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Essay

A painting can help us to think something that goes beyond
this senseless existence. That’s something art can do.

                            —Gerhard Richter, Doubt and Belief

 

GERHARD RICHTER wants you to believe.

Maybe not in God per se, but in something. The significance of his work depends on it. His paintings invite us to identify with the sense of longing that he has cultivated over the span of his career, using such diverse approaches as photorealism and gestural abstraction. The works draw the viewer in, like a window, or reflect outward, like a mirror. He is searching for something more, if you believe something more can exist. If you don’t, Richter creates the possibility of belief for you.

To understand this notion of believing, perhaps it’s better to ask a different set of questions: Can a work of art be greater than itself? Can elements outside the physical work make it better, or more significant? If so, can art be spiritual? Can it point to something greater? Is there something greater to point to, and if so, does pointing at it accomplish anything? What if it’s not pointing, but yearning? (That’s safer. You don’t have to believe, just want to, or want to want to.) Is this kind of pointing rude?

The artwork of Gerhard Richter provides an arena for debates that have been raging within the art world for centuries and continue as hotly as ever today. There are debates between the formal and the spiritual, between windows and mirrors, between—as Robert Storr puts it in the title of his 2003 catalogue accompanying a retrospective of Richter’s work at the Museum of Modern Art—doubt and belief.

While all this is manifested in Richter’s art, it is also clarified in his interviews, particularly those with curator and critic Robert Storr, and with professor and historian Benjamin Buchloh. These debates should not be dismissed as mere matters of professional rivalry between art’s exulted interpreters; they are also a matter of faith and the potential for its expression within art. Buchloh follows a modern tradition popularized by Clement Greenberg and encapsulated in the journal October (named after the Russian revolution of October 1917), which Buchloh currently edits. This “October school” builds on Greenberg’s idea of the autonomy of the artwork—as separated from external context or meaning. This is the notion that what you are able to observe contains everything the work is able to convey. Coming as it does out of modern, existentialist philosophy, Buchloh’s position dismisses the idea of anything spiritual—and certainly anything concerning God. Even the idea of meaning itself is called into question. Buchloh’s interviews with Richter attempt to downplay meaning and spirituality in the work and see it rather as a cynical negation of art itself.

Robert Storr sets himself in opposition to the October school. His writing, curating, and interviews draw out and expand the inquiry surrounding meaning, transcendence, and the spiritual. Rather agnostic in his approach, never pinning his or Richter’s position to a religion or ideology, Storr instead encourages debate and searching—using art as the vehicle for discovery. Where Buchloh dismisses God wholeheartedly, Storr leaves God a seat at the table. It becomes the artist’s task (and God’s) to fill the seat.

§

Windows and Mirrors: Two Ways of Seeing Painting

In order to get a clear sense of the scope of Richter’s artistic project, it is helpful to look at two traditions in the interpretation of painting that have historically been in competition for critical authority.

The first model sees painting as a window: paintings open up a space through their surface into another reality, as if the canvas were a portal through the wall on which it hangs. From the early fifteenth century to the beginning of modernism, artists aimed at the faithful representation of nature. It was a Renaissance practice to treat the two-dimensional canvas as what John Gilmour calls a “window opening into the depth.” The introduction of linear perspective by artists like Alberti and Piero della Francesca opened the window, so to speak, allowing artists to reproduce nature with a new level of accuracy.

Suddenly, landscapes appeared to recede into space, giving artists the ability to create more believable images and expanding their role from ornamentation and worship into the world of documentation. The imitation of nature subsequently became the dominant tradition—lasting until the advent of modernism. Between the early Renaissance and the late nineteenth century, from the heavenly tableaux of Masaccio to the Realistic peasants of Courbet, we can see this practice becoming less and less idealized and more and more naturalistic, but the essential approach remained the same: painting offers you a believable window into a world other than your own.

The late nineteenth century brought a new kind of painting. Artists like Manet and Monet gave the artist’s impression precedence over attempts at accuracy. Now the will of the artist and the expression of his or her intentions and emotions mattered more than the naturalistic realization of an image—a practice that would continue and develop until a new generation of art theory attempted to vanquish the idea that such expression was adequate or valuable as art. Within the modernist ideology, the surface of the canvas became more of a mirror than a window, reflecting the viewer back to herself, rather than opening a window into another reality created by the artist.

This modern line of thinking considered the previous tradition worthless and antiquated, and made a clean break from the past. From the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, abstraction became the dominant style, and naturalism fell out of favor. Matisse and Picasso flattened the picture plane, making paintings composed of broad, flat shapes, without the illusion of depth. Kandinsky and Malevich pushed notions of abstraction to their extremes, eliminating all representational elements in favor of geometric lines and forms.

Rather than representing reality (a goal now made redundant by the newly developed technology of photography) artists sought to express experiences or emotions more directly, and movements like expressionism, futurism, cubism, and De Stijl developed. Of course the term “reality” itself is highly subjective, and artists of the modern era meant different things by it, but there were common threads. Writes Helen Gardner, “This way of letting the picture ‘emerge’ out of deep, even unconscious, feeling, letting one’s artistic sensitivity and instinct be one’s guide, is common in the practice not only of expressionism but in modern art in general.”

Kandinsky went as far as to correlate his geometric forms directly to the spiritual realm. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art he explains how the spiritual life of humanity can be touched and expressed directly through painting. For Kandinsky and many of his contemporaries, painting had become a spiritual practice akin to religion.

Between these two traditions of the window and mirror, Gerhard Richter has carved out his own territory, adopting conventions of naturalistic representation in his photo-paintings and of the modern tradition in his abstract work. Richter presents a unique figure in that throughout his career he has moved back and forth between realism and abstraction. Historically these traditions may have vied for authority, but Richter seems to have leveled them single-handedly, giving equal weight and energy to both. Some critics have read this as an act of negation of both models—and, by extension, of painting entirely—but no one seems to have convinced Richter of this notion. He continues to work in both models today, and seems to have taken on the personal goal of rising above the conventions of both models.

He says to Storr:

There is a big difference between a painting that is made in order to deal with convention, either satirically, critically, or analytically, and a painting that accepts that conventions exist but tries to create a physical and visual reality that is as free of those conventions as possible.

Richter’s aim, then, involves creating new realities with existing models of painting.

§

The Reflection in the Window: Gray Mirror and Betty

Benjamin Buchloh: Do your paintings invite acts of faith, or analyses? Which matters more to you?

Gerhard Richter: Either would be fine with me. In your case they invite you to analyze. Others find them an invitation to perform acts of faith.

§

I never wanted to capture and hold reality in a painting…. I wanted to paint the appearance of reality. That is my theme or my job.

—Gerhard Richter to Robert Storr

When we talk about the formal qualities of a given artwork, we are talking about what can be directly observed and analyzed. Formal qualities include anything one can actually see, from the work’s size, color scheme, and surface texture to the individual lines or brushstrokes and the matter of whether a recognizable image is depicted. Historians of Benjamin Buchloh’s school rely exclusively on formal analysis. As an exercise, it is useful to analyze two of Richter’s paintings as Buchloh would, in order to illuminate both Buchloh’s position and Richter’s responses above.

Plate 3. Gerhard Richter. Gray Mirror, 1991. Glass, enamel, and paint. Each panel: 118 x 69 inches. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum, gift of Gerhard Richter.

Gray Mirror is a four-panel painting from 1991 [see Plate 3]. Looking at it, one notices several things at once. Most immediate is its size. Each panel is approximately 118 by 69 inches, roughly twice the height and width of an average person. If you stand centered in front of the piece, it fairly encompasses your view. It is all that you see.

Or rather, what it shows you is all that you see. This is an interesting point, because the second most striking feature of Gray Mirror is that there is no painted image at all. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever of the artist’s hand, other than the wall label’s pronouncement that Richter made the piece. Upon examination, we can see that gray paint has been applied to the back of glass panels in a smooth, even manner which reflects anything in front of them with the near-perfect accuracy of a mirror. The only obscuring feature is the gray paint itself, which reflects poorly compared with the silver of actual mirrors. When you stand in front of Gray Mirror, you see a dull reflection of yourself. Technically, this is an abstract painting. There is no representational imagery, and if, as many in the art world do, you generally categorize paintings as either abstract or representational, Gray Mirror belongs squarely in the abstract camp—until you stand in front of it and experience how representational it really is.

The last element to discuss would presumably be the choice of the color gray. Gray is laden with historical precedent and meaning. For the moment, however, we will stick with observable information in our formal analysis and get on with history and context later. What we can observe is that gray is a neutral color, half way between two complements (colors opposite each other on the color wheel), and that it is the only color, evenly covering all four panels.

A formal analysis of Gray Mirror is fairly easy, given its utter simplicity. There isn’t a whole lot to describe. Richter has blurred the line between abstraction and representation by creating a painting that does both to the nth degree. He has done so in the most neutral way possible, with the color that is between all colors: gray.

The obvious question is, so what? What possible significance could Gray Mirror have? Here we must leave formal reading for a more subjective analysis, one that encompasses outside information, including our own associations and personal histories. Conclusions could be drawn along any number of lines, but let us start with the fact that Richter has created an abstract painting that is simultaneously as representational as any painting could be. If the great endeavor of painters since the early fourteenth century was to create paintings that appeared to be windows into reality by using such techniques as two-point perspective, Richter has carried that tradition to its logical conclusion by creating a painting that appears as a window into reality by reflecting exactly what is in front of it. Further, consider that one of the major characteristics of modern art is to reflect reality back toward the viewer. Thus Richter has extended the ancient tradition of painting in a way that overlaps and includes modern painting, which is historically seen as a complete break with and negation of that tradition. Richter has negated the negation. Maybe the piece should rather be called Double Negative. This could be seen as a critique of the two traditions, or as an attempt at using them to express something new—lending additional significance to each rather than removing significance from either.

Gray Mirror seems to derive any greatness it has from the questions it raises rather than the statements it makes. Standing in front of it, it is reasonable to ask questions like: What is a painting? What is abstraction? What is reality? Am I the reflection or the reality? In Gray Mirror, we are confronted with a likeness of ourselves with all of our flaws, just as we are. The work says to us, “You are the reality”—which can make for a daunting image indeed. If Richter is searching for or creating a new reality, in Gray Mirror he is situating us right in the middle of it.

Plate 4. Gerhard Richter. Betty, 1988. Oil on canvas. 40 x 28 ¼ inches. Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

If this exercise in formal analysis seems difficult with a painting like Gray Mirror, perhaps looking at one of Richter’s photo-based paintings will be more helpful. One of his most famous works, Betty, is a rather small (for Richter) photo painting of the same year [see Plate 4]. It is roughly of human scale, and shows a close-up of a girl sitting as if on the floor. She has turned her head and shoulders away from us and is looking almost directly behind her at a solid gray background. The composition is cropped so that we see only her torso, shoulders, and head. She wears a bright white jacket decorated with red flowers and a red-lined hood over a pink-and-white top. She has blonde hair and appears rather young, although her exact age is difficult to determine, as we can see only a corner of her face. The painting style is photographic, mimicking the camera’s short depth-of-focus: her head and nearest shoulder appear crisply, and her other shoulder, arm, and lower torso blur as they recede into the picture. A viewer is hard pressed to identify individual brushstrokes, so smooth is the surface and clean the application of the paint. Betty’s surface is as much like a photograph as any painting I have seen.

We are looking at her. She is looking away from us at a gray wall. This is the information we have to work with—if, following the methods of formal analysis, we confine ourselves to observations we can derive from the image itself. We can see that she is turned away from the viewer and can surmise that Richter may be commenting on the nature of portraiture or negating something in painting—as if the painting doesn’t need the viewer and is content with its own space or self. Yet if we constrain our reading in this way, we may miss the very thing that makes this painting so striking and so famous.

In a 1993 issue of Artforum, Jim Lewis gave an account of the layers of meaning surrounding Betty. He wrote:

Here, for example, is the uncertainty of experience. Betty is caught in the full strangeness of her own act of observation; she’s the consummate subject, portrayed in the act of an observation purely and entirely her own. But the image is focused on the dramatic twist of her shoulder, deflecting one’s eyes away from any expression one might salvage from what little there is to see of her face. Moreover, she’s gazing into a gray blank that tells us nothing about why she’s turned, or what she sees—until one learns that it’s not a blank at all, or anyway not just a blank: it’s one of her father’s own gray abstractions, staring back at her with a gaze at least as enigmatic as her own. And then all at once the various reflections of concealed and indefinite attention combine, and something like an account appears, a report of the relationship between observer and observed, father and daughter, subject and self, which is at once acute and indecipherable.

A comment of Richter’s seems apropos here. Of his paintings in general, he has said:

It’s not a restoration. It is a reference to this loss. It takes account of the fact that we have lost something. It asks the question of whether or not we need to do something. It is not about the establishment of something.

Betty is looking back at the gray wall, which we now know is one of Richter’s abstract gray paintings. Perhaps she is looking at herself. Her attention is fixed on the gray field, and thus she draws our attention to it also. In light of this new information, the painting appears to ask a number of questions: What is significant about abstraction? What is so different between representation and abstraction? Which is more important? Which conveys more meaning? Which are we to pay attention to? What is the importance of art compared to my own child? What does my daughter think of my life’s work? What is this all for?

One might conclude that Betty sets up an enigmatic scenario, one that seems to ask more questions than it answers. If it firmly displays an idea, it is an idea of doubt or longing. It implies a type of questioning not easily expressed in the painting itself. The work alludes to something else, a question or possibility we cannot explain, yet if we know its context and some external information, we can readily step into a deeper conversation than the surface of the image provides. I hesitate to call this a spiritual painting, given all the implications the term can bring, but it seems to draw as much attention to external matters as to itself. Betty thus becomes a catalyst for us to explore questions about our own lives and experience. Richter has opened a conversation for spiritual and moral questions without being polemical, dogmatic, or earnest—qualities habitually shunned by the contemporary art world.

§

The Meaning of Life: October 18, 1977

GR: All I know is that there were reasons of content why I chose a particular photograph and why I decided to depict this or that event.

BB: In full awareness of the fact that content can no longer be conveyed through iconic depiction? So this is another contradiction: although you knew that—for example—a death theme cannot be conveyed through straight depiction, you nevertheless tried to do just that, knowing full well that it was impossible.

GR: For one thing, it isn’t impossible at all. A picture with a dead dog in it shows a dead dog. It only gets difficult if you try to convey something above and beyond that, if the content gets too complex for straightforward depiction. But that doesn’t mean that depiction can’t convey anything.

In accusing Richter of contradiction, Buchloh asserts his own belief that “content can no longer be conveyed through iconic depiction.” To this, Richter responds that his work is not contradictory because he believes that depiction can actually convey meaning. This difference of opinion not only has philosophical implications relating to contemporary art, but theological implications as well. It boils down to how each person perceives reality. In theological terms, this is the difference between immanence and transcendence.

For a contemporary artist, navigating this debate can be extremely difficult, yet Richter has staked his entire career on exploring this very territory. Robert Storr emphasizes the potential danger inherent in this conversation in a 2001 interview with Richter:

This is a period when there is almost no room for the kinds of words that you have used recently to discuss the October paintings, like faith or belief, or as far back as the early 1960s when you talked about art as being a substitute for religion. Using such vocabulary or making allusions to such traditional symbols or iconography is extremely provocative, given its misuse by fundamentalists or people in positions of power. You can be misunderstood in many many ways.

Plate 1. Gerhard Richter. Record Player, 1988. Oil on canvas. 24 ½ x 32 ¾ inches. From October 18, 1977, a series of fifteen paintings. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Storr refers to Richter’s October paintings as a place to continue this debate. If a painting of a dead dog is, as Richter said to Buchloh, still a painting of a dead dog, what does it mean to make paintings of dead people? The so-called October paintings were first shown in 1989, and drew considerable attention. They are collectively titled October 18, 1977, the date that three German activists-turned-terrorists, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe, were found dead in their cells in a high-security prison in Stammheim. Murder was suspected. The fifteen black-and-white paintings are part of a larger series of works in which Richter reproduces photographs, often blurring them in varying degrees. The October series includes various images related to the incident, taken from press photos. Several of the compositions are repeated, and all are blurred to a degree. The subjects are stark and troubling. Two paintings are of the arrest of Baader, Raspe, and their compatriot Holger Meins. Two others depict Baader, dead in his cell, apparently from shooting himself, and the record player where he was reported to have hidden his pistol [see Plates 1 and 2]. One is of Baader’s empty cell. One is of Ensslin hanging in her cell, and three are of Ensslin in police custody. Three are close-ups, in smaller and smaller sizes, of Ulrike Meinhof lying on her cell floor, face up, with a noose around her neck. Meinhof, another young terrorist, had died at Stammheim the previous year, and her death was also rumored to be a murder. One is a portrait photo of a young Meinhof. Another is of the public burial of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe. The paintings are allowed to be exhibited in unspecified order.

Plate 1. Gerhard Richter. Record Player, 1988. Oil on canvas. 24 ½ x 32 ¾ inches. From October 18, 1977, a series of fifteen paintings. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Richter blurs the line between representation and abstraction in order to heighten the tension and complicate the interpretation of these works. The images are not direct copies of press photos. Richter has rendered them accurately only to apply blurring brush strokes, casting an air of doubt or distance over the crisp precision of exact rendering. The slight muddying of the images serves to obscure details, much in the way that the details of the actual events were obscured from the public. This effect pulls these images away from realism toward abstraction, and opens a number of new questions: What does it mean to paint the image of a dead person? What is the significance of a human life?

As a group, the October 18, 1977 paintings seem to argue that there is meaning to be discovered in this story. If the paintings do not contain meaning by themselves, Richter has certainly demonstrated that they can point to profound (and perhaps even religious) conversations. If he had wanted to prove the opposite, that the paintings were devoid of meaning despite their imagery, it seems he wouldn’t have grouped them together, separate from his other series. It is rather as if he is trying to heighten their significance by setting them apart—and trying to emphasize painting’s role as a vehicle for these stories to be told and remembered.

Here again Richter plays with the opposing notions of painting as a window into and reflection of reality in order to convey ideas of longing and hope. At first glance, this may seem contradictory. How do these bleak paintings convey hope, or even longing? As we spend more time with the works, however, these feelings become implied by their absence. The Baader-Meinhof group represented the negative result of an ideology meant to correct perceived social injustice in post-WWII West Germany. To Richter, who is admittedly against ideology of any sort, this example was directly relevant to his own experience, culture, and past.

In portraying scenes surrounding these controversial deaths, Richter seems to be lamenting—and longing for—several things. The Baader-Meinhof group embodies the tragic expression of an ideology, and having originated as a student protest group, they represent wasted or corrupted youth. Richter also seems to lament the German government’s harsh and possibly lethal reaction. These negative examples imply a longing for their opposites: for the innocence of youth, civil treatment of humanity, and honest government. It is hard not to draw parallels between these works and the many historical and contemporary representations of Christ on the cross. Richter makes no direct reference to religion, but in this series he makes a foray into religion’s domain.

Richter does not seem to say that meaning can exist within paintings, rather that paintings can convey meaning, or at least the possibility of it, by the way they direct our attention. This can happen, he seems to imply, only so long as the paintings point toward something outside themselves. Gray Mirror reflects an image of ourselves and our environment back to us. Betty draws our attention not to the girl, Betty, but inward to the abstraction in the background. The October 18, 1977 paintings raise our awareness of the complicated and obscure details surrounding the lives and deaths of a group of young radicals.

Richter’s belief in the ability of paintings to convey meaning is in a way indicative of his view of reality itself. His ways of painting images, and presenting them to us, serve to heighten our attention to the subjects he depicts. This demonstrates a belief that material objects can, at times, be vehicles for meaning outside of themselves. The underlying argument seems to be that if painting can be meaningful, then life can be meaningful. Richter seems to long for life without ideology, but hope in the possibility of something greater and better than the present situation. His work should draw special attention from religious artists who hold the same hope. His exploration, methods, and techniques are poignant examples of ways in which nonreligious people can construct and engage in religious conversations.

Whether or not one believes Richter’s implied claim that painting can convey meaning boils down to whether one believes there is meaning in life at all. If you do not accept that there is value to who we are and what we do, then Richter’s experiment is a failure. If you do, then his work is a grand celebration in a multiplicity of forms. The challenge for the viewer, then, is: Do you believe?

BB: Longing for what?

GR: For lost qualities, for a better world—for the opposite of misery and hopelessness.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • Nancy Carlson

    I love this quote he makes about his paintings:

    “It’s not a restoration. It is a reference to this loss. It takes account
    of the fact that we have lost something. It asks the question of
    whether or not we need to do something. It is not about the
    establishment of something.”

    If we engage in art and meaning the result will be ‘action’; and that can take a myriad of forms.

    I think many things we do are ‘art’: the way we speak, or listen, or touch as well as the more traditional modalities. My hope is that ‘my art’ will cause internal questioning of what we need to do and how we are to do it. Like he says, it is not about the establishment of something, or even a portal into an idea. True art in transformative is some way.

    Of his paintings in
    general, he has said:

    It’s not a restoration. It is a reference to this loss. It takes account of
    the fact that we have lost something. It asks the question of
    whether or not we need to do something. It is not about the
    establishment of something.

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