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Gerhard Richter at the High Museum

By Robert Stalker

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Gerhard Richter, Abstract Picture (873­5), 2001. Courtesy of the High Museum and the artist.

In his book Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (2002), Dietmar Elger touches briefly on Richter’s visit to the Duchamp retrospective at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld in 1965.  The show, Elgar recounts, “made a strong impression . . . triggering shifts in [Richter’s] thinking—some large, some subtle—that would affect him long into the future.”  The gallery devoted to Richter at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta wonderfully brings to light the lasting and multifaceted impact of Duchamp on Richter’s art.  A centerpiece of the museum’s impressive contemporary collection, the Richter room offers a remarkable sampling of Richter’s later output (the earliest of the works is from 1988): three paintings (two abstracts and one photo-based portrait) and two large glass installations.  Taken together, the works offer a provocative illustration of Richter’s continued grappling with the Duchampian readymade and its implications for pictorial art. 

The idea of the readymade was, of course, introduced into art history in the early-twentieth century with Duchamp’s practice of designating as works of art commonplace, mass produced objects such as a bottle rack, a snow shovel, and, most notoriously, a urinal (Fountain, 1917).  At a talk he gave at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1961, Duchamp outlined briefly some of the ideas that lay behind the readymade.  First, the choice of an object to be designated a readymade was, Duchamp said, “never dictated by aesthetic delectation.”  “This choice,” he went on to say, was instead “based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste . . . in fact, complete anesthesia.”  Equally important, Duchamp continued, was the readymade’s “lack of uniqueness.”  In his essay entitled “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” reprinted in his book Painting as Model (1990), Yve-Alain Bois argues that Duchamp’s “readymades were not only a negation of painting and a demonstration of the always-already mechanical nature of painting.  They also demonstrated that within our culture the work of art is a fetish that must abolish all pretense to use value.”  

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Gerhard Richter Abstract Painting (Abstraktes Bild), 1997. Courtesy of the High Museum and the artist.

That Richter understood the readymade’s implications for painting in a way similar to Bois’s formulation is suggested by his almost immediate artistic response to the Duchamp retrospective, the painting Toilet Roll (Klorolle) (1965).  From a newspaper photograph of a toilet paper roll, Richter painted a deadpan grisaille reproduction (the source material is included in Atlas, Richter’s compendium of found photos, snapshots, newspaper clippings, and sketches).  Clearly evoking Fountain, Duchamp’s most notorious readymade, this early painting heralds Richter’s career-long fascination with the anonymous, mass-produced, documentary nature of the photograph, which pushes it in the direction of the readymade.  In Pictures of Nothing (2006), Kirk Varnedoe discusses the transformations of the aesthetic of the readymade by Richter’s almost exact contemporary, the American Jasper Johns (b. 1930).  Varnedoe writes that in his flags and targets Johns “transmutes Duchamps’s idea of the readymade into something new.  It is a way of making art rather than a way of not making it.”  While Richter rejects what he writes off as Johns’s fidelity “to a culture of painting that had to do with Cézanne,” he similarly explores the implications of the Duchampian readymade for pictorial art.

Richter’s reputation rests primarily on the paintings that, like Toilet Roll, uncannily resemble their photographic sources.   His comments on photography suggest that Richter’s turn to painting from photographs stems from his understanding of the photograph as a kind of readymade.  Striking a rather Duchampian note, a notebook entry from 1964 reads: “Painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do.” “The fascination of a photograph,” he adds a page later, “is not in its eccentric composition but in what it has to say: its information content.”  That same year, he writes again, “That is why I like the ‘non-composed’ photograph.  It does not try to do anything but report on a fact.”  Richter seems to intuit what Duchamp later stressed as one of the key ingredients of the readymade: “just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect.”  In her influential essay “Notes on the Index” (1976) [reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1986)], Rosalind Krauss elaborates on the parallels between the photograph and the readymade, arguing that both are “about the physical transposition of an object from the continuum of reality into the fixed condition of the art-image by a moment of isolation, or selection.”  Richter’s repeated insistence that he likes photographs because they have “no style, no composition, no judgment” would seem to suggest that his interest in photography devolves on an idea of the photograph as readymade, on photography’s ability to isolate an object with a minimum of manipulation, modification, or alteration.  Richter appears to regard the camera in a way similar to that of contemporaries such as Warhol, Ed Ruscha, or Douglas Huebler—as a dumb recording device.  

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Gerhard Richter, (799­1) Lesende (The Reader), 1994. Courtesy of the High Museum and the artist.

Over thirty years separate Richter’s first paintings from photographs from the works in the High’s collection.  Nevertheless, as these works make clear, Richter’s dialogue with Duchamp continues in subtle and provocative ways.   The collection contains one photo-based painting, Lesende (1994).  Unlike many of Richter’s early paintings from photographs, Lesende originates not with a “found” photograph but with one that Richter took himself, a snapshot of his wife, Sabine, reading.  (Again, the source photograph can be found in Atlas).   The painting’s origin in a photograph introduces into the painting first Richter’s rejection of the idea of the painting surface as “window” onto the world.  As Richter had written as early as 1962, “The idea that art copies nature is a fatal misconception.  Art has always operated against nature and for reason.”  And, while the photograph from which Richter paints is not a “found” object, it does approach the idea of the “snapshot as readymade.”  The model in the photograph is not posed, but presumably caught unawares as she reads from the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel.

Lesende provocatively engages photography, the readymade, and painting--both abstract and Old Master.  Richter’s source photograph brings an element of contingency to the painting, as the “sitter” is turned away from the camera, absorbed in her reading.  Because Richter eliminates almost all detail from the painting, the figure is removed from any kind of context.  Pushing the painting in the direction of abstraction, Richter focuses on the fields of black, brown, and red that play off the white of the reader’s page, blonde hair, and whiteness of her neck.  In an entry from his notebooks from the mid-sixties, Richter jotted down: “The photograph has an abstraction of its own, which is not easy to see through.”  Richter’s famous “blurring” of the painting surface brushes up against photography’s abstractions at the same time that it evokes Old Master paining, specifically Vermeer of Delft.   In his book on Richter, Elger notes that Lesende’s “sister” work, Lesende (CR: 804), a similar painting with Sabine reading in profile (currently in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), “is a clear attempt to bring Jan Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (ca. 1659) into the twentieth century.”  That Richter’s model reads Der Spiegel, a mass produced magazine, brings yet another layer to a deceptively simple painting, superimposing representational systems: painting on photography, and mass media on painting.  Although the perspectival system of Renaissance painting treated the picture plane as a window through which to see the world receding into the distance, there is an equally strong historical discourse that posits the picture plane as a mirror “held .  .  . up to nature.” The impeccably smooth, glass-like finish of the painting combined with the allusion to mirrors in the title of the journal the model reads suggest humorously Richter’s turn away from the idea of painting as a window. The painting mirrors the surface of the reader’s reality much as the magazine promises to mirror the world for her.

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Gerhard Richter, 7 Standing Panes, 2002. Courtesy of the High Museum and the artist.

Richter takes on this dichotomy of painting as window or mirror more directly in the glass installations, which directly engage Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915-1923).  Duchamp’s Large Glass is notoriously complex and his notes to it arcane and enigmatic.  Echoing the irritation of his one-time teacher Joseph Beuys who famously quipped that “the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated,” Richter has registered more than once his impatience with what he calls Duchamp’s “mystery mongering.”  But significantly for Richter, Duchamp’s Glass contains mirrored surfaces and shapes transferred from photographic imprints.  In an article entitled “Where’s Poppa?,” included in the collection edited by Thierry De Duve entitled The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp (1991), Rosalind Krauss has pointed out that Duchamp had originally intended that the upper half of the Glass be coated with a bromide emulsion that would have suggested a photographic plate.  Richter had begun to address Duchamp’s Glass directly as early as 1967 with his 4 Panes of Glass which, Elger tells us, Richter had “understood as a transparent and in a figurative sense, clear antithesis to Duchamp’s mystical Large Glass.” 

Richter’s glass constructions at the High are stunningly simple in execution.  11 Panes (2003) consists of just what the title indicates, 11 panes of glass lightly glazed, stacked one upon another.  Mounted on the wall like a painting, the hazy, mirror-like surface of the panes reflects the spectator’s image back at him or her.  This not-quite-transparent-not-quite opaque quality of the panes makes them, as Richter said of his earlier colored mirrors which the panes resemble, “a kind of cross between a monochrome painting and a mirror.”  The panes throw spectators’ airy, blurring reflections back at them, making the viewer appear almost like one of Richter’s photo-paintings.  

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Gerhard Richter, 11­Scheiben (886­3) (11­Panes), 2003. Courtesy of the High Museum and the artist.

Comprised of 7 free-standing panes of glass in a steel construction, 7 Standing Panes (2002) similarly evokes Duchamp’s Large Glass.  Once again, the reflective surfaces of the piece throw our image back at us.  As we circle what appears to be a fairly simple piece, the shiny surfaces create an ever changing, diffuse and muted reflection of our image and space.  At times we catch a momentary glimpse of our image multiplied in regress, recalling the famous mise en abyme image of Charles Foster Kane passing before a hall of mirrors toward the end of Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).  As early as 1965, Richter had written in his notebooks: “All that interests me is the grey areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlocking.  If I had any way of abandoning the object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts.”  These recent ripostes to Duchamp’s Glass execute wonderfully just these “passages and tonal sequences,” the overlaps and interlockings of our continuous shifting reflections.  Rejecting what he calls the “pseudo-complexity” or “manufactured mystery” of Duchamp’s Glass (and its notoriously abstruse “notes”), Richter’s glass constructions operate, as he has said, “immediately and directly,” outwardly unpretentious yet utterly captivating.    

As Richter suggests, these large glass constructions are related to the most radically abstract painterly tradition of the monochrome.  While Richter’s photo-based paintings have always engaged ideas of abstraction, he did not begin to make strictly abstract paintings until about the early seventies.   When he did so, art critics found themselves pressed to reconcile these abstractions with Richter’s photo-based paintings.  In a notebook entry from 1982, Richter writes, “Everything made since Duchamp has been readymade, even when hand-painted,” ostensibly alluding to Duchamp’s observation that since the widespread adoption of tubes of paint, all painting is to some degree readymade.   Might we view Richter’s abstracts, then, through the lens of the readymade?  If we accept that Richter views photographs as readymades, then we might say of his abstract paintings what Bois said of Robert Ryman’s paintings—that they get ”closer and closer to the condition of the photograph or readymade.”  Richter himself suggests as much.  In a 1972 interview with Rolf Schön, Richter says:   “It [the photograph] had no style, no composition, no judgment. . . And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means: I’m not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph but producing photographs.  And, seen in this way, those of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs.”    

The large, mostly grey Abstract Painting (2011) from the High’s Richter collection evokes Richter’s earlier and quick remarkable series of monochromes Eight Grey from 1975.  But unlike those earlier paintings, this one contains touches of brilliant color.  Wonderful greens and deep reds lurk beneath the mottled layers of grey paint that makes the canvas look almost like a found object, like a weathered piece of sheet metal.  The even larger painting, Blau (1988) (currently on loan to the High from a private collection), which hangs right across from this painting consists of rich layers of paint in various colors.  A swath of blue paint sweeps downward, diagonally, from about the mid-section.  A white line running down almost from the top of the canvas to the bottom right third of the canvas invokes perhaps the famous “zips” of Barnett Newman, an artist that Richter speaks quite highly of.   Splotches of red, orange, yellow, and brown cover the left side.  The gestural look of the painting is, however, something of an illusion.  Close inspection reveals that the surface is gouged and scratched. The dappled colors result from Richter’s use of a tool such as a metal ruler to scrape and graze away layers of paint, leaving a canvas that looks a bit like peeling wallpaper (perhaps an allusion to Harold Rosenberg’s dismissal of second generation Ab Ex painting as “apocalyptic wallpaper”) or metaphorically the layers of Troy.  Perhaps Richter’s unearthing of layers of paint alludes to Jackson Pollock’s practice, in paintings such as Ocean Greyness (1953), of leaving small splotches that reveal the painting’s initial paint layers.  Richter’s “excavation” here of his own layers of paint might even be a nod in the direction of de Kooning’s masterpiece Excavation (1950).  But Richter’s scratches and abrasions pull abstraction away from the personal expression of a Pollock or a de Kooning, pushing toward the anti-expressive factitiousness that Richter associates with the photograph. 

The works in the High’s Richter room intrigue and astonish, revealing, among many other pleasures Richter’s deep and inspired engagement with another modern master, Marcel Duchamp.   

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Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer. 

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