For the past 25 years, Peter Dreher, an artist from Freiburg, Germany, has painted the same 100-year-old, half-liter glass 3200 times. Dreher's method is simple: in either day or night, in either artificial or natural light, he places the glass against a white background and paints what he sees. Dreher has sold 1500 of his glass paintings for $2000 apiece, and collectors have snapped them up, sometimes buying as many as a dozen at a time.
Looking at a series of Dreher's glasses is the visual equivalent of repeating the word "glass," or any word, again and again until it loses all meaning and becomes pure sound. Looking at a dozen or so Dreher glasses, you lose all sense that you are looking at a glass or a representation of glass. You begin to see the work for what it is -- an exercise in pure observation.
Dreher's lonely, deadpan glasses show how an artist observes an object, the way light shapes an object, and how an artist achieves the illusions of reflection and shine. For example, the very "realistic" reflections on and within Dreher's glasses are created with carefully placed dabs and flecks of white paint. Looking closely at one glass, you notice that on its surface Dreher has described the faint reflection of a window, and through it, the sky. Another glass offers a pale reflection of the artist's head.
The light glancing off some of Dreher's glasses is San Diego light that fell through a kitchen window in room 104 in the Beachcomber Shores Apartments on Turquoise Street in Pacific Beach. Since 1993, Mark Quint, owner of Quint Gallery in La Jolla, has annually invited Dreher to San Diego to paint. Dreher has, of course, painted his glass -- rarely a week goes by without his painting it at least once -- and while standing in the small Beachcomber Shores kitchen that serves as his studio, he has also done seascapes of our coast.
"When the sky is gray here in San Diego," he says in precise, lightly accented English, "it's actually quite lovely. The gray here is cheerful.
"It is a very simple color, and I like to paint simple things. Quiet things. Like my glass. My idea is to take the simplest things and paint them as they are."
Dreher's taste for simplicity extends to the Beachcomber Shores room where he stays each year for a month or so. At the Quint Gallery through April 1, Dreher will exhibit an 18-panel, 33-foot-long panoramic oil painting of his Pacific Beach motel room.
"It's not exactly a 360-degree view. Maybe more like 300."
Mark Quint's enthusiasm for Dreher's work is unbounded.
"I love," Quint says, "the compulsiveness of it. The obsession with detail. Looking at his glasses you start to see all sorts of things -- fields and shadings of color that remind you of Rothko. And he's taken his simple motel room and made it stunning."
Dreher's panels -- two high, nine long -- show his room's kitchen, bathroom, (empty) closet, television, hanging lamp, front door, and two windows. Through the latter you see the ficus trees and hibiscus that grow in the Beachcomber's courtyard, and a two-story, white-stucco apartment building, washed in the coast's flat brilliant light, which stands across the street.
"Every day here," says Dreher, "is like paradise."
Born in Mannheim in 1932, he belongs to a generation that came of age in the wasteland of postwar Germany. His father, a dentist, died on the Russian Front in 1941. Dreher's mother, a former dancer, threw Dreher out of the house when he told her he wanted to be an artist.
"Being an artist wasn't considered a very useful thing, back then. The German economy was ruined. When I was accepted into the Fine Arts Academy in Karlsruhe, all the students were very poor. We were all very poor. There wasn't much food. We had to steal to survive -- apples, potatoes, coal. Everybody stole. And everybody worked at some job during school holidays. I worked on the docks at Mannheim. Nobody got money from home, from their families. We had this sense of being a special group, of being apart. And since everyone in Germany was poor then, we didn't have the worry of being a poor artist.
"We were, of course, all Communists. In Europe in the 1950s every intellectual was a Communist. At least that was true in West Germany. In East Germany, however, I'm not sure that every intellectual was a Communist."
"Our teachers were old. They'd been expelled from the academy by the Nazis, who had their own ideas about art. The Nazis wanted to promote propagandistic art -- paintings, you know, that showed the perfect Aryan. The Nazis didn't like German expressionism, and they didn't like social realism. The academy's teachers -- expressionists, social realists -- had a very hard time under the Nazis.
"We students were simply very glad to be studying art. When I was growing up, there wasn't much paper to draw on. You could get scraps of newsprint, and I would practice drawing on that. At the academy, although the German economy was very bad, the government provided us with materials. We even learned to mix our own oil paints, with powdered colors and oil. Our education was very traditional. We concentrated on drawing, still lifes and nudes. During the 1950s our attention was toward Paris, to Picasso, of course. It wasn't until the 1960s that we became interested in American art.
"At the academy, I concentrated on still life. I've always had this preference for painting things that are quiet, that don't move. Painting for me is a kind of meditation. When I'm painting is nearly the only time in my life when I'm content, when I don't feel restless. By restless, I mean a kind of nervousness. When I paint, I suddenly feel at home. Very well and quiet.
"This may have something to do with one of my experiences during the war. My father's house was totally destroyed during the war. When I was 26 I had this experience of trying to build a house for myself. Build a home for myself. And what I found was that you can't establish out of things, out of materials, in a certain place, a home. You have to build your home out of ideas. Ideas are something you can take with you wherever you go. And so I have my ideas about painting, about painting what I really saw. The glasses are an experiment in showing how things change. You paint the same thing, again and again. You use different light, but you paint the same thing. When I started painting the glass, after I did four or five, I began noticing how the paintings were changing. They were changing because I was changing. You cannot avoid changing.
"And so I have my ideas about painting, and that is why when I paint I feel like I'm coming home.
"Painting my room here is like painting the glass. The idea is to take what's nearest you, the simplest and most obvious, and to use it. You look around the room, and you see that it's quite simple, quite small, but you take it and you use it. You observe it carefully and you paint it.
"I think it's really quite beautiful, actually."