Richter : Critical Issues
“I don't know what motivated the artist, which means
these paintings have an intrinsic quality. I think Goethe called
it the 'essential dimension', the thing that makes great works of
art great” (Richter, Text, 85)
in painting developed in such a way as to determine the
intentionality of the artist, the formal handling of medium in
relation to the work, and the intrinsic individuality that
resulted from a fusion of the two. That said, it would be
considered extraordinarily blunt and prejudicial to look at, say,
Dutch art of the 17th
Century and conclude that the paintings of Vermeer, de
Hooch, ter Borch and/or Maes are fundamentally the same. Sure,
it's true that in popular art-historical terms, this era has been
generalized into a convention (the Dutch “Golden Age”); but
connoisseurs have located the differences between these artists
quite clearly. Therefore, an analysis of painting based solely on
the didactic nature of the image represented should be considered
uncritical. Why, then, is representational painting now only
discussed in light of photo-based painting? It seems as if
photo-based painting and its critical discussion in contemporary
criticism has been fully conventionalized to the point that it
envelops most forms of representation. No one seems to be making a connoisseurial argument on this front. The kind of sensitivity
that used to be applied to discussing painting seems completely
In order to get to the root of this
matter, we must look at the most seminal figure in postmodern
representational painting: the German painter Gerhard Richter (b.
1932). Richter is at once inclusive and divisive when it comes to
postmodern theory and painting. His training ranged extensively,
moving from a traditional art education in Dresden in the 1950s to
his exposure to modernist and postmodernist ideas in the 1960s,
meeting and working with Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Joseph
Beuys. These experiences helped to guide Richter's artistic
approaches, thus leading to an impressive stylistic
his work. He certainly pushes paint into an arena of vibrant
discourse, especially when it comes to his photo-based work: often
testing the waters of critique with nods to history painting (as
in the Baader-Meinhof suite,
), the Duchampian-readymade (Kitchen
Chair, ), and German Romanticism (Himalaya,).
The aporia that erupts in the work --and this is what elicits the
greatest fascination in critical circles-- is made manifest via a
purposeful aridity in his delivery. That is to say, Richter paints
– as much as he is able – with a deft, but formally anonymous
hand. Employing no idiosyncratic mark-making, nor eye-catching
surface manipulations, Richter desublimates the tropes of painting
and eludes much of its historical associations, while
simultaneously provoking postmodernist critique by the very use of
the medium. He has stated that he paints “to bring together the
most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and
viable, with the greatest possible freedom” (Daily
As is well known (and obvious in the
work), Richter employs the use of photographs: his own; found or
co-opted; newspaper and magazine clippings; postcards; and
snapshots of screen images. The distortion that results in these
photographic reproduction processes is something that Richter has
often mimicked – blurring, warping, imitating the dot-matrix of a
screen – in the painting itself. One of the most interesting
effects of this imitation is that it calls to mind the
harmony/dissonance binary of photography and painting: while the
blur of a photo is due to the lens of
camera, the photographic image can be imitated in a painting via a
skilled hand. However, the painted surface is not actually blurred
or distorted; paint is paint, no matter how one applies it. And
Richter is indeed skilled, well-schooled in the manipulation of
oil paint, even in impasto techniques. However, he reserves this
mainly for his abstract paintings. The surface-related activity in
these works is very much related to their conceptual scope, with
complex layers and effacements alluding palimpsest.
There is something sincerely
fundamental in Richter's explorations-- a deep-seated mistrust of
ideology; his upbringing under the pall of two dictatorships
–first Hitler, and then Stalin, because of his life in East
Germany-- certainly gives him a strong reason and resolve to
question the nature of dogmatic thinking. He follows the line of a
fellow German intellectual, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who
claimed that the “idea of art [is] to gain control of semblance,
to determine it as semblance, as well as to negate it as unreal”
(78). With this in mind, Richter wishes to continue to imbue, or
perhaps invoke in painting and representation that “essential
dimension” to which Goethe referred. In doing so, it can be
imagined that his art might transcend the conventionalizing nature
of postmodern criticality/academia – the preeminent ideology of
the contemporary art world. It is easy to note this polarity
between artist and critique in Richter's 1986 conversation with
Benjamin Buchloh. Here Buchloh postures as a postmodernist
ideologue, misunderstanding Richter's intentions at many turns.
One particular instance is in Buchloh's mistaking Richter's
photo-real painting oeuvre as pastiche, calling it “a cynical
retrospective survey of 20th-century painting,” to
which Richter replies, “I see no cynicism or trickery or guile in
any of this” (Daily
Practice, 146). Rather, the very linkage of the painted
objects – the photos, the images, the likenesses, conflated into
one source-point “reality” – reveals not just a didactic lack of
continuity, but elemental associations that are almost musical.
Look at the sequence from painting to painting: a cloud, a roll of
toilet paper, and then the artist's Uncle Rudi in his Nazi uniform
– the resonance of the latter work is that much greater in the
harmony of the surrounding works. The Buchloh-Richter conversation
is vital, as it provides solid insight into the overreaching
tendencies of postmodern criticality when confronted with art that
subverts and/or expands beyond ideological theoretical modes.
Thus, Richter has become iconic of
“anonymity” in representational painting. And much like Buchloh's
misfires in his cat-and-mouse with Richter, the trope of the
“anonymous hand” has been conventionalized into all discussions of
representational painting; it is discussed solely on the grounds
of photo-based tropes. What was once an indefinable space of
experience (the essential) has undergone typical morphological
deconstruction through critical agencies and become incorrectly
concretized into a canonical model for contemporary painting.
“X-factors” in art always delimit a fragile space, for, in the
Foucauldian sense, the armies of discourse will rush in and seek
to instrumentalize them.* Through such instrumentalization,
ideologies spring forth.
So now a certain kind of myopia is
prevalent in the critique of contemporary representational
painting. Of course, artists are aware of this, and many have
aligned themselves with this stunted kind of criticality.
“Painting by committee” is fashionable in this arena. It not only
fulfills the latest, edgy model of artist as solely Conceptual,
but also subverts any emphasis upon skill, leaving the painting
job to a studio of “workers”. Postmodern tropes have blunted the
edge of representation as it pertains to photography, and the
non-styles of the studios of Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wylie and Rudolph
Stengel, for example, perpetuate the problem. Far more slick, the
surfaces of the products of these artists are very different than
those of Richter, yet they are meant to be read as didactically
photo-based, with no individual “hand” present in the work.
What is it, then, that can lift a
painter such as myself out of these constrained conventions? How
would this one painter of the realistic image individuate himself
from others? If the nature of the discourse has been blunted, then
perhaps the tactics a painter might bring to bear need to be
fairly blunt. If I want to function in this strange terrain of
generic approaches, it may be time to return to structural roots,
such as the very physicality of paint. The aesthetic of painting
needs to be re-embraced, alongside contemporary conceptual
narratives. Why would a painter not want to embrace that part of
painting's history that still resonates so strongly? Madlyn Miller
Kahr, in her essay on Velazquez'
calls the masterwork “a demonstration of the combination of
intellectual subtlety and aesthetic sensibility that the best of
its practitioners bring to painting” (245). Why can't this
sentiment function in this day and age? I believe it can.
There are a few artists who bring
this aesthetic to bear today, about some of whom I have already
written: Michaël Borremans, Jenny Saville, John Currin, Vincent
Desiderio. And there are others – Johannes Kahrs, Vija Celmins,
Eberhard Havekost, Lucien Freud, and Ulrich Lamsfuss – to name a
few. For many of them, paint application is a strong sign of a
return to a more painting-specific aesthetic. Surfaces can be
highly imperfect and erratic, with instances of stray brush hairs
lingering in extruded strokes, fingerprints and exposed raw linen.
The very textures call to mind a warmth/mystery/myth of the
European painter's studio. The straightforward, conservative
aspect of such historical structural reference serves to distance
and positively differentiate itself from the contemporary ideology
of representation, which is conventionalized as “photo-real”.
Peter Rostovsky, upon seeing a Borremans in person, remarked,
“It's like a Sargent with its surfaces, but combined with the
content, it becomes a Richter
instead of just photographs” (42:29).
It is vital for me to understand and
incorporate an aesthetic physicality into my imagery. I have
experimented with this, but need to continue in order to make
manifest that signature “mark”, using the traditional surfaces and
mediums in which the paint is suspended. In this, I will be able
to find again the dignity of “painter as painter”. That is, in the
creation of a painting, the physical and mental are dualistically
* Foucault's attitude in this regard
is reflected in this example: “When social and political
scientists increasingly claim the importance of categories like
“invention”, “fiction” and “construction” for their work, they
often double the theoretical attitude they initially set out to
criticize... [this] lacks any sense of the materiality of the
process of theory production.” (Lemke, 63).
is a practicing artist and professor at the Maine College of Art.
He works and lives in Portland, Maine. His upcoming solo show “The
Detached Muse,” will be opening in July, 2013 at Galatea Fine Art,
Boston. His work can be viewed on line at robsullivanart.com.
Adorno, Theodor W.
(1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.
Madlyn Miller. “Velazquez and Las Meninas.”
57.2 (1975): 225-246. Print.
Lemke, Thomas. “Foucault,
Governmentality and Critique.”
Marxism Vol. 14, Issue 3. September, 2002: 49-64. Print.
Practice of Painting. Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1995. Print.
Interviews and Letters. London:Thames and Hudson, 2009.
Rostovsky, Peter. Personal Interview. Recorded in Brooklyn, New
York. 7 May 2011.
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