ART Ar­rest­ing Time

Se­bas­tian Smee on Ger­hard Richter at Queens­land’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Se­bas­tian Smee on Ger­hard Richter at Queens­land’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art

The ab­stract paint­ings of Ger­hard Richter – which make up about a third of an en­gross­ing Richter show at Queens­land’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art (un­til 4 Fe­bru­ary 2018) – achieve in­can­des­cent beauty on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, but by a process that can feel coldly rote. The artist makes them by push­ing a long rub­ber squeegee at­tached to what looks like a steel girder across large can­vases pre-loaded with paint. The ef­fects are ex­tra­or­di­nary. A sense of ve­loc­ity in­heres in the paint, which at times re­sem­bles rain­bow-coloured cake ic­ing ap­plied by a fre­netic, mo­torised spat­ula. Its smoothed-out stri­a­tions are stud­ded with rips and tears, like stock­ings or thin rub­ber stretched past its stress point, each hole in the fab­ric re­veal­ing ef­ful­gent har­monies of colour and riv­et­ing tex­tures be­neath. The paint­ings them­selves blush, and shim­mer. But their trem­bling gor­geous­ness ap­pears to have been ar­rived at by ac­ci­dent, and feels oddly interchangeable with the beauty of their neigh­bours. This is part of Richter’s ploy (one al­most wants to say his “point”). But it’s con­fus­ing. We like to think of beauty as some­how rare or inim­itable and, at its best, specif­i­cally di­rected: the fresh flower that is a har­bin­ger of spring; the coy smile that feels like a per­son­alised

prom­ise of hap­pi­ness. But just look at Richter’s ab­stracts: how, other than by fluky ef­fect, could any­one pro­duce such com­plex pat­terns of colour and tex­ture? Cer­tainly it is paint you recog­nise on their rich sur­faces: paint with all its in­her­ited pres­tige, its sin­gu­lar, lux­u­ri­ant plea­sures. These are not copies, not mag­ni­fied pho­to­graphs, nor are they spat out by a colour printer obey­ing some dizzy­ing com­puter al­go­rithm. But then, what are they? The mind scram­bles for an­swers. Your eyes reg­is­ter their jewel-like lay­er­ing of colour and tex­ture, which can evoke ev­ery­thing from sump­tu­ous Ot­toman silks to Arc­tic fox pelts. You note, too, the way their sur­faces shim­mer with light ef­fects that can con­jure un­du­lat­ing wa­ter one mo­ment, dig­i­tal screens or dis­tant galax­ies the next. And yet you de­tect scant ev­i­dence of a hu­man hand hold­ing a brush, or in­deed of any artis­tic de­ci­sion at all. “Some­how the tools do what they want,” Richter said, smil­ing, in a 2011 doc­u­men­tary. “I would have done it dif­fer­ently.” What lit­tle agency the artist can claim doesn’t go far be­yond the brute busi­ness of forc­ing a squeegee across a can­vas, like a child (or like Andy Warhol!) push­ing paint through a silk screen. Well, of course, Richter’s ab­stracts have more art be­hind them than I’m mak­ing out. But the sug­ges­tion of ar­bi­trari­ness – of an im­age ar­rived at by ac­ci­dent – per­sists, and is both the bravely beat­ing heart and the shame­ful canker at the core of Richter’s 60-year en­ter­prise. “The Life of Im­ages” – which is the ti­tle cu­ra­tor Rose­mary Hawker has given the show – could as eas­ily have been dropped, you feel, in favour of “The Long, Drawn-Out Death of Im­ages”, or, per­haps, “The In­ex­orable Leak­ing Away of En­chant­ment and Truth from our Mori­bund Late-Cap­i­tal­ist Vis­ual En­vi­ron­ment and the Dread-In­fused Im­pli­ca­tions of This for Our So­cial, Po­lit­i­cal and Pri­vate Lives”. Nei­ther op­tion prob­a­bly had the zing the or­gan­is­ers sought. In­stead, they have talked up Richter’s sta­tus as, in the eyes of many, the “world’s great­est liv­ing artist”. The claim may be re­flex and glib, but if great­ness is to be mea­sured, at least in part, by breadth and depth of in­flu­ence, it’s dif­fi­cult to re­fute. Not too many ma­jor artists of the past few decades, work­ing ei­ther in pho­tog­ra­phy or paint­ing, have man­aged to avoid grap­pling with Richter, and with what his work ap­pears to say about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween im­ages, in­ti­macy and the en­gulf­ing roar of his­tory. I say “ap­pears” be­cause Richter – un­like, say, Sig­mar Polke, his bril­liant, an­ar­chic for­mer friend – is one of those fas­tid­i­ous be­ings who states noth­ing with­out care­ful qual­i­fi­ca­tion. He is a painter, and likes to claim no more, but he is deeply thought­ful about ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions in a way that per­haps only a first­hand wit­ness to the rise and fall of Hitler’s Ger­many could be. Richter was born in Dres­den in 1932. His fa­ther and two un­cles both fought in World War Two. His fa­ther, Horst, was cap­tured, and came home at the end of the war de­feated and filled with shame. Richter has noted that as a pa­ter­nal role model Horst was less than ideal, although prob­a­bly no dif­fer­ent from most of Ger­many’s other sur­viv­ing fa­thers at the time. Richter’s un­cle Rudi, a big­ger in­flu­ence on Richter than his fa­ther, was killed in com­bat, fight­ing for the Nazis. Mean­while, his aunt Mar­i­anne, who was di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia, was first ster­ilised and then starved to death as part of Hitler’s “eu­thana­sia” pro­gram aimed at the men­tally ill. As a young boy, Richter was obliged to join the Pimpfen, a feeder or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Hitler Youth. He was on the cusp of pu­berty when Dres­den was fire­bombed in 1945 (he was liv­ing at the time in a vil­lage about 100 kilo­me­tres away), and was given his first camera that same year. Al­ready, im­age-mak­ing and his­tory were united in his psyche. Af­ter the war, liv­ing in East Ger­many, he wit­nessed the spy state and its in­hu­man ide­ol­ogy ruth­lessly en­croach on in­ti­mate life. He fled to West Ger­many and its boom­ing cap­i­tal­ist, im­age-spew­ing economies in 1961, set­tling in Dus­sel­dorf. All through this time, Richter, like ev­ery­one else, watched and wres­tled with the slow, barely com­pre­hen­si­ble rev­e­la­tions – dis­sem­i­nated as of­ten as not through small, grainy pho­to­graphic im­ages – of what had so re­cently been per­pe­trated by the Nazis. So it’s prob­a­bly no sur­prise that his im­age-mak­ing has been con­cerned not only with the ba­sic ques­tion of how we are to be in the world but also with how we should act as wit­nesses to what hap­pens in it – not only in our wider re­la­tion­ship with his­tory and crime but up close, in the in­no­cent, over-brim­ming present, and in our most in­ti­mate re­la­tions with lovers, chil­dren, un­cles and aunts. The Bris­bane show in­cludes, on the one side of the ledger, Richter’s blurred, pho­to­re­al­ist ren­der­ings of Egyp­tian pyra­mids, ad­vanc­ing fighter jets, a city seen from above, stylish celebri­ties, a hooded pris­oner, and a pas­sen­ger plane plough­ing into a down­town sky­scraper. But in a more in­ti­mate vein, we see paint­ings of Richter’s in­fant son, his daugh­ter, his wife, and him­self (in one case as an in­fant in the arms of his ill-fated Aunt Mar­i­anne). In both cases what you sense more than any­thing are the ab­sent, orig­i­nal sub­jects try­ing to oc­cupy – to fill out – the blurry, hes­i­tant im­age of them thus pre­sented. Try­ing, and fail­ing, or fall­ing short – short of truth, short of beauty, short of “all ye need to know”. To look, for in­stance, at his fa­mous paint­ing of “Betty” turn­ing away (shown here as a print) is to glimpse one of the many mean­ings be­hind Kafka’s para­ble ‘Be­fore the Law’

Richter’s fas­ci­na­tion with pho­tog­ra­phy dates back decades, and was in­flu­enced, most ob­vi­ously, by Andy Warhol.

in The Trial: “This door was in­tended only for you. I am now go­ing to shut it.” The pho­to­re­al­ist paint­ings are based on pho­to­graphs se­lected from Richter’s own ar­chive, which he calls At­las. Dis­played here in a long gallery, the At­las im­ages in­clude fam­ily snap­shots as well as pho­to­graphs, both trite and hor­rific, taken from magazines, news­pa­pers and ad­ver­tise­ments. The paint­ings de­vel­oped from them are lent shift­ing de­grees of blur by an al­most me­chan­i­cal act of ef­face­ment or veil­ing: Richter sim­ply drags a dry brush across the sur­face of the still wet paint, so that for­merly firm out­lines now ap­pear feath­ered, ap­prox­i­mate. By this sim­ple tech­nique, ev­ery­thing in the im­age is made to feel less sub­stan­tial, as if strug­gling to come into be­ing or long­ing to dis­ap­pear, to fall back into the cat­e­gory of the bless­edly un­seen. The blur can also evoke a yearn­ing on the part of con­scious­ness to dis­solve into the present (thereby evad­ing the claws of his­tory). Or it might be a com­pul­sive ex­pres­sion of Richter’s hes­i­ta­tion or doubt. Or … it might just be blur, a vowel sound away from blah. In any case, the de­gree of pres­sure ap­plied by the dry brush cor­re­sponds to the de­gree of blur. And, of course, this act of semi-ef­face­ment – a me­chan­i­cal act very sim­i­lar to the squeegee Richter drags across the can­vas to make his ab­stracts – can, with enough pres­sure, be­come to­tal blur, to­tal ef­face­ment, as in the se­ries of four paint­ings called Birke­nau. These four deeply trou­bling works, which Richter made in 2014 and which he has not sold, are given a room to them­selves in Bris­bane. They are based on four pho­to­graphs taken with what was prob­a­bly a Ger­man Le­ica by a Greek-born Jew who worked in a Son­derkom­mando unit at the Auschwitz-Birke­nau con­cen­tra­tion camp. He and his fel­low Son­derkom­mando mem­bers were granted a re­prieve from death in ex­change for per­form­ing the des­per­ate tasks of ush­er­ing oth­ers to their fates, clean­ing up in the gas cham­bers af­ter each round of mass mur­der, and drag­ging naked bod­ies into mas­sive fire pits. Richter’s Birke­nau paint­ings are en­tirely ab­stract. The orig­i­nal im­ages, which were taken un­der the most ex­treme duress and smug­gled out of the con­cen­tra­tion camp in a tube of tooth­paste, are en­tirely veiled by his me­chan­i­cal, squeegee method. Are they thereby gen­er­alised? Gussied up into “art”? Made falsely, rep­re­hen­si­bly beau­ti­ful? (De­spite their mostly grey palette, they are in­deed beau­ti­ful – although in the same ap­par­ently

ar­bi­trary way that all his ab­stracts are.) Or is Richter’s blur-as-ef­face­ment a form of bow­ing to the si­lence to which this ex­tra­or­di­nary act of wit­ness­ing re­duces us? What­ever you de­cide, the dy­namic un­der­ly­ing not only these works but also the rest of Richter’s oeu­vre should at least be clear. Be­guil­ing as the pho­to­re­al­ist paint­ings are, Richter’s oeu­vre would seem un­re­mark­able with­out his ab­stracts, which he has been mak­ing since the mid 1970s. Rav­ish­ing in them­selves, they nonethe­less pull the pho­to­re­al­ist paint­ings into the vor­tex of what can­not be shown, ex­plained or ad­e­quately pro­cessed. Is this un­der­ly­ing dy­namic too pat and pre­dictable? Does it get too repet­i­tive? I have some­times felt so. But what keeps Richter’s work alive for me is the on­go­ing ten­sion be­tween the beauty of the paint and the ba­nal­ity, the fun­gi­bil­ity, of the im­ages based on pho­to­graphs, no mat­ter what their sub­ject. Yes, this one over here of the woman read­ing is very beau­ti­ful, “a Ver­meer for our time” and so forth. But these other ones – the can­dles burn­ing, the large-scale pyra­mids, the fighter jets in for­ma­tion – are the op­ti­cal equiv­a­lent of ashes in your mouth. You look at them and some far-off flame is in­stantly ex­tin­guished. Absolutely noth­ing comes back. Richter’s fas­ci­na­tion with pho­tog­ra­phy dates back decades, and was in­flu­enced, most ob­vi­ously, by Andy Warhol. Much of his work is al­most unimag­in­able with­out the prece­dent of Warhol’s early, grey, dead­pan in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the ar­bi­trari­ness and in­ter­change­abil­ity of im­ages in the worlds of ad­ver­tis­ing, celebrity cul­ture and news me­dia. Richter has said that his paint­ings are at­tempts not to im­i­tate pho­to­graphs but to make them. “If I dis­re­gard the as­sump­tion that a photograph is a piece of pa­per ex­posed to the light,” he has said, “then I am prac­tis­ing pho­tog­ra­phy by other means.” His ab­stracts, I of­ten think, are like traces of an in­cred­i­bly fast ac­tion that some­how achieves an al­most lake-like still­ness and seren­ity. Or is it rather (since am­biva­lence in­heres in ev­ery­thing he does) that they achieve a kind of stu­por? In any case, it’s in this sense that the ab­stracts are anal­o­gous to pho­to­graphs, rather than be­ing merely in op­po­si­tion to them. Af­ter all, what are pho­to­graphs if not a static record of two ex­tremely fast pro­cesses: light trav­el­ling at 1080 mil­lion kilo­me­tres per hour, let in through a lens by the rapid-fire open­ing and clos­ing of a shut­ter? The camera ap­proaches magic when it freezes fleet­ing phe­nom­ena: the shiver of leaves in the for­est, the wind-wrin­kled sur­face of wa­ter, the su­per­sonic fighter jet. The ten­sion be­tween the speed and mul­ti­plic­ity of these phe­nom­ena and the still­ness, the in­no­cence, the quiet en­durance, of the photograph it­self will al­ways be­guile us. The un­yield­ing world, so daunt­ingly man­i­fold and ob­jec­tive, ap­pears tem­po­rar­ily tamed into some­thing sub­jec­tive, some­thing we can hold in our hands, share, shoot to a friend or ex­change on so­cial me­dia. Richter won­ders, I think, about this tam­ing, and about how it af­fects our abil­ity to live in­side truth. Pho­to­graphs ar­rest mo­tion. Might they also slow his­tory, bring it to a shud­der­ing, wheel-screech­ing halt, just in the nick of time? We in­stinc­tively toy with the idea when we see pho­to­graphs of loved ones in moments that pre­date disas­ter. The disas­ter might be Auschwitz or Dres­den or Septem­ber 11 – or it might sim­ply be that other disas­ter, the one that be­falls us all. But the hope that we might slow it, stop it or even undo it is al­ways, of course, an il­lu­sion. I sus­pect that for Richter pho­to­graphs do con­tinue to carry traces of truth, beauty and per­haps even some­thing sa­cred – even if only in the same way that ashes carry the mem­ory of the gut­ter­ing flame. Amid the par­tic­u­lar ashes Richter in­ves­ti­gates, there re­main a few scat­tered em­bers that con­tinue to emit their un­con­sol­ing warmth.

Pre­vi­ous spread: Ger­hard Richter, 1970. © Ger­hard Richter 2017 (23082017) Above: Ger­hard Richter, 1995. © Ger­hard Richter 2017 (23082017)

Mead­ow­land 1985 Oil on can­vas, 90.5 × 94.9 cm, Pri­vate Col­lec­tion. © Ger­hard Richter 2017

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