Jiří Georg Dokoupil was 14 in 1968, the year in which he and his family fled Communist Czechoslovakia and settled in West Germany. After studying art in Cologne and New York, he rose to fame with Cologne’s influential neo-expressionist Mülheimer Freiheit group in the 1980s. Since then he has produced 137 series of paintings, encompassing a huge variety of experimental techniques. Among his most successful works are his soap-bubble paintings, a constant in his oeuvre for over 20 years, which evolved after he added soap to the liquid he used to clean his brushes.
How do you go about painting with soap bubbles?
Jiří Dokoupil: I use a metal wand to produce the bubbles, which I then draw over the canvas. The soap mixture contains pigment, so when the bubbles burst, they leave colourful traces. You could say chemistry produces pictures.
You’ve been making these images for some time. How have they developed?
In the very beginning, the concept of painting with soap bubbles completely fascinated me, because I was dealing with the idea of doing something with nothing. Over the years, the concept shifted to something I would call a real painting.
You started off as a conceptual artist, making installations and performance art, but since the 1980s you’ve devoted yourself to painting. What happened?
In the 1970s everyone wanted to be a conceptual artist. But my teachers hated painting so much that I just had to become a painter. As a child I loved the Impressionists, and I am still in love with Impressionism, so I became some sort of a conceptual impressionist. Producing a painting has to do with the artist’s encounter with the material, and this usually refuses to subordinate itself to a concept.
You have said that your paintings reach more people than your conceptual art. Why is that?
People go to museums and galleries for a form-colour experience. This remains the essence of art. The painting is an incredible invention. You have a wooden frame with some canvas, you put it on the wall and immediately people begin to look at it. It’s great – and it gives you a kind of freedom.
What was the initial inspiration for the soap-bubble paintings?
In the late 1980s I became obsessed with the idea of impossible paintings. I’m interested in media that you cannot control – so there is always a fight for something that is not strictly possible.
How many of these works have you done?
Three hundred ninety-eight and counting.
What do these works say about the role of the artist?
I think they suggest the supremacy of technique. I am convinced that the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck were the best oil painters of all time. They invented the technique. To become an outstanding artist, you have to have your own technique, and this is mine.
What other painting techniques have you invented?
I put paint on canvas using a whip or car tyres, and I also paint with candle soot. All in all, I’ve invented around 100 different techniques.
Will you continue to produce these images?
Yes. I fact, I feel as if I am just beginning. I want to make bigger and better versions.
Portraits Diego Martínez