The more negative journalists give critique, the more success you will have”.

When did you go to Paris?

1960 “We are nobody” I said. And we must abide by Goethe, "With small you will remain small with the tall you are growing tall", said Goethe. Therefore we focused on the greater ones. In Paris I met, Max Ernst and Picasso.

In 1975 I went back to Germany, because my children had their high school and wanted to study in Germany. As an artist, and this is very important, we must have a background. If you stay in France, nobody knows you. Picasso has done everything he could do. He has been lucky and was promoted in Germany.

How did you come to the kinetic objects?

I was in Paris with Michel Seuphor. This was the man of kinetic art at the Center Co-Mo, an Institute of Concrete and Constructive Art.

My children had a hamster, and with whom I did an experiment.

I've done it in a box, with stretched fabric. From the outside you could see the hamster movements that took place under the fabric. But my children said, the French were the animal-loving people. So I created a small engine stretched on wooden reels.

Also in your private apartment and the studio is all white - the furniture, utensils, equipment, and the walls. They dress in white, driving a white car and the summer flowers in the front garden only bloom in white.

Through the Bauhaus teaching I encountered white furniture, which are still in my apartment. There is no color that is more colored than white. I feel freer than anywhere in the white. I gave my wife always white flowers. And have also accepted. Sometimes, very secretly, she bought yellow tulips ... My heart is white and beats on the left.

What have you wished for your 80th Birthday?

A shaving brush and a sensible woman, so it will continue.

And what do you wish for your art?

That I still have much to invent. Art is invention, and nothing more. An artist must be an inventor. Have a look at the kinetic objects that I was an inventor of ...

The interview was conducted on the following dates: 24.9. 2002, 19 1. and 20 1. 2003