Thursday, April 12, 2012

Gerhard Richter Order Chaos

I have given some thought to Gerhard Richter lately, after seeing the fascinating documentary Gerhard Richter Painting.

In terms of the formal factors I defined as "rock and roll" previously (much on my mind since reposting the piece at Huffington Post and carefully idiot-checking my reasoning), Richter qualifies as a rock and roll painter. And yet, I get no feeling of rock and roll, at all, from his work. So I think I need to revise the model.

I said that, in rock and roll work, paint-as-paint contends with paint-as-representation. Let me revise that: I think that the paint-as-paint must be the outcome of a conscious process. The process has grappled with the physicality of the paint and transformed it. The paint retains traces of that consciousness, even in its incarnation as pure matter. The paint has been conjoined with gnosis.

By contrast, Richter's paint-as-paint is the outcome of a mechanical process. Specifically, smearing by squeegee.

Once I stopped trying to apply the rock and roll model to Richter, it opened up according to its own nature. Ordinarily, one would be inclined to place his figurative work in one category, and his abstract squeegee paintings in a second category, and say, "These are two distinct bodies of work."

Consider Reader against, to take a random example, Abstract Painting. Obviously, they are two different things. One is a highly-rendered portrait of a woman reading a book, the other some squeegeed paint in the key of red.

not the same thing

Rather than doing that, though, I think it is useful to suppose that the figurative work and the squeegee work represent opposite poles of a continuum which dominates his output. Let's consider five of his paintings in turn:

 sort of the same thing

Again there is the rarified perfection of the 1994 painting Reader:

 It is photographic, even painted from a photograph, but it is not photorealism. This is photorealism:

the pinnacle of contemporary photorealism
Dirk Dzimirsky, Deja-Vu, 2010, pencil on paper, 42 cm x 42 cm (image courtesy of the artist)

Photorealism troubles itself with the details of the things it represents. Richter's painting, much more closely aligned with Vermeerian photographism, subscribes to the concept of the photograph, of the perfected mimesis of some form. The application of the concept involves an enormous amount of missing detail and trimming of shapes, a nearly grecian simplification toward purity. You trip over the refinement, looking at his picture. It is a hypnotic struggle toward a vividly held idea of the perfect.

And yet, this state of enlightenment is unstable for Richter. Consider a second Reader painting, of the same year:

Here, Richter's habit of wiping across his canvas asserts itself. It is nearly a tic with him. Although analysis of his work focuses on the wiping as a component of his life-long commentary on photography, and although I think this is true, I see something simpler in it as well. The fact is, a painting of even moderately accurate draughtsmanship becomes strangely photographic when you partly wipe it off in linear swipes of a cloth. I stumbled on this oddity by accident early in my work with paint. It's just a thing that happens - your shitty detail work goes away, and the variegated planes that remain are filled in by the brain as perfectly realistic.

Richter, optimizing his aesthetic relative to his technical skills, deployed this trick a lot early in his career, and we see it in a third painting, Sailors, from 1966:

The damn thing looks like a blurry photograph, but trust you me, before he wiped most of it off, it was the most crudely sketched-in symphony of amateur technique. You can still see it, if you ignore the special effect and study the awkwardly drawn faces closely.

This is not to denigrate the painting. Technique isn't art. Richter figured out how to make much with the tools he had, all the while improving them with practice. What's important about this painting is that it represents a midpoint in the continuum, between uttermost perfection of form, and the totality of chaos.

In the 2005 painting Forest, we see the cloth replaced by the squeegee, and the almost complete submersion of representation in a mechanically-induced chaotic plane:

This submersion is completed in Abstract Painting, 2008, from the period during which the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting was shot.

This sequence of paintings jumps back and forth over 32 years. It's the kind of timespan over which the pattern of a career emerges. What I'm seeing here is an active struggle between two principles. The principles are not idea and matter, as they are in rock and roll painting, but rather form and chaos.

From one end of this continuum to the other, we see form decaying into chaos, or chaos resolving into form, depending on reading direction. Richter seems animated by an obsessive devotion to form, a devotion so obsessive that he sees true form as an exquisitely fragile manifestation, and deviation from it - chaos - as horrifying; yet he embraces the horror as well. He is fascinated with the universe of chaos, of things that just happen, when matter is left to devolve on its own. (He demonstrates in Gerhard Richter Painting that horror is indeed his approach, directing that a show of the squeegee paintings be installed in a room "under cold bluish light, so that people will want to flee.")

His squeegee paintings are not without intervention - in the documentary, he stands in front of his in-process paintings, measuring whether they "work" and squeegeeing in new fields of paint when they do not. But he does not exert control the way we classically think of it in painting. He can make broad strokes, not define precise details. He has discovered that chaos has an aesthetic, but you cannot impose an aesthetic on chaos - you just keep rolling the dice until you get an outcome you like.

Richter's dice-rolling here is identical with the digital creation of images of turbulent seas in the 2000 film The Perfect Storm:

The wave-modeling software was so sophisticated that particular waves could not be generated for particular shots, without losing their wave-like qualities. So the F/X technicians just kept running the software until they got waves that worked.

The Perfect Storm, actually, helps to illustrate a point I'd like to raise with you. The point is that the choppy seas in The Perfect Storm in no way resemble Gerhard Richter's squeegee paintings. And yet, they are both complex systems which involve chaos. Chaos has a strict definition nowadays, which, woo doggy, we don't want to get into here. Let me elide all that by showing that Richter's squeegee technique, exerting differential drag on viscous paint, converges almost explicitly with a famous example of chaos - Stephen Wolfram's rule 30 for cellular automata:

rule 30 on a computer - rule 30 in nature (Conus textile shell) - rule 30 in art (Grun-Blau-Rot, 1993)
(images courtesy, respectively, of Wikipedia, Wikipedia, and Jerry Saltz)

Comparing the choppy seas, and the Richter paintings, we have forcefully pointed out to us that many things that do not look like each other are chaotic, and yet all these chaotic things share an underlying aesthetic similarity which is recognizable to the mind. Richter could have chosen many forms of chaos to evoke in his abstract work: paint peeling on a wall - the shifting of dunes - the billowing of clouds - the corrosion of iron. But one chaos above all others spoke to him, the uneven distribution of paint by a squeegee. Why?

There is a clue to this affinity in the documentary. Discussing his life, Richter recalls that when he was a teenager, his parents worried that he would starve if he didn't learn how to do a real job. So they apprenticed him to a printer. He was miserable there, and soon quit.

Printers use squeegees to spread ink. Richter's unhappy apprenticeship introduced him to a texture of the real which has haunted him the rest of his life. He struggles against it, and yet he returns to it. On the one hand is his dream of perfection, most frequently expressed in portraits of his daughters. On the other, the nightmare of matter, a nightmare defined in its specifics by a long-ago trauma. Both ends of the pole absorb Richter, and he has given his life over to pushing them so far as they will go.

I am not the biggest Richter fan you ever met, but I find this very moving.


Before I go, I'd like to share with you a thought on bad science. You'll notice that I sketched out a model, of rock and roll painting, with specific properties. Then I found an instance of something, Richter's work, which matched those properties but didn't, at a gut level, match what I meant with the model. So I changed the model. What I learn from this is that the model was an imperfect expression of a more complex phenomenon. But you could also say that I was perfectly willing to throw out consistency of method in favor of making a distinction unsupported by my hypothesis. I have said again and again that you shouldn't just go ahead and trust anything I say, and this case demonstrates what I mean. My thinking is a work in progress, and moreover I am not the most rigorous analyst you ever met. I would love to - I am honored to - contribute to your thinking about your own outlook on art. But I am the farthest thing from a definitive authority, and you should evaluate what I say in terms of your own judgment, just as I try, and often fail, to do.


  1. Quite right that the reproductions of the paintings are essential. I saw your article on Huffpost, and when I saw that I would have to search or imagine Richter's paintings (which I don't like anyway) from your description, I kept putting your article off until tomorrow :-) Again, you've written a really good analysis of technique and the artist's intention, and you have a very sympathetic approach even to artists you say you're not the biggest fan of. An admirable ability, one I've lost a lot of over the years. Can anyone learn to like artists by reading about them? Probably not. Ready Panofsky and Wind on the Renaissance deepened my knowledge of paintings that already moved me. On the other hand, I've probably read more about Cezanne than any other artist, and he still bores the heck out of me.

  2. Richard - the title of each painting in the HuffPo version was a link to its image at Richter's site, but yeah, what I learned from this was that if I can't get image rights, just don't post, period.

    I've certainly learned to like artists more by reading about them, when the reading provided insights into how to look at the work which I was missing on my own. I can't think of any artists in particular right now, but it must have happened.

    No, I'm not an especial Richter fan, but I made a vow to myself and the blog readers a while back to engage more seriously with work I personally didn't care for, and this is part of that program. It's yielded fruits in terms of my own work, especially with regard to Twombly, Serra, and Johns. Those all relate to projects that aren't ready for posting anywhere, but I'm grateful I bothered to do more than glance at their work.