LEGIONNAIRES OF COLOR

Curiosity drove me to ask Adam about the slides he had sent to me in Berlin in 1996 to apply for the university. Looking at them again, I was surprised by their presence and clarity. The icy blue and warm ochre could have come from a current watercolor. Is it possible that every new good picture that a painter creates shows the old ones in a better light—and the other way around too? I remembered Adam's early work as lighter, softer, and more atmospheric. At that time, I was impressed by the consistency with which he was able to imaginatively cast a formal idea into a series of 24 images. Well, some have it—some don't. Then a polite young man arrived from the Danish capital to introduce himself. I had already decided to accept him into my class. Throughout my many years of teaching, students from Scandinavia always enjoyed a special status. More on that later.

After a long and deliberate period of reflection, and sporadic attempts at writing or written interpretation, I know now what can be said and what can't, and I also know what I can't explain, but understand. I want to write this text now without a whole lot of fuss or fanfare.

In painting, too, every brushstroke must be set down correctly. Some things call for sober consideration, but the moment a decision is made, the peacock spreads his magnificent violet fan with masterful authority. Without the color violet, Adam's watercolors would not be so close to the end of all things.

Postcard-sized photographic prints of his watercolors lie spread out on a long table. In the last few days, they have become familiar acquaintances, and I have sorted them into groups according to formal criteria, color themes, and content. In doing this, I discovered enchanting couples, quartets; some have remained attractive singles, and for others I couldn't find a fourth card by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, I muse over and over again, looking at it this way the entire group becomes a vast story, seemingly without beginning or end—a dream game of cards that must have come into being through a great deal of water flowing through the paintbrush, and a great deal of blood through the veins.

It is high time to continue writing, but still I hesitate, gaze at the photos, and think about the utter lack of peace on our planet. Its inmates, in their unfulfilled desire, are betrayed and sold without mercy. 

The glossy surfaces of the photographs seem to transform themselves suddenly into dangerously shimmering chemical substances. Fleeing to my desk, I hear beguiling voices, "Play with us, play with us, please don't leave us alone." Numbed, I sit there holding three cards in my left hand. The neon light has stopped humming; it has become hard to breathe. I follow the game absently. The little foreign legionnaire in one of them beats the drum, or perhaps he is actually holding a paintbrush, and the drum is a painting…with his violet uniform he wouldn't survive a battle—he'd be shot down like a golden hare. On the other card, I can trust only the blue on the lower edge. As I look at the third card, the breath slowly flows back into my body. I want to start writing, but an iron hand grips my pen—tiny color particles flutter down from the butterfly wing on the man's tattooed chest and onto my white sheet of paper. As if of their own accord, letters take shape and I recognize the word "Papillon." The faces of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman emerge in irreal shades of color.

The wondrous color vision has disappeared, the three picture cards are no longer in my hand, only the pen scratches on the paper softly. I am alone with the white page.

A clear, blue morning sky shines over Berlin and I sense a deep, blue watercolor-sea. My thoughts are drawn to Iceland: sailors dressed the way we used to recognize seamen, cross a small square. They carry a heavy anchor and its long chain on their shoulders. In the distance, a three-masted sailboat is on a course heading directly toward me.

In painting, Adam creates a device for night-vision in order to recover mysterious, contemplative images from the darkness of forgetting, to keep them alive and transform them into paintings.

He often visits me in my studio. I visit him when new pictures are finished or just before they leave his studio. He works in the day, I in the night. After the work is done, he likes to come over for tea for an hour or two. He always brings along a piece of cake and often something to show—the draft for the cover of an art magazine, a new drawing, or an art book that has just been published.

Adam is an unusual worker. He possesses a calm discipline and is completely unpretentious in the creation of his objects. He has a clear, good mind. His comments on my pictures are important to me, I often solicit them. Our friendship is rooted in art, in painting and in all the themes and uncertainties connected with the aesthetic life. I love his humor, his laugh is like that of a faun. What people like about each other has nothing to do with the rationales of dutiful explanation—through these, love suffers, and so does painting.

Let an idea be what it will—whoever fails to empathize with the confluence of thousands and millions of color particles that adhere to a sheet of paper in the wake of water bound with gum arabic, glycerin, honey and oxgall may easily suffer aesthetic shipwreck. If you set a watercolor up at an angle to soak up excess water with an absorbent paintbrush, an ocean can tilt sideways and whole continents can sink. Brute violence and the utmost tenderness mark the sensibility of the true adventurer of color. At incomprehensible sizes and in nearly invisible things a universal fate is revealed—even on one sheet of paper. This is how we talk, this is how our discussions go.

We still have a project before us: a walk together from my Kreuzberg studio to the Paris Bar in Charlottenburg. It's a good thing Adam doesn't give up. The thought of Charlottenburg suddenly reminds me that now Adam lives there, near where I was born, where I took my first steps, right next to Savignyplatz. In 1941, the bombs were slowly beginning to fall on Berlin. My mother and I moved East to the Oderbruch to live with relatives in the countryside. In February 1945 we fled back to Berlin from the advancing Russian troops. The sirens were howling, the bombs falling. With my grandmother, I ran into the closest air-raid cellar. Everything around us seemed to be exploding, there was a deafening thunder, the cellar was shaken in its very foundations. The walls stood at dangerous angles, you couldn't see anything for the dust. The air cleared again, but the dull fear remained.

In the summer of 1959, I sat on a train to Swedish Lapland. In Berlin, the vestiges of war had still not been overcome, the damage to the people and their city was immeasurable. What once had been a center of European life was now the vast, empty desert of Potsdamer Platz, a place where wild rabbits hopped among the weeds. In the morning, I reached Stockholm and visited the Moderna Museet. At twilight, I boarded the train for Gällivare. From that point on, it didn't become dark anymore. The space expanded, and for the first time I saw nature in its purest state. This trip to Lapland always seems to me like the construction of an unknown happiness. 

On Devil's Island in French Guyana, a white-haired man, grown old before his time and with a butterfly tattooed on his chest, watches the rhythm of the tides closely. He has built two rafts made of sacks filled with coconuts. The hour of his escape is at hand. Dega hesitates: "You'll die, Papillon!" The friends embrace in parting. Papillon leaps, an insane fall into the crashing surf below. Using his arms and legs to paddle the raft forward, he reaches the open sea, and floats away to freedom.

Bernd Koberling