Friday, February 6, 2015

Gerhard Richter: Art is Still "Sublime"

Gerhard Richter, Abstrakt Bild (1980)
Gerhard Richter is probably the world's leading painter - not just because of his dazzling technical virtuosity, but for his work's important insights into the nature of seeing and picture-making. Then there's the range of what he's done; there's very little progressive contemporary painting that Richter hasn't already done, implied, or rendered irrelevant. It's like what a friend of mine told me about B.B. King's reaction to Stevie Ray Vaughn's playing: "The kid never runs out of ideas!" 

His output at first glance appears a bit schizophrenic - much of it is polarized between, on the one hand, the hyper-realism of paintings that pretend to be photos and on the other "random" abstractions created by purely mechanical means such as dragging a giant squeegee through the paint.  The constant? the work deceptively appears to circumvent the hand of the artist. But the reality is quite different and at once more comforting and complex: it has everything to do with Richter's "eye" (his vision for painting) and the artist, of course, is always and intensely present. 

Richter's paradoxical practice, always in a sense about the nature of painting now, has succeeded in proving painting's ongoing relevance even as choruses of art world authorities continue to proclaim its death.

Gerhard Richter, Lesende (Reader), 1994
As it has many times over his long (60 year) career,  Richter's work has morphed again into two totally disparate modes: this time, apparently chance-induced paint pouring on one hand and algorithmic digital manipulation based on one of his paintings on the other (for example, see the "Strip" painting below). There's an insightful a little interview and write up in the Wall St. journal on his latest work and the new London Gallery it's put on the map. 

Gerhard Richter, one of the new poured works

Richter says, "Hope and belief are…unique to humans. Animals don’t go around hoping. [Religion] slowly broke down over time. Perhaps starting right before Nietzsche. And nowadays there aren’t many believers. But there’s an unbroken urge to believe—whether in Prada, or some other brand of clothing, or in anything.... "

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting

"Abstract pictures do indeed show something, they just show things that don’t exist. But they still follow the same requirements as figurative works: they need a setup, structure. You need to be able to look at it and say, “It’s almost something.” But it’s actually representing nothing. It pulls feelings out of you, even as it’s showing you a scene that technically isn’t there." -Gerhard Richter

Richter, spry at 82, in front of one of his new "Strips" works.

It's all a glorious, dizzying conundrum. I see abstract painting, if not all painting  as "a secular pilgrimage toward universality," as the WSJ article puts it: "Most of the Ab-Exers shared an impulse to bring the hope of the world into their art." Not Richter. Richter wanted to close the gap between Duchamp and painting, to make objects out of signs without definite referents, confronting us with the inexplicable beauty of our bewildering and often horrific modern lives. 

September, Gerhard Richter
The processes Richter uses to make his paintings are at times themselves a metaphor for human vulnerability, striving, and patient questioning. 

All of Richter's diverse works spring from the same artistic project, namely his 'belief in painting's necessity born of radical doubt in its potential .... a credere quia absurdam' (from St. Aquaina's phrase 'I believe because it is absurd.') Despite his refusal of sentimentality in any form, for Richter art and beauty are humanity's saving graces in the face of often hard-to-bear reality. 

Gerhard Richter, Sphere (note the crouching figure reflected in the steel ball)
As he has said many times, if our better selves are to survive, "we need beauty in all its variations." I'm down with that.

Gerhard Richter, Two Fiats
Gerhard Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1982

(*A. Borchdardt-Hume, Gerhard Richter Panorama, p. 174)


  1. Glorious. We also have that tension in puppetry between the hyper-real and the very abstract.

  2. Enjoyed reading your blog thoroughly today. Richter is my favorite and I never cease to be amazed at his diverse output. There is a wonderful documentary showing RIchter at work. He seems reticent about working in front of a camera, but his humanity comes through loud and clear.

  3. Thanks Andrew - that's it - the tension between the hyper-real and the very abstract. Your comment has inspired a tweak or to the original blog post. thanks!!

  4. Ed - I love that movie "Gerhard Richter Painting" rocks

  5. This was germane to my present state of mind... and not just in relation to painting. Appreciation and gratitude from here.

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