Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Too Olympian"? or, Use Your Words, Dammit: What is the Effect of "Gerhard Richter Painting"?

I recently saw the film “Gerhard Richter Painting” with my son and his fiancée in Los Angeles; it is still showing through the summer in some cities. I urge you to see it or, failing that, find and go to see his newer work, the big abstractions.  My husband and I just visited the Hess Collection in Napa, again, and saw “S.D.I. 1986” (painted in 1993, 126” x 157 ½”):

“S.D.I.”  is really made up of many paintings: on the left lower border is a soft, smooth abstract (of the sort I was being taught to paint in the early 70’s, “no visible brushstrokes, uniform color, please”) where Richter has placed black, grey and red angles against a gentle blue. Then there are the layers, moving left to right, rough strata, scraped, with the interaction of paints and new combinations of colors, each new formation captured as it dried. The horizontal lines mark the artist’s movement, while the vertical red and yellow columns, holding their own, seem to refute it.

Smooth agreement or jagged layers: Richter’s critical reception also splits just this way, neatly into two.  One camp, the smooth-agreement people, simply review the film, positively, offering a paragraph or so of amiable enthusiasm.  The best remarks from this group are true observations, and were written by Kenneth Baker (The San Francisco Chronicle sfgate.com, posted May 3, 2012) and Alissa Simon (Variety, posted online 9/19/11).  Baker says that “the film’s second portrait subject is Richter’s studio … immense …. The viewer finally experiences it the way the painter must: as playroom, as production site, as hideout and as prison.” Perfect.  The huge, clean, white, silent studio is filmed with Richter moving through it (mostly immaculate himself, in creased slacks) with the occasional presence of the two assistants or a gentle question from the director, Corinna Belz.  And it is clear that Richter alternately has fun, works very hard, looks for calm or isolation in the studio, or feels trapped by a painting that will not work.  Alissa Simon notes that the film is “intelligently assembled,” and is an “intelligent pic,” (she is writing for Variety) with a “sparsely modernist score” assisted by “birdsong from the garden.” The film disturbs the process as little as possible: even the birdsong goes on despite the lights and cameras. Here is a still from the film’s website:

But these brief critiques of the film offer little insight into or discussion of Richter’s work.  The second camp, critics who do write about Richter’s paintings, all seem to offer us one point of view: jagged layers.  Richter’s painting is dismissed as one thing after another, changeable, un-categorizeable. He is seen as relentless, an unfeeling, forward-moving painting machine, emotion-less, merely an “industry.”   The fact that Richter rejects inclusion and labels irritates people who like them.  The lack of an attempt, on the part of the painter, to seduce the critical world leads the critic to spurn the non-seduction with a nasty review.

The most thorough essay on Richter’s work that I have seen falls into this angry camp. In its defense, the essay is, at least, a real attempt to sum up his legacy.  T.J. Clark gave us “Grey Panic” (The London Review of Books, www.lrb.co.uk, posted 17 November 2011). It is ostensibly a review of the Richter retrospective, “Panorama,” at the Tate Modern (last October through this January).  This is a review that deserves attention, because it appears to recognize Richter’s massive achievement and influence (the Tate show is a “great event,” he assures us), but, really, Clark undercuts Richter’s artistic efforts, first in a kind of code and then … openly.

Clark approaches the retrospective by first praising, at some length, a concert he had attended two nights before: Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli , and his feeling that the music he had heard that night represented the “last intransigence of modernism on the wing.”  Now, that description sounds so lovely and seductive, but “intransigence” is … negative . Had Clark written “the last obstinate note of modernism on the wing,” the intention behind this juxtaposition of Boulez and Richter would have been a bit less poetic. That “thud” we hear, the clash of the end of modernism with Richter’s body of work, should set us up nicely to read on.  

The “Grey Panic” of the review’s title refers, in Clark’s view, to Richter’s work of the 1960’s, the “mostly monochrome oils done from photographs.”  Clark feels that Richter’s softened and neutered palette here is not any kind of definitive answer to the problem of painting vs. photography [oh, were we looking for that?], and that, in fact, “the drawing away of chroma is a figure for a general lapsing out of spatial (and therefore social) relationship.”  Clark goes on to say that Richter has a “fundamental, and persistent, sense of his own time” [which sounds like a good thing] but goes on to say that painting is, for Richter, “essentially a way of keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  I think, first, that “drawing away of chroma” isn’t really the way to describe Richter’s grey work.  Perhaps Clark does not know that grey paint is mixed by combining opposing colors on the wheel: red and green, or yellow and purple, or blue and orange -- the opposite, then, of “drawing away of chroma.”  And, next, Richter told an interviewer (Irmiline Lebeer) that “space in painting …. doesn’t exist. It’s a false problem” (Gerhard Richter Writings 1961-2007, d.a.p. press, 2009, p. 81).  Two dimensions, whatever they might offer, are never three -- I thought that was a modernist tenet? Perhaps we have not heard the death knell of modernism just yet. Richter is not worried about space. But I do believe that he is worried about “his own time” and the “society” he lives in; he is hardly “lapsing out.” Look at Richter’s “Miland: Dom” (Milan Cathedral) from 1964 (from the artist's website; this may not have been in the Tate show, but it is representative of the “grey” 1960’s work):

This is still a kind of extension of modernism, I think. One feels that the “Grey Panic” is not Richter’s, but Clark’s.  “Grey does the work of mourning,” Clark says.  “It and the blur stand for dirty, but also sterilized, secrets.”

Clark continues: “the big colored abstracts [that] emerge in the following decade … make no sense unless they are seen against this background of grey panic.”  Clark ends the review in a kind of unlovely series of personal reactions to the work: the paintings offer only “heavy impenetrability” and “parody.” Any kind of “vividness for Richter, if it comes, will have to have falsity written deep within it” and Clark says of one of the works of the 18 October 1977 series that it “brings on (in me) a feeling of utter impotence and incomprehension” and that this “nihilism” is “too Olympian.”  [The series -- 18 October 1977 -- was based on photographs of the German Baader-Meinhof Group, who kidnapped and killed their targets; three of the four were captured and later found dead in their cells. It was never made clear whether their deaths were caused by suicide or murder.] Here is a painting from that series, from MOMA’s collection:

I don’t know; this does not seem at all “too Olympian” to me.  And maybe “utter impotence and incomprehension” in response to paintings about Baader-Meinhof is really appropriate.  I don’t see “deep falsity” here; I see a very human face, presented for scrutiny.  Richter said in 1981 that that “I want pictorial content without sentiment, but I want it as human as possible” (GRW, 119).

Can the film do anything to change the minds of people like Clark, who believe that Richter has broken modernism through “parody” and “Olympian” indifference??

I think it can.  This artist is no parodist. “Gerhard Richter Painting” shows us that he keeps just five or six postcard-size reproductions above his work table.  One is a chipped statue of a nude woman, seen from two angles: “The scarring is brutal,” he says.  Another picture shows a tree painted by Courbet, which I think might be this, “The Oak at Flagey”:

He keeps these works, he said, as a kind of motivation; they are works that have moved him. Another of the pieces was a drawing by Picasso, a woman’s head, that looked something like this “Head of a Woman” from 1933:

Richter carefully traces the “deformed, squashed” features, tracing them and marveling at the imperfections.  The one documentary photograph on his wall is a picture of Nazi soldiers at a concentration camp, behind a pile of naked dead bodies and wafting smoke from a fire.  The bodies will all be burned, it is clear, and Richter points to the men smoking and talking in their long dress coats: it looks “so normal,” he says. 

Perhaps Clark is right: Richter does have a “sense of his own time,” of his own country’s history, and perhaps his paintings are a way of “keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  He tells the film’s director that the 18 October 1977 series was “very difficult,” but that “doing it makes you feel good.”

The “doing” of painting is what this film is, in essence, about.  The noise of the squeegee he uses to scrape paint across canvas seems enormous; the sound of the artist’s movements in his studio has been amplified.  The first shots of Richter at work show him straining with the big squeegee, but then stopping, looking, and going over minute details with a delicate paintbrush. “They do what they want,” he says of the primarily neutral-colored paintings in these first shots. “I planned something very different … very colorful.”  Here is a still from the film’s site, showing the massive squeegee:

The film shows Richter preparing for a show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York; Goodman comes to visit during the filming to discuss the hanging of the show.  We see tiny, perfect models of each work hanging on tiny perfect walls. The film also brings in some older photos and films; one movie dates from 1966, and in that film Richter says that “Painting is another form of thinking.”  Yes.  And Richter does all the thinking.  His two assistants do not paint.  They mix paint, clean up, and worry. For these larger abstract works, the paint has to be “clean” so that the only “grooves” come from deliberate movements by Richter, so the assistants stir the paint -- only white, back, red, ultramarine and yellow, no earth tones, they say -- with an electric stirrer and strain it through … cheesecloth?  (They mention that the photo-based realistic works merely needed tube paint).   We see Richter working on several canvases.  Sometimes the squeegee is dragged with great force, completely crossing the canvas, and other times the artist uses only a small, light gesture.

He shows us disappointments; “I don’t know what to do next,” he says, of a painting that he dislikes.  If they make it past the point where he thinks they might be finished (“When I feel it’s right, then I stop”), then, he explains, still, paintings sometimes only look good for a couple of hours, or perhaps a day or two.  If they last longer than that, they are hanged on white walls in a portion of the studio that looks like a gallery; if they make it there, they can make it anywhere, he must reason.  But my son was stunned when Richter approached a painting that seemed to our audience perfect, and pulled a canvas-high squeegee across the length of it.  Gone.

He obviously was concerned about painting before a camera: “Painting is a secretive business,” he says, “between being caught and being seen, something you do in secret and then reveal in public.”  But we get to know a lot about him, through this film, and it’s clear that, as he says in GRW to an interviewer, that art is “the highest form of hope” (488).   I will leave you with an abstract from 2009, taken from Richter’s site, from 2009, the time of the filming:


  1. I personally never liked Richter's abstracts until I saw them in person at his exhibition last year in the Tate Modern. I couldn't see any compositional value, they just looked like blended paint. After seeing them in the flesh, I appreciated the sheer power of the work. The colours often verge on becoming mud, despite showing the entire spectrum so close together, the textured too are amazing, to I now approach them in the same way I would a sculpture as I don't feel seeing images on the internet or even in books do them justice. Thank you very much for this brilliant post :)

  2. Dear Fred,
    You are making a really important point. So many times, all we have access to is a reproduction, but as you say, the colors and textures get lost in print and on screen. I am glad you liked the post... loved your newest work on your blog! Very lively, deep colors (and someday my husband and I will come and see it in person).

  3. Thank you :) you are more than welcome to come and see my work if your ever in the area!

  4. Thank you for visiting my blog. I like your Donne quote and your thoughtful posts.

  5. Thank you Jackie! Good luck with your lovely book....