ALFIE WILCOX meets the artist, free-thinker and probable lunatic, Stiell Behrens
“Before, when I didn’t know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I depend on black to simplify the construction. Now I’ve given up on blacks.” Henri Matisse, ‘Black Is A Colour’ (1946) in Matisse on Art (London, Phaidon, 1973)
“Baby, baby – don’t talk to me about black. It’s too much.” Stiell Behrens, in conversation, 2009.
Up the greasy, stained stairs, through the heavy door of his new London Bridge studio, and in to the magical world of Stiell Behrens.
And yet, before Behrens – habitual absurdist, celebrated artist, self-imposed “creative refugee” and self-proclaimed Archbishop (of his self-constructed religion of blackblack) – says anything, he announces that he has an important secret. I lean in. The photographer leans in.
His assistant, the rather harassed looking brunette who met us at the front door, leans in.
- These Things Keep Happening To Me (2002), in Sarah Westheim Collection
He pauses to clear his throat. “You will NOTbelieve this,” he says, “but I have recently been flying around the room. Like a bird.” He flutters his arms. The photographer and the front-door brunette exchange glances.
His accent leaping between downtown LA (where he studied) and the smarter kind of Bavarian ballroom (where he was born), Behrens raises his eyebrows. “And maybe – maybe – I will do it again before you leave.”
At 55, Behrens has much to look back on. Born in West Berlin, and educated in Holland, London and Los Angeles, his apprentice works were polite, well-received abstractions. He happily admits that he was in thrall to the abstract expressionism of artists like Julius Hatofsky or Franz Kline (Behren’s calls his 1990 work, ‘Die Tat ist alles’, his portrait of Kline).
His decision in 1983, to drop all colours other than black, however, was the catalyst for his most well-known works. His 1984 show, ‘Stabsgefreiter’, at the Fran Sable Gallery in Berlin was the first of his so-called ‘Black Shows’; it led to enormous praise, excitable auction rooms and invitations to create works around the world. Today in London Bridge, positioning himself delicately on a small wooden stool, Behrens still becomes excited about the moment: “it was long before the Sable show, that I realized that the other colours were rotting. Black is elemental, this I think I knew even in my cradle.”
His work from the late 80s, including the two-foot long black line ‘Solo: 1’ (1988) and his ‘Full On And Full On And Full On’ (1989), made his name, and led the critic Fred Allan to call Behrens, “the boldest and most important voice” in contemporary art. Indeed, it’s for this reason that Behrens prefers not to be photographed. When the request goes forward, he pulls a thick black balaclava over his face. “I had this specially made”, he muffles, “without eyeholes.”
In 1994, he created the controversial “religion” of blackblack and moved (with thirty-five “disciples”) to create a blackblack community in Florida. His attempted creation in Florida of the blackblack Cathedral – built out of black granite (sketches show it to have been an extraordinary creation, halfway between Westminster Abbey and Neuschwanstein) – bankrupted the project before the foundations were laid.
He also faced down serious accusations of racism, dozens of lawsuits and a strong public campaign to have him thrown out of the country – in an extraordinary twist, the campaign was led by his sister, Mary-Anne (“the Bitch!” shouts Behrens, and refuses to talk about her). He did, however, have ten months of community living as the Archbishop, and is – of course – without regret: “blackblack was, and is, the most important project and undertaking in my life. It has to be.”
- Mehr Licht! (More Light!) (Stiell Behrens, 2009), with the permission of the artist.
He spent a great deal of time in Rome, following Blackblack’s failure. He briefly considered politics in Germany (serious talk was raised about a bid to be mayor of Hamburg), before settling, two years ago in London.
Behrens’ next show, scheduled for completion in 2011, is an attempt to photograph every black object in the world. ‘All Of This Is Black And Black 1 – 28,323’ (2006) was the first half of this project. Since then, he has been working on its completion.
His latest work consists of photographs of earlier pieces. ‘Mehr Licht! (More Light!)’, for example, was created earlier this year, when he took a series of photographs of his 1999 piece, ‘Composition of random texts’, overlaying the leading texts of German thought over and over, until they appear as Arabic or Chinese script.
His work ‘Devoted and Regular’ (2009) is a photograph of his earlier pieces (including ‘Solo:1’). “It’s about recapturing my art,” laugh Behrens. “And, of course, more importantly, it gives me chance to make some more money.”
He looks at his watch quickly. “If you leave now, I promise to fly around the room as soon as you’ve left.”