Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Representational Painting After Richter

Gerhard Richter: "Cloud" o/c, 1970

Gerhard Richter: "Toilet Paper" o/c, 1965

Gerhard Richter: "Uncle Rudi" o/c,  1965

Representational Painting After 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 ).
Criticality 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, the 17th Century Dutch epoch and conclude that the paintings of Vermeer, de Hooch, ter Borch and/or Maes are fundamentally the same. Sure, it's true that within the generalized tenets of art history this era has been rendered into a convention (the Dutch “Golden Age”), but connoisseurs of painting have made the differences between these artists and their works quite clear. Therefore, a superficial convention of flat image alone could be called uncritical. Why, then, is representational painting now only discussed employing the terms of photo-based painting? It seems as if photo-based painting and its critical discussion in the contemporary has been fully conventionalized to the point that it envelops most forms of representation. No one seems to be making a connoisseurial argument in this realm. The kind of sensitivity that used to be applied to discussing painting looks to be completely absent.
In order to get to the root of this matter, we must look at the most seminal figure in postmodern representational painting, 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 govern Richter's artistic approaches and thus led to an impressive stylistic diversity in his work. He certainly puts painting through its paces, especially when it comes to his photo-based work, testing the waters of critique with nods to history painting (as in the Baader-Meinhof suite, October18, 1977, [1988]), the Duchampian-readymade (Kitchen Chair, [1965]), and German Romanticism (Himalaya,[1968]). The aporia that erupts within 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 Practice, 166).
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: The blur of a photo is due to the lens of the camera and 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 for abstracted works, created mainly from 1970-1980. The surface-related activity in these is very much related to the scope of said works, with complex layers and effacements effectuating palimpsest.
There is something sincerely fundamental in Richter's explorations, and that is a deep-seated mistrust of ideology. [His upbringing under the pall of two dictatorships (Hitler, then Stalin) 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 with Adorno's statement 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 in toto 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 misses in his cat-and-mouse with Richter, the trope of the “anonymous hand” has been conventionalized into all discussions of representational painting and 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 myopia is prevalent in dealing with 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, perpetuates the problem. These works are very different surface-wise than a Richter, being far more “slick”, but they are nonetheless 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, that being 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 even today? Madlyn Miller Kahr, in her essay on Velazquez' Las Meninas, 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. Many of these artists' paint applications are great examples 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 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 with dreams, 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 indistinguishable.
* 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).

List of works cited:

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.
Kahr, Madlyn Miller. “Velazquez and Las Meninas.” Art Bulletin 57.2 (1975): 225-246. Print.
Lemke, Thomas. “Foucault, Governmentality and Critique.” Rethinking Marxism Vol. 14, Issue 3. September, 2002: 49-64. Print.
Richter, Gerhard. The Daily Practice of Painting. Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. Print.
Text,Writings, Interviews and Letters. London:Thames and Hudson, 2009. Print.
Rostovsky, Peter. Personal Interview. Recorded in Brooklyn, New York. 7 May 2011.


Ann Knickerbocker said...

Lovely essay. Have you had any luck with your work as you commit to your "aesthetic physicality"? (Good phrase, that). I think all the things you discuss are possible, even if difficult; I think that is what painters must do... and we must keep at it!!

Rob S. said...

Thanks, Ann, for your comment. I appreciate you reading through this rather dense piece, and seeing the heart of my conundrum.

Yes, I believe in this still, and much of this belief lies in the simplification of process, as well as to adherence to time-tested methods. This is not to say that one should approach painting conservatively, as in, say, a 19th Century Salon kind of undertaking. Rather, I would embrace the tools of the masters (wax mediums, Delft-school glazing techniques), and find a way into the contemporary via subject.

I just saw Borremans at Zwirner in Chelsea, and it is a great example of this idea. It's virtuoso work: large canvases executed in one pass, no doubt employing solvent and clove oil to keep it open until the spaces are filled. The staged ambiguity of his subjects are just contemporary platforms (ultimately) for his physical engagement with process. And this has an aesthetic that needs to get more attention in this modern realm of performativity.

There is a new film coming from the Tate: "Gerhard Richter Painting". You can find previews of it if you Google that phrase. It is not his representational work, but it does describe the essence of the "aesthetic physicality" idea I have put forward.