We open to the first page – and the paper rustles just a little. Like the first note of a piece of music: soft, loud, gently, forcefully or suddenly, this is its first note – to set the tone for what is to come.
I saw paintings by Peter Tollens for the first time in 1988, at the Artothek in Cologne. The sound of the color in these paintings moved me. No longer this hectic, tiring, and boring search for painting themes. No more of this dull, obsessionlike
craving for image surrogates. Rather here, with surprising clarity: the theme of painting was not tree or bush or landscape or sex with potatoes. The challenge was now all too clear: tree and bush and everything is really all right – but please – try to clarify the matter regarding color. Because then you can do whatever you want. Color can declare itself to be a painting. Back then, Peter had already spent a number of years in his studio – his laboratory – dealing with this question by just painting. The question was not “what” should I paint, but: “How and what color” can I paint, “Howand in what manner”?
I did not see Peter’s books at the time. That only happened later, after we had gradually become friends. Those days resonate with snippets of melodies full of muddled memories of travels and experiences with Peter Tollens. Long car trips, hotel rooms: wonderful, dirty, sweet, Bavarian, and horrible ones. Army cots, marital beds, air mattresses and accommodations somewhere between barbed wire and sheriffs and endless waiting lines at airports. Views across the Hudson from New Jersey to New York, traffic jams in tunnels beneath the river. Movies on airplanes, everything from melodrama and the kind of news babble that made us suspect exactly such drama in real life. This was a reality between stealing cigarettes and hiding cognac bottles – making fun of art and artists – and liking and being friends with each other.
The scene of where the following took place is the Art Fair in Cologne. Despite being an avid reader of the drugstore newspaper’s tips for preventative health care and memory training as we age, I suddenly find myself before a person, whose name I cannot remember. Normally at openings or fairs, for months beforehand I practice the names of dear ones I have only met once, or once too often. During the fair, I call Peter: “Uh – hi – tell me quickly – what’s the name of the guy … You know who I mean … who always wants a 100 percent discount?” Peter screeches, “Oh God – I know who you mean – I’m getting out of here.” We both make for the escape, meet up, dash out – main thing is we just get away from the fair – and run smack into the guy directly at the exit.
Nothing to do now. It’s show time, time to turn on the charm. Hearty greetings are expressed from all concerned. Peter goes dark red in the face, and looks close to a stroke. Thanks to my servile character, I try to save the situation: “My deeeeaaaarrrr Mr. Schmitz-Mömmertzheim – how great to see you here, too.” His voice squeaks with excitement: “You even remember my name.” And Peter suddenly recalls with glee: “Sure – he called me right away and asked me your name when he saw you upstairs a while ago …”
Cut. The End. Curtain.
Two successive tones. Between two tones a pause. Between the pages of a book, when leafing through, when turning the pages, it is exactly this expectation that comes about, as if you were between the notes of a piece of music. This extremely lively and distressing moment of expectation – how this moment will be filled or might shock us, how it might bore us or make us mad; this moment is something we grasp with all our senses. The second tone vindicates the first one, and thus turns into a harmonious sound. Or else: the second tone mars the first one and thus, becomes a provocation. The second tone creates a clearing, and a space comes about, into which further tones may flow. I can hear him muttering to himself: “It might work this way”. Working page by page, turning the leaves, the mistakes and cracks become ever clearer and more evident. But no page is ever taken out. The original number of pages assembled in the book always remains between the covers. The beginning and end enclose the search for image possibilities, and this search becomes withdrawn and shuts itself off.What remains is a sensual experiencing of actions, delayed and not quite finished, not completely formulated. In Peter’s books, his “thoughts with the hand” are certainly present. I would like to take these books in my hands and turn their pages, and let myself in for a surprise. I want to nurture my joy, my annoyance, my excitement and expectation by turning the next page. Between the pages, my senses are filled. From page to page, Peter Tollens explains himself and his own world of shadows – gently obscured and not meant for everyone’s eyes. Peter himself says that he recharges his own battery page for page in his books – but he also jumpstarts my battery during my own painterly winter, and my thought vehicle starts to roll again.
There is nothing better than Peter and I being on the lookout for mischief or out traveling together.
Two gentlemen of middling age – could be Peter and I – are under way as salesmen once again, well equipped with cognac and other things that are not good for you – and so we race, half blind, down the autobahn, headed south and still discussing matters in eloquent language just suitable enough for making the boring trip and the sales deals in art matters as bearable as possible. Often we share a hotel room, smoking a last cigarette together or drinking once more to the health of our friends and hosts before we settle into our snoring like crazy. Pretty pitiful.I wake up at four in the morning, and try to shake Peter awake. To no avail – this guy is out of it, but of course, in my capacity as commissioner for art and drugs, I have given him a sleeping pill. Gave myself one, too, only I am wide awake – thanks to the pill. I shake him gently, push him, kick him, use a sledgehammer, sing a song, do a dance, read him obscene stories, plug his nostrils with toothpaste, but this placid troll of the Lower Rhine now has, in addition, a sort of smilingly wise expression of frothy white, snoring enjoyment. Aw, still, he looks kind of nice …But man, does he ever roar …
I turn over, wrapping a towel around my ears, and we both wake up exhausted the next morning. He remarks that the towel makes me look like a rabbit. And besides, I have toothpaste in my nose – in the meantime he must have done the same thing to me.
After last night, that feeling of exaggerated dryness in our throats comes begging, but of course, the toothpaste is good against it. We must have done it right after all.
We look at each other like idiots and he says I should try to take care of it with some wet water and washing. The words “water” and “washing” shock me and cause an attack of intelligence. Right then and there I collapse.
Sometimes in my story, the fool actually becomes the hero in Peter Tollens’s books. Page after page, the kind of humorous person he is comes into its own in the books. Peter does not conceal anything and he makes no pretenses of being the be all and end all to wisdom in his books. Peter has no intention
of being pedantically didactic. Sometimes when I am standing next to Peter and open a book to a page, I just have to laugh. I don’t know why, but I laugh. Most likely I realize at this moment that I was expecting something different and now I encounter a completely unexpected turn that feels like a joke or getting poked in the side. Such wonderful silliness, I think. And in a strange way, it is like I am looking at my own weaknesses in a mirror. And this is precisely where Peter’s humor frees me of the burden of being a know-it-all. For a moment I not only love the weakness of this particular page in Peter’s book, but feel strengthened in my own way of muddling through. I never get any further anyhow by just being happy with my claim to being clean and right – and for a moment I feel liberated from precisely these claims and dangers.Peter’s books make do without laying claim to a result. They remain marginal notes in Peter’s goings-on in the world, incidental and not completely thought through. In a world where many people merely function, in which everyone has to do everything right – in which children are already dressed like poodles, in a world where everything is manufacturepacked in plastic, where on the art market, gallery owners and artists are just as obliged to continual growth as the rest of the financial world – this is where Peter, with his books, owns up to simplicity, as if to say: “Hey, look here: there is
nothing to hide and nothing to lose.” Because if something goes wrong, it just goes wrong. And it is allowed to go wrong. It was only a little task to be carried out: How many lines can I scratch into a piece of wood? “And then I just printed the blocks.” Not much more than a potato print like you make in kindergarten. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
We are stuck. Location: the Newark Airport in New Jersey. Because the pilot got sick, the jumbo just got checked out for 12 hours after it had taken us 4 hours to check in. I go crazy, berserk. Peter is the tranquilizer personified, I am a vegetative wurst. Then a horrible hotel in the sealed-off airport off limits area, fenced in with barbed wire, so that no one will steal the tourists. Operated by very kind hotel personnel of the Islamic faith. They are very concerned for our health and cheerfully explain to us that there is no alcohol in this hotel. A life without alcohol is, in my opinion, possible, but senseless. Peter sleeps. I watch horror films.
Knowing all the while that he still has cigarettes and a small reserve of cognac in his jacket.
The next morning I have soaked up all the fruitful atmosphere in addition to the barbed wire, horror films and real horror, all of the cigarettes and cognac, and sit, wholly re – formed and relaxed, next to Peter in the hotel’s double bed. He starts looking through his stuff. Where are my … and where is the …? – ??? I reply in a sugar-sweet sing-song: “Welllllllllllll.” He tries to murder me.
Later I buy more cigarettes and we check in again. We make up.
Peter’s books remind me of Books of the Hours. They comfort me and I am finally “at home”. They give me that odd feeling of sinking into the cushions of my grandmother’s old couch. That’s how I sink a little into the pages. When leafing through, there is enough space for a few memories. Maybe for a glass of eggnog … Perhaps this is sparked by a sequence of colors, a line that makes me think of an object or a landscape. For a moment I am entranced. I find peace and quiet between the pages. This peace is something I do not have in an exhibition, where the paintings hang on the wall at a proper distance. With a book, I can sit down. I can go to the beach or to the woods and it would be a nice experiment to walk around with Peter’s books. It makes a difference whether a drawing is in a book or hanging in a frame on the wall. Just knowing I will be spending a few minutes with this book makes me feel calm because I stop time. I leave my everyday life for a while. And then this absorption – while I am slowly turning the last pages – releases me into the world again.
Going home. Traffic jam. We talk about the “stolen little sensation” that Cézanne accused Gauguin of in 1881. Then comes a short stop at the autobahn rest stop area. Auto – bahn toilet facilities. “Serways” – what a joke. You have to hand in a passport, get your head shaven and disinfected before you get a stamp, and then you can get a ticket.A great trick. We go in together. He throws in the 70 cents, and I squeeze in behind him at the barrier, virtually glued to his hind end, and as a matter of fact, the barrier admits us both at once. Our laughter conjures up a hidden Cerberus, causing the fake Feng Shui stuff to flake off the walls. Every – thing had been precisely recorded by a camera, the bill from the gas station amounting to 70 cents only arrived 8 weeks later, in addition to the threat of a heightened Serways surveillance with an electronic tag. “The stolen sensation” – it took a little while.
I just love going astray and taking detours and maybe I should emphasize the word “love” here, and not the word “astray”. Scientifically it is not possible to go astray – I know– I know. But to willingly take a detour – that happens from time to time, and this is always the moment when things become exciting. Your hiking shoes sink into the swamp and the forest spreads out indeterminably in all directions. Passing the animals you have stirred up, little ones like hornets and bigger ones like wild boar, you reach the marked path once again, admittedly relieved, but also somewhat disappointed. This small disappointment probably stems from the fact that you saw such surprising and beautiful things while on your way down unbeaten paths through the woods.Between two paths, and between the pages of the book, or between the notes of a piece of music, your possibilities for how to best proceed are the greatest – but even they are not infinite.
For, initially those first pages of a book by Peter have been laid out in a form that is somehow familiar to him – a pattern he knows, a little support. After all, you don’t begin a hike with a detour, either – you only take it after a little while. But then the deviations from a known path begin, and full of curiosity, we just follow our own noses. And suddenly, in Peter’s hands something unknown and foreign develops – granted, this unknown thing is full of inner logic, but it is not recognizable and it is impossible to describe. Step by step, Peter distances himself with each increasing page from a vaguely familiar beginning to a still unknown end.I imagine for a moment that Peter were not a painter of books, but a craftsman – a shoemaker, or locksmith. How difficult would it be for him to file a key by hand? How many of those notches would he have to try to cut into the blank to create the key bit if the door had fallen shut and he were unable to see the lock? To what degree may or must the deviations be forcibly tried out? But he might sand and scratch and file until the cows come home – there is nothing to open. There is no key and no lock.
We all pull or push in the wrong direction often enough. Owing to the grace bestowed on us as human beings, the door is always open.
Michael Toenges, Cologne 2011–2012