I'm sure they were thinking it was time a woman won'
She's never had a painting lesson and never knows how a work will turn out. In her first interview, Turner prize winner Tomma Abts speaks to Emma Brockes
Wednesday December 6, 2006
'I think it should be about the art and not the personality. These private things should not be mentioned' ... Tomma Abts. Photograph: Sarah Lee
Abts' win on Monday night has been widely interpreted as the Turner Prize correcting itself. As well as being the first woman and the first painter to win the prize in almost a decade, after years of artists with personas as feverishly worked upon as their art, here was someone about whom we knew practically nothing: 38 years old, from Kiel in Germany but resident in London for the past 12 years, and (rumour had it) the former girlfriend of Chris Ofili - that's pretty much it. Efforts to extract more would, as you will see, be a painful experience. We meet around the corner from Abts' studio in Clerkenwell, which she has occupied since she first came to London on a grant. She had been living in Berlin, doing a mixed media art course in which she had concentrated mainly on film - "structuralist films" - while doing her own painting on the side. The Berlin art scene at that time was a little "sleepy", she says, whereas London was just starting to swing with the YBA movement. Abts moved to the city not because she wanted to join in - she's not really a joining-in kind of gal - but rather to enjoy, at a tangent, the energy and interest in art that it generated. "It's quite nice to have that bit of distance, to have my own personal space to develop my work," she says.
For a couple of years she got by on the arts grant, and then was forced to find work. "I had strange jobs, like telephone marketing type jobs for German companies." It was only four years ago that she was able to live solely off her art, and it was a huge relief finally to give up the day jobs.
Abts has never had formal training in fine art and hasn't taken a painting lesson in her life. The town she grew up in was "not very exciting" - she summarises its main features as "sea" and "nice landscape" - but the idea that news of her win might appear in the local paper makes her smile broadly. Abts' parents still live in Kiel and told her proudly that she had made the national news in Germany on Monday night. They have always encouraged her, she says, and her upbringing was "very free." I ask if her parents do anything artistic.
What do they do?
"Do I have to say?"
"My mum is a teacher in a primary school and my dad is a gynaecologist." She smiles sheepishly.
Is it true that you used to go out with Chris Ofili?
The smile falters. "I won't talk about that."
I tell her that I hope she did.
Because then you could be characterised as a former golden couple, the Posh and Becks of the art world. (Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998.)
Abts looks horrified. "No comment! I don't think these private things should be part of art, in a way." Without naming names, she goes off on a riff about self-cannibalising artists who make their careers by rummaging about in their own detritus. "It [the Turner] used to be such a personality-based prize and I think that's not appropriate, necessarily, for art. I think it should be about the art and not the personality. These private things should not be mentioned."
OK. Are you married?
"No." She cracks up laughing.
Abts used to work on canvasses of all sizes, but somewhere along the line she started feeling most comfortable with a single size, a modest 19in by 15in, and has stuck with it ever since. She paints sitting down, and the canvas fits the arc of her arm. It's an agonisingly slow process, she says, and she will sometimes put a canvas away for a couple of years before returning to complete it. "They're such slow paintings to make that I think they might also be slow to look at ... that people might not really notice what's going on."
This isn't false modesty. Abts was surprised by the warm reaction of the critics to her work in the run-up to the Turner Prize. (In October, the Guardian's critic Adrian Searle wrote: "Abts' quiet and disturbing paintings seem utterly right and unexpected. They ought to win.") She has always painted for herself, on the side, and the fact that it has ended in glory is something she finds quite amazing. But her self-containment that might also be construed as arrogance. She won't name any influences, or works of art that first inspired her as a child, or her favourite past winner of the Turner Prize. She's not even sure she could name them.
I ask what she thinks of her co-nominee, Phil Collins, whose conceptual work based on the perils of reality TV was about as far from Abts' paintings as you could get. "It seemed to me," she says, "that for what he was doing, he was doing it very well." This sounds pointed, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking.
It is said that winning the Turner Prize doubles the value of an artist's work overnight. No, says Abts. "Maybe some galleries and artists would do that, but not the people I work with." She considers art a calling, not a career, and she didn't go into it to make money - well, who does? Actually, she says, she thinks young artists today have a rather warped attitude in this regard. "It seems that these young artists think of it as a career choice, to do art; they think that it will pay off and they'll make money." She looks doubtfully out the window. "Maybe they will."
Why does she think so few women have won the Turner Prize? "I don't know, because to me it feels that in the last few years a lot of female artists have been very dominant. In a way maybe [the prize] hasn't represented what's happened. I'm sure they were thinking that it was time a woman won it. I'm sure there are those kind of strategic decisions [going on]."
Abts' paintings are like palimpsests, multi-layered, and it gives one little jolts of pleasure to look at them, although it's impossible to say why. They require no external stimuli, no subject matter and no obvious end point. Starting a new painting is, says Abts, "the easiest part for me, because I have so many visual ideas. Colours, or starting to make shapes or thinking about where things go, that's easy. Then just trying to make it more concrete and trying to make some kind of meaning."
What is the meaning? Abts doesn't mind art that requires an explanation alongside it, but equally, she doesn't think one needs to explain - or even know - why something is good. There has been much discussion about how she can tell when one of her paintings is finished. Instinct, she says. "A question of balancing it all out or making it darker or ..." Anyway, she just knows. She very rarely abandons a painting, but when she does it's because she has painted over the canvas too many times and it has become bumpy.
"I can't really ever say what it will look like or how it will finish or what will make it work. It's a different idea or moment for each painting. It's not really... I try so much with the composition and colour, and get closer and closer, and then there's always a moment where there's a surprise, when I try something and ... everything is in place."
Isn't it scary, not being able to formalise what she is doing, has done, or is going to do - why any of it works or doesn't work? "It is scary!" she says. "Sometimes I think, God, I don't know if I will ever finish another painting because I don't know how to do it. But then it keeps happening ..."
She frowns and has another crack at it. "What is an interesting idea for me is something being ... an image and at the same time an object." We talk about Jasper Johns' Flag as an example of this: a painting, a flag, and also a representation of a flag. "When I finish [a piece of art] it becomes congruent with itself."
There is a confounded silence. "I don't know what that means," she says, and, with a lack of pretension we may not see again in a Turner Prize winner, laughs uproariousy.