LOS ANGELES — It is clear that a wry way of looking at the world — and at his own work — is the norm for Roger Herman, whom I met (pre-pandemic) at his home and studio in the Solano Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. For decades, he has been a central member of the LA art community, and an influential teacher to generations of students in the painting department of the University of California, Los Angeles.
He is also warm and gracious. At one point in our conversation, he suddenly stops talking to ask if I’m getting hungry. He then sets out a table full of perfect snacks — slices of papaya with lemon, soft cheese, locally baked olive bread, and European butter.
Herman’s work bears the pleasant contradictions of his personality: there’s a bad-boy coolness to some of his early, massively scaled paintings, which are derived from art historical sources or photographs of interiors and facades of seemingly unpopulated buildings. But he also approaches more intimate media — painted books, posters, and works on paper — with palpable curiosity and whole-hearted color. His ceramic vessels, which he began making in the 2000s, are playful and sensual — and not simply because they are often painted with over-the-top erotic imagery.
He lives with his wife, photographer Eika Aoshima, in a home that he helped to design and build in the 1980s, a dramatic modernist structure with clean lines and plywood floors, incorporating indoor and outdoor passageways and working spaces. Nestled in a lush garden, a work table in a circular stone patio is laden with T-shirts painted with colorful skulls and grid forms as they dry in the sunlight. His indoor studio contains a mix of older paintings, paintings-in-progress, and shelving built to hold hundreds of his ceramics. Stacks and shelves full of books, paintings, and ceramics by his friends, colleagues, and students, collected over the years, are spread throughout the living spaces.
Herman was born in 1947 in Saarbrücken, Germany, and educated in Karlsruhe. He moved to California in 1977. In the 1980s he was shown by Gagosian Gallery and positioned as a West Coast Neo-Expressionist. He has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and the Museo del Arte Contemporana, Mexico City. He had numerous solo exhibitions with ACE Gallery, Los Angeles, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, before showing with ACME and then Richard Telles Fine Art. He has also exhibited with Jack Hanley Gallery, New York, and Carpenters Workshop Gallery in New York and London, where he is currently the subject of an online exhibition. Herman’s work is also now on view in a three-person exhibition at Praz-Delavallade Los Angeles through September 5, 2020.
Jennifer Samet: Can you tell me about your background, growing up in Germany, and how you started making art?
Roger Herman: I am from Saarbrücken, Germany, which is on the French border. I have both worlds in me. I spoke French and went to a French school. But when I started to live in the States, I became German. You look for an identity somewhere.
When I was 10, my father died. My mother died when I was 19. I grew up a little bit under the tutelage of my uncle. He was a lawyer, and he said, “You should be a lawyer; it’s great.” So I studied law and politics for three years or so. I would tell him, “Heinz, I would really love to be an artist.” I used to build things, and I painted. He would hand me a piece of paper and say, “Just draw me a poodle.”
Well, I couldn’t draw a poodle. It’s not so easy. I have no talent whatsoever in that way. I was so humiliated. It took forever, but eventually I failed miserably in law school. In Germany, the good thing is that universities are free. I studied in law school for four years, then took a year off, and then spent five years studying art. I went to art school when I was already 26, and I was about 30 or 31 when I finished.
I always had doubts, and I was always winging it. I would try different things out. I’m also very influenced by art history, and I come from a real painter’s tradition: I went to art school at the Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsruhe, with really conservative painters. Georg Baselitz and Marcus Lüpertz taught there. In some ways, it wasn’t a good choice for me, and I wanted to go to the Düsseldorf Art Academy. I was so impressed by artists like Sigmar Polke and Jörg Immendorff. I would dare to do funny things and my teachers would say, “You are not in Düsseldorf.”
Karlsruhe was a very traditional school, and it has stayed in me — this kind of basic painting, where I am looking for an essence that’s really not there anymore. However, it’s very traditional to look for it. What is left if that essence is not there? Irony? I appreciated that quality in an artist like Martin Kippenberger. But his art is related to his personality. When my students try to imitate Kippenberger, I say, “It looks easy, but there is a complex, difficult personality at work.” He was very smart and witty, and there was a drive that came from a totally cynical place.
When I came to the United States, I loved Clyfford Still; I loved de Kooning. I loved all the Abstract Expressionists. But I never thought that was a valid path for me either. That machismo is not really in me. I was doubtful of it. However, I also never went the other way — into the ironic.
JS: What led you to move to California?
RH: My former girlfriend, Susan Wood, who is the mother of our daughter Jessika, is from the Bay Area. I came to visit while I was still in art school. Then I applied for a DAAD grant to study abroad. I really went with the wind, thinking how I loved San Francisco because it looked like Europe. I knew the art of Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. That was the basis of my application. I came to San Francisco, but it turned out Diebenkorn was living in Los Angeles and David Park was dead and I was just stuck with the Funk artists, who I never understood: like William Wiley and Roy De Forest.
I thought San Francisco was the Beatniks, the Hells Angels, the Black Panther political movement. But when I was there, it was just a bunch of hippies smoking pot. I lived in a commune, and I became a punk, because I didn’t want to be part of Berkeley.
From 1977 to 1981, I lived in Berkeley and Oakland. We had a little thing going with artist-run spaces like A.R.E., Jetwave, Valencia Tool and Die, and The A-Hole Gallery. They were music and performance-oriented. It was like a fishbowl; we would all go around and meet up in those spaces.
JS: Did this disillusionment with San Francisco lead you to move to Los Angeles?
RH: Yes, Los Angeles felt more open to the world compared to the insular nature of San Francisco. I was excited because I had no expectations, and found there was a lot to discover. San Francisco is beautiful, but Los Angeles has no real landmarks, and everything looks the same at first. But it’s a city to discover, and that’s what made it so exciting for outsiders. I also found more artists in Los Angeles who interested me: Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, The Kipper Kids, and so many others. We were all living downtown and were friends.
LA has a certain freedom, and I love it. Where I come from in Germany, there is a control — an almost corporate-feeling tribe that tells you what to do: how to clean your house and what kind of clothes to wear. It’s in you. You come here, and feel so relieved of all that criticism.
Los Angeles is also very ahistorical. Everything is here for 30 years and then it is gone. There is nothing permanent. Europeans tend to be very historical thinkers; we have this burden of history.
JS: I’m curious about the early work and your decision to make very large-scale paintings. Sometimes you used art historical works that were originally small, like Van Gogh’s paintings of shoes, as your starting-point and scaled them up massively in your interpretation. Why do you think you were making big paintings?
RH: Well, I have this one stupid idea: I felt that people don’t look at a Velasquez painting or a Manet painting and understand how beautifully they are made. So I make it really big so you really see how good it is.
But the main reason was that when I was living in San Francisco, my friends were in punk bands, like the Dead Kennedys, and I painted a few stage sets for their concerts. The first Van Gogh heads I made were for a concert. I was jealous of musicians who had a stage where they could make a big splash. I wanted to make a splash.
Also, the interest in large scale goes back to my school in Karlsruhe where artists like Lüpertz and Baselitz were making big paintings. Anselm Kiefer was basically putting painting back on the map.
It was always hard for me to come up with ideas about what to paint. When I came to the US, there was this feeling of being independent, so that I could reinvent art history. I started to paint huge heads, mountains like Cézanne, oceans. I painted my mother from old photographs. They were 10 feet tall and very yellow and monochromatic. I showed them here and they were received as if I was painting clichés as a critique of Expressionism. It’s true I painted clichés, but it was actually more out of naiveté.
JS: Did you associate yourself with Neo-Expressionism? What led you to painting the Classrooms and Buildings series?
RH: To a point, but the problem is that Neo-Expressionism is difficult to define. It was always a misnomer. There were so many different interpretations and strands in Italy, Cologne, Berlin, and the United States.
I started to paint the interiors, classrooms, and buildings from photographs, using a slide projector. I painted in the dark using only yellow and black. It made me less self-conscious; it makes your line unselfconscious. David Hockney wrote about this phenomenon, claiming that Ingres used a projector to make these incredibly fluid drawings. When you use a projector, you are not involved in the making of an image, in terms of shape and form. Everything is the same: ear, mouth, nose, chin. There is no ego involved.
I had hundreds of source photographs of interiors and buildings, but only a couple of them worked for paintings. Even though I used the same image repeatedly, I found that each painting would be different. Each painting could become both abstract and figurative; meaningful and completely meaningless.
This was the response, as well: some people would say they looked like desolate buildings, and others would say they were like Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings. Some were dry; some were wet; some were flat, but they also had a horizon. So they fulfilled everything that I ever wanted to do in a painting. And I couldn’t do any other paintings for many years.
Then I had a mid-life crisis around 1988-89. I got an apartment in New York on 14th Street and attempted to be bicoastal. I started to paint abstractions related to allover patterns and forms derived from Arshile Gorky, early Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, or doodles like George Condo’s painterly abstraction. They were about an inconsequential form of abstraction. Some of them were 45-feet long. At first, the work felt like a kind of liberation. But I stopped doing them because eventually they seemed decorative.
JS: Can you tell me about the Black Dragon Society, the gallery you started, where you showed many of your students from UCLA?
RH: Yes, I started a gallery with Hubert Schmalix and Chris Sievernich. There was a street in Chinatown — Chung King Road — which was all souvenir shops, and at the time, many of them would rent for about $500 for a nice 800-square-foot space. I decided we should just open a space — mostly to show our students.
We cleaned it up; we thought it should be a hangout place. We showed students like Nick Lowe, Ry Rocklin, Hannah Greely, Jonas Wood. At first I thought it was great — that we were doing something good. The work was priced around $300-$400. But it was a time when everybody wanted young, fresh artists. We hired Parker Jones as the director and he became the motor for the gallery. He went to art fairs and we became pretty well known, and then the prices went crazy. We got two spaces. It went way over our head. People started paying $40,000 for a Nick Lowe painting. It became this feeding frenzy and I thought, “This is not good.”
I realize galleries have to grow, but I didn’t want to grow. I wanted to have my little thing and go in on Saturdays and do a favor for someone. So we closed it, and it was perfect; it was the right time to close. Even now, these kids tell me they still miss it. However, I think it was a little bit of a problem to show such young artists, because you can stunt their development.
JS: After you stopped making the big abstractions, what kind of work did you start doing? How did you start making the ceramics?
RH: I envy artists who have something that really lasts forever. I love Morandi, but I’m not Morandi. I’m so impatient and nervous. Morandi lived with his three sisters alone in this little house. You can’t separate the temperament from the work. I am always curious about things, but I am also conservative. I fall back on art history. So after I did the big-doodle theatrical works, I went back to smaller figurative paintings.
Then I started to make ceramics. I had a graduate student, Lisa Yu, who is Taiwanese. She came into UCLA as a potter, and she made the most exquisite pots. She was great, but she got really conflicted because of all the conceptual stuff going on, and started to lose her footing. I asked her if she would teach me how to make the pots. I became her student. She took it very seriously, and had me make 500 pots. It was very rewarding. I started painting on them. I enjoyed it, and people responded to it. I felt I had nothing to gain and nothing to lose: starting something that I hadn’t conceived as part of the trajectory of being a painter.
It resonated, and it also felt democratic. With ceramic, you can just have a sale of your work. There is more openness. You have to go to places to fire the work and you end up asking people, “How do you do that? What kind of clay did you use?”
There are so many unpredictable elements with ceramic. It humbles you. I’m a control freak, and I can’t control it. I have to sort of say, “each one is good” and accept all the bad things. I am always surprised. When you put them in a kiln, you don’t really know what they are going to look like in the end. Even the shapes can be a surprise. I cannot repeat them because I don’t really know how I made them. But the worst experience I had was when I wrote down the formula and I made 30 small pots. I planned them and they came out looking terribly; they looked regular and ordinary.
JS: Can you tell me about the incredible range of imagery you use in your paintings on the ceramics, like Japanese Manga drawing?
RH: With the ceramics, I don’t really care what I steal from. I’m not self-conscious. I have stashes of referent pictures: images of birds and snakes, medieval drawings by Hans Baldung Grien and Durer. I use everything. But with my paintings, I don’t do that. It’s like I’m a soldier out there making oil paintings — although now I use Flashe.
JS: I noticed with the recent work in the studio you are painting on paper, which is then mounted on linen. Why do you paint on paper?
RH: I can mess up a piece of paper, but a canvas is precious and beautiful in itself. When I built this house and studio, it was perfect. I was too intimidated to paint downstairs on the plywood floor, so I painted in the garage. I get intimidated sometimes by the canvas. Working on paper is a psychological shortcut to be messy and loose. I’ve been painting on T-shirts for that reason. It gives me permission to be totally stupid. It is like trying to subvert myself.
How can you achieve a certain honesty or authenticity as a professional artist? I felt my best painting was done when I was just starting and making the “underpainting.” That was when I was most free and honest — when I had no intention, and wasn’t signaling a purpose.
JS: You said that you’ve only recently returned to painting, after focusing on the ceramics. What do you think led you back into painting?
RH: Well, you feel that is your job. I haven’t quit. I don’t know if that’s because I’m stupid or because I’m stubborn. I love to make the ceramics. I’m trying to figure out how to make paintings with the same attitude. Perhaps it is impossible to reach that. However, I love painting. Sometimes I love other people’s paintings more than mine.
With painting I had no fun for many years. It was a struggle. Struggle is okay, too, but how much struggle does one want? I thought maybe it was because I was teaching. It’s like being a therapist. You deal with this person and that person, but at the end you have to let go of that. It leaves a trace in you. I think about the somewhat unknown Belgian artist, Bram van Velde, and the book Conversations with Bram van Velde and Samuel Beckett. Van Welde lived in Paris, and made very strange paintings. He said, “The more you know, the less you are.”