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I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.
But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.
Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.
I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?
The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.
And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.
Corinna Belz‘s remarkable documentary about Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter Painting, is one of those films you can watch over and over again. Maybe I should be more direct: One of those films I can watch over and over again. Released on DVD in September, Gerhard Richter Painting has already enchanted me two times through, and don’t feel the least bit finished. Like that inexplicable experience when a particular landscape reaches out and grabs you from your very first encounter, Richter is pure resonance for me and was from that first exposure to his work many years ago.
One of the world’s most famous living artists, Richter is now 80 years old and still working. His paintings require physical strength as well as a finely tuned aesthetic. Belz captures both parts of his signatory art making—Richter dragging an oversized squeegee across the painted surface as well as the way his eyes engage with and interact with a work in progress. As a filmmaker, Belz is masterful at walking the line between being there and becoming transparent. After a while I am caught up in the illusion that I am alone in the studio with Richter, a respectful witness to a ritual that feels deeply personal, profound and inviolate.
A few passages from Kenneth Turan‘s thoughtful review in the Los Angeles Times rang true for me:
A serious man but playful, deeply thoughtful with a bit of a leprechaun quality, Richter pointedly wonders if “to talk about painting is perhaps pointless. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. Painting is another form of thinking.”
As if to amplify that thought, we see Richter working on a series intended for a New York City gallery opening. We watch as he first applies paint in broad yet meticulous strokes and then uses an enormous metal squeegee, so big it looks like a piece of aluminum siding, to confidently scrape away parts of what he has painted on.
Unlike his figurative work, Richter considers his abstractions to be more instinctual than planned. “Something just happens” is how he puts it. “They do what they want,” he adds, smiling. “I planned something different.”
Continuing with this theme of personification, the artist quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno about individual works of art being mortal enemies. “Each painting,” he says, “is an assertion that doesn’t tolerate company.” So how does he know when a painting is finished? “When nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop…”
One of this film’s most intriguing moments has Richter quietly confronting Belz and wondering whether giving her this kind of carte-blanche access was a good idea. Painting under observation, he says, is “the worst thing there is, worse than being in a hospital. The camera makes everything different, you feel so exposed.”
“Painting,” he says finally, “is a secret business, something you do in secret and reveal in public.” It is the achievement of “Gerhard Richter Painting” to shine a light on that hidden, private act as few other films have done.
At first I assumed that the seduction of this film was just my Richter thing and the long standing connection I have to him and his work. But when I encouraged my studio assistant Brandon—an artist from a completely different generation and orientation—to watch it as well, his email response that night was heartening: “That documentary was amazing. I will probably have watched it three more times by the time we meet again.” Yes!
And one more homage to Richter, this one by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian:
Gerhard Richter is a great artist. I don’t mean that lightly. The German painter is sublime, profound, and authoritative in a way that invites high-flown comparisons and invocations of art history. And yet, his own utterances on art would suggest he finds such hyperbole repulsive, and is suspicious of anything that romanticises the creative act…
Reality is profoundly ambiguous, modern physics tells us. An electron can be in two places at once. These paintings describe a world of uncertainty, without surrendering to despair. Richter is alive to the play of chance, the randomness of nature, the complexity of experience – yet proves that art can still bring something serious and beautiful out of the chaos. He towers above the artists of today.
Previous posts on Slow Muse about Richter and his work:
Gerhard Richter‘s abstract paintings are a visual feast of complexity and depth. Using a massive squeegee that he carefully pulls across an enormous paint-laden surface, Richter enables the imagery to bubble up from below. The visual effect is stunning. While a whole generation of painters have emulated his oleaginously lush technique, nobody does it quite like he does.
Now Richter has found another way to explore the complexity of the abstract image, but this time creating enchantment with a more mathematical, structured approach. In a new publication, Gerhard Richter: Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated, Richter has parsed the surface of one of his paintings to create a thick book of textured explorations.
This description of his process is from the book promotional material:
Richter took an image of his work “Abstract Painting” (CR: 7244) and divided it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, up to 4,096 strips. This process, involving twelve stages of division, results in 8,190 strips, each of which is reproduced here at the height of the original image. With each stage of division, the strips become progressively thinner (a strip of the 12th division is just 0.08 millimeters; further divisions would only become visible by enlargement). Each strip is then mirrored and repeated, producing an incredibly detailed patterning. The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size. The resulting 221 patterns are reproduced here on landscape spreads, making for a truly extraordinary reading-viewing book experience.
This project is fascinating and provocative on a number of levels. The book is a visual feast just on its own terms. The parsing of a shared reality object—a painting—into its multitudinous parts is a variation on the legendary video made by Ray and Charles Eames, Powers of 10. Starting with a couple picnicking by the lake, the view of the image shifts outward until our galaxy is just one speck of light among millions of others. Then, returning to earth, we move inward, down to the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule in a white blood cell. Everything is multiple, many, complex.
But Richter’s book also brings to mind Eastern meditation practices, like the descriptions of esoteric meditations techniques that train a seeker to hold the image of an elaborate structure in the mind in its fullness, down to the tiniest ornate tendril. Or the way trained eyes can look at the 2-dimensional structure depicted in a Buddhist tangka and visualize it in its 3-D fullness.
As many mystics have documented, going into a mystical state is to pass beyond the opposites of the world, to experience the union of those opposites in a “radiant burst of energy.” Milarepa‘s wisdom is that all things are present in all other things. “The state of non-duality, wherein all opposites, even good and evil, are seen as unity.”
I am left with a profound sense of how objects can become a source of power, wisdom and expansion—an idea in keeping with the spiritual intentions of many who pursue abstraction. But it is also the insistent reminder that connectedness is also fundamental, even in the face of this flourish of extravagant visual expansion.