Monthly Archives: September 2016

Angela de la Cruz: I didn’t ever doubt I would make art again


Angela de la Cruz: I didn’t ever doubt I would make art again

The London-based Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz, 48, who had a stroke eight years ago, talks about giving birth during her recovery and how she can still produce her art





Dislocated, 2002, oil on canvas, h: 41 x w: 41 x d: 0.5 cm




On Thinking in Pictures & other articles by Michael Craig-Martin


On Thinking in Pictures

by Michael Craig-Martin

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” In other words, thinking visually is at the foundation of thinking itself. This statement stands in contrast to the belief held by most philosophers – in fact by most educated people – that to think is to use words. Most forms of education from the time we are four or five years old are based on this assumption. The development of verbal competence is considered the essence of education itself, and this constant reinforcement means the most verbally adept become the best regarded and most successful in our society. Since the development of visual intelligence is generally dismissed and ignored, even the best educated in society are usually visually illiterate, while those whose instinct and abilities favour visual intelligence are likely to find themselves patronised and marginalized.

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer, believes that the Austrian’s philosophy is one essentially concerned with perception. For Wittgenstein, to think, is to understand, was first and foremost to picture. It was fundamental to his thinking that not everything we can see, and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp, can be put into words. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,”  he said. But he also believed that those things about which we have to be silent are the most important. To grasp these important things, it is not enough to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” And by this, he means to look both metaphorically and literally.

At the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he called ‘the understanding which consists in “seeing connections.”’ He was fascinated by the phenomenon of ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. What changes when we alternately see a rabbit or a duck is not the picture but rather the way we look at it. He sought to show us that our capacity to see things differently is critical in perception and therefore in understanding. Wittgenstein believed that our understanding of complex ideas depended on our mental ability to assemble multiple, possibly very different, perceptions.


On directness

by Michael Craig-Martin

 To me, the most obvious characteristic of Americans is directness, and I believe the same is true of American art. I remember as a student having a tutor who used to say, “Simple and direct – follow your traditions, simple and direct.” The British, on the other hand, are determinedly indirect: social behaviour is coded with meaning that is never explained or overtly referred to. British art is often similarly indirect. The distinction is seen clearly in the difference between Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton. The latter once told me how impressed he was the first time he saw American Pop art in the early 1960s because it had a directness that his own work lacked. The British equivalent to directness is a highly developed idea of common sense: no nonsense; the obvious; straightforward; simply the way things are.

I try to draw my objects in a way that is both as direct and as commonsensical as possible. If you take the most ordinary light bulb, one of its characteristics is that you do not notice its design – you forget it. It is the other light bulbs that look designed. The one that embodies one’s idea of ‘light bulb’ gives no sense of being designed at all. I was trying to find a way of drawing that was equivalent to that notion of ‘not designed,’ of how things look before anyone gets round to drawing them.


On the autonomy of art

by Michael Craig-Martin

In 1960, a very earnest young woman asked the seventy-two-year-old T. S. Eliot, “In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when you said “I am Lazarus, come from the dead/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,” what exactly did you mean?” Eliot smiled and replied, “That poem was written forty years ago. I have to tell you that I can’t even recall writing it. When I read it today it is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. The poem has to stand for itself – that is what it is.”


On art as metaphor

by Michael Craig-Martin

It might seem self-evident that the more intelligent art is the better it is, but it depends on one’s definition of ‘intelligence.’ Great art is always emotionally intelligent, but rarely rationally so. That is why it eludes so many educated and intelligent people. Intellect can open doors, but it can also lock them, shutting out vision, leaps of the imagination, instinct, insight, daring.

Art as metaphor – poetry not prose. It presents truths through artifice. The greatest crisis of the present time is the resort everywhere to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the result of the failure to understand and appreciate poetry. Fundamentalists always reject the arts because, unable to grasp them, they instinctively fear them.

The Bible and the Koran are poems, not documentaries. If you lose the ability to understand, as their authors did, that poetic truth – the truth of metaphor and the imagination – is the highest expression of the truth, you turn instead to the impoverished language of literalism. The stories in the Bible are poetic metaphors. The narrative that God made the world in seven days describes the unimaginable creation of the universe in terms we can all understand. Scientific discoveries have not undermined religious belief, they have simply rewritten the poem. The same people who cannot see the Bible as poetry cannot accept the scientific explanation as fact.

Similarly, the art critics who have been most apoplectically upset about An Oak Tree always treat it as literal rather than poetic. Is that how they look at all art? Perhaps that is why they find that they despise so much.


Advice for an aspiring artist

by Michael Craig-Martin

“By far the most important characteristic for anyone wanting to be an artist is desire: the passionate, inexplicable desire to make art. This desire is more important than talent. To have enviable talent but qualified desire is not enough; to have little obvious talent but overwhelming desire may lead to success. Desire can be encouraged but not taught. In my experience, a driven person lacking any recognizable talent may, out of necessity, invent a way to work at which they excel. This is what we call originality.

Pleasure in doing is the essential basis for making art. When you love what you do, no effort is too great, no time too long. We are all capable of doing a lot of things for a while, but not for long. Art can only come from what we are able to sustain.

I would never advise anyone to become an artist. If you have another option, take it. Most people who end up as artists rarely feel they had an option. Art is the only endeavour I know that models itself around the abilities, experiences and needs of each individual who engages in it. It is entirely accepting, respects everyone for who they are, offers no strict rules of right and wrong. It enables one to turn everything about oneself, one’s limitations as well as one’s strengths, into advantages.

Much of the best art has been made by those who failed to succeed in other more conventional activities. For art to work for you, you must work at it in the ways that give you the greatest satisfaction, that reflect your interests and your passions, that occupy your time without effort, that change with you as you change over time.

Don’t try to be too inventive. The more your art reflects you, the more it will speak to other people. If you are not sure what you should do, just do whatever comes into your head or catches your imagination. Gradually, it will lead you to where you should be. Making art is a path not a destination.”


On passion

by Michael Craig-Martin

Anyone can have a passion in their life: a lover, art, music, food, nature, family, one’s job, helping others, learning. In my years of experience, someone with talent but lacking passion will not get far.

Passion arises from pleasure – it arises from what comes naturally to each individual, from whatever comes easily. Often people take for granted what they find easy, even denigrate it. This is a great mistake. What comes easily is at the heart of who one is, and should be treasured and nurtured. The potential for passion exists in everyone, but to be developed productively it needs to be recognised, valued and worked at. Passion produces energy. A person with passion is more likely to succeed. My own view is that if you are enjoying your art, be yourself. If you follow someone’s else’s talent, you may deprive us all of your own.


On being vulnerable to the world

by Michael Craig-Martin

There is nothing that happens in an artist’s life – whether good or bad, no matter how dramatically important or apparently trivial – that cannot be turned to effective use in their art. Any crummy part-time job, any minor incident, any childhood memory. Other people can read a book for pleasure or enlightenment. An artist may read a book and it can alter the whole course of their life’s work. Artists are unusually vulnerable to the world in this way. And they, in turn, use their work to seduce others into valuing what they value.


On one’s relationship to the work

by Michael Craig-Martin

After many years of teaching, I came to believe that the key to a student’s success lay not in the work itself but in the relationship between the student and the work. My own work has the character it does, looks as it does, deals with the issues it does not just because of decisions I have made but because it comes naturally to me, and although I am not its subject, it is a manifestation of me. If someone seeks to make work like mine, my work will always be better, because it cannot come from them as it does from me. Steal from me yes; copy me no.

It is not only necessary to recognise and use one’s strengths, whatever they may be, but also one’s weaknesses and limitations. I have watched many students turn what in other circumstances would be considered a disadvantage into an advantage in their art. Art gives us permission to turn the tables.

Students often feel under pressure to work in a certain way. Sometimes this pressure comes from outside – from a teacher, a parent or a peer. More often it comes from within, in a form of self-censorship, anxiety about self-image. Students worry that what they really want to do is too banal, too obvious, too weird, too unexplainable, too uncool. I have had floundering students admit that they had done secret work at home that they would never bring to school or show anybody because it embarrassed them. Invariably, this work is better than the ‘serious’ work done at school because it is born from a passionate engagement the other work lacks. The nature of the relationship between the artist and the work is always expressed in the work. The expressive power of art should never be underestimated.


On my work

by Michael Craig-Martin

Manufactured common objects were what interested me. I began to draw every object the same size, regardless of scale, using A4 paper. Whether it was a safety pin or a table, I made it fit the page, trying to find a way to be nonjudgmental. I used a fine line, and then I found a way of drawing with tape—to make everything look as neutral as the objects themselves. When you buy a chair, you know there are thousands of them, all identical, though your own chair is individual.

The irony is that, over the years, my neutral kind of drawing, which was meant to have no style, has become recognizable as my style. I draw exactly the same way now, and what I’ve realized is that it is not only a visual language, but incredibly flexible, and can be used in many different ways.

A philosophical text by Robert Sokolowski pointed out that the image of a hammer doesn’t look anything like a hammer. If I’m making a drawing, I’m not making a hammer; but if I show you my drawing, the first thing you’ll say is, “That’s a hammer,” because you and I both have this unbelievable capacity to read an image and experience the presence of an object, which is actually not there. This is not very different from the glass of water and the oak tree.

The capacity to be able to see an image of a thing as the thing is one of the most profound of human abilities, and it predates language in human development. Think of the use of pictures in teaching a child to read.

Michael Craig-Martin quotes:

‘Understanding’ art is like having a sense of humour – if you don’t have one, no amount of explanation is going to make you laugh.

I thought the objects we value least because they were ubiquitous were actually the most extraordinary.

I try to make images that have the immediate presence we take for granted in objects – a chair, a shoe, a book, a Judd – and compose them like sentences.

The art world, of all worlds, has room for everyone.

Whatever happens to the art world, art will go on regardless. As for obscurity, it looms just over the horizon beckoning us all. Why worry.

In the late 70’s I started to make drawings of the ordinary objects I had been using in my work. Initially I wanted them to be ready-made drawings of the kind of common objects I had always used in my work. I was surprised to discover I couldn’t find the simple, neutral drawings I had assumed existed, so I started to make them myself.

I have been using the computer as a work aid since the mid-90’s. It is extraordinarily well suited to how I think and work and has transformed my practice. Nearly everything I have done in the past 15 years would have been impossible without it. I use the computer for drawing, composing and colour planning everything, from postage stamps to paintings to architectural-scale installations.

I have never understood, for instance, why some people see contemporary art as divided between ‘painting’ and ‘conceptual art’, as though this represented a genuine division.

I came to painting through sculpture, to images through objects. I think that images sit in the middle, somewhere between objects and words.

I was poorer than anyone I’d ever met. But it was a great time to be a young artist – I remember it as a period of exceptional creative freedom and adventure, when one was regularly presented with works of art unlike anything one had ever seen before.

There is a complete difference between art and the art market. Prices are high now for the simple reason that there are people are willing to pay them. The market dominates the art world today because at the moment collectors call the shots. Like everything else that won’t last forever.

I do think I paid a price as an artist, and I am trying to make up for it now – I work six days a week in the studio, and I’ve never been happier.

The internet has extended the possibility of making art to more people, and particularly of enabling it to be seen by others. I am sure the internet is having a profound impact on art, particularly those who have grown up with it, but making good art will remain as difficult (and as easy) as it ever was. Having a lasting impact may become more not less difficult.

The complexity of the language of images is disguised by the ease and rapidity with which we read them. I’ve tried to make work that is as transparent and simple as possible. No matter how much I strip away the result is always more complex to me than I expect.

I am personally happy for artists to make as much money as they can while they can to carry them through the times when they can’t.

Where [some] see disjunctions, I see connections. I believe totally in the democracy of art. Years of teaching have taught me that the only essential requirement for someone wanting to be an artist is the passionate desire to make art. Art education cannot turn someone into an artist, cannot make someone more or other than they are, but it can help them find their own voice.



Gerhard Richter: Why Paint? by Siri Hustvedt


In “Mysteries of the Rectangle”, Hustvedt concentrates her narrative gifts on the works of such masters as Francisco Goya, Jan Vermeer, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Gerhard Richter, and Joan Mitchell. Through her own personal experiences, Hustvedt is able to reveal things until now hidden in plain sight: an egglike detail in “Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace” and the many hidden self-portraits in Goya’s series of drawings, “Los Caprichos”, as well as in his infamous painting “The Third of May”. Most importantly, these essays exhibit the passion, thrill, and sheer pleasure of bewilderment a work of art can produce – if you simply take the time to look.

Here is an extract from the book:


Gerhard Richter: Why Paint?

by Siri Hustvedt


After seeing the retrospective of Gerhard Richter’s paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2002, I began to think about iconoclasm and the fact that in the West it lives on, not in its old haunts—religion or politics —but in modern art. Even now, long after Clement Greenberg’s dogmas have faded and Ad Reinhardt’s teleological works have entered art history, the unself-conscious anachronism remains an arch enemy of the contemporary art business. By business, I mean the buying and selling of new art, museum shows, and the critical apparatus that attends to it. Visual art, painting in particular, has had a singularly radical modern history that separates it from literature, music, and film. Lots of people can go to movies or buy cds and books, but few have either the money or the desire to buy art by living artists. Although the relative smallness of the art world has freed painting from the conservative drag put on more popular genres, it has also boxed it into an almost continual endgame.

Since the invention of photography in the nineteenth century, the painting—that familiar flat rectangle —has been seen as a space in crisis. The death of the novel is declared almost as often the death of painting, but such comments about literature are generally ignored by working novelists and have little effect on them. The well-made, old-fashioned book is widely championed by most reviewers, who have little interest in literary history. Joyce, Stein, Beckett, not to mention Dada, could just as well have never existed.

Therefore, although the act of making art now—whether it is a work of fiction, a film, a piece of music, or a painting—may be theoretically problematic, it is only in the world of contemporary visual art that the philosophical issues of why and how to make art are crucial to a work’s reception. Gerhard Richter’s painting manages to sit squarely inside the ongoing critical debate about the form itself while deftly eluding it at the same time. Richter’s work is one of active resistance to ideological category, a continual refusal to be squeezed into the perimeters of the very theories that, ironically, have helped to catapult him onto the aesthetic mountain where he now finds himself.

Richter turned seventy not long ago. His career spans a period of tumultuous changes in the art world—from the early sixties to the present—and he didn’t spend all those years as a darling of the critics. As he tells Robert Storr, his curator at MoMA, he worked outside critical sanction from the late sixties to the mid-seventies. “I didn’t know what to do but to paint,” Richter tells Storr, “I was ‘out.’” 1 When Storr suggests that being out might have offered avenues of freedom previously blocked to him, Richter replies with typical honesty: “Well, the freedom and the comfort gained from being out were not very substantial.

Being out didn’t have such a positive effect. After all, I wanted to be on the inside.” 2 Curated according to a meaningful but unslavish chronology, the show is a walk through a man’s life as a painter. The farther you go, the more information you accumulate about decisions made, avenues tried, dead ends, and revelations. Richter’s biography is by no means a requirement for “reading” his work, but since all art is the product of personal history and cultural history— as well as the intersections between the two —knowing the story is valuable. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932. When he was three, his family left the city for a town in Saxony and then moved again in 1942 to an even smaller town. As a schoolteacher, Gerhard’s father, Horst Richter, became a member of the Nazi party. He served in the German army during the war, survived, and then, like so many others, returned to another world. “He shared most fathers’ fate at the time,” Richter tells Storr. “Nobody wanted them.” 3

By the time he was fourteen, Richter had lived through the war, witnessed the cataclysmic end of National Socialism, the exposure of the Holocaust, and found himself in a divided Germany. For a boy who would decide to become an artist, one can safely say that the upheavals had left him on the wrong side. As a young painter in Dresden at the Art Academy, he was forced to work within the long-calcified dictates of Socialist Realism and eventually became a mural painter and employee of the state. His position allowed him to travel, however, and on a trip to the West in 1959, he saw the exhibition Dokumenta 2 in Kassel, which included works by Jackson Pollock and Lucian Fontana. Two years later, Richter was in Düsseldorf. “I might almost say that those paintings were the real reason I left the GDR [ German Democratic Republic ].” 4

Richter first used the photograph as a vehicle of liberation. In 1972, he told Rolf Schön in an interview for Deutsche Zeitung that he was attracted to the photograph because “it had no style, no composition, no judgment. It freed me from personal experience.” 5 The photo as a crib for subject matter offered Richter a necessary leap from the first person into the third—a formal way to jettison the big “I” of Abstract Expressionism and its Romantic precursors.

In this, of course, he wasn’t alone, but what I am interested in is his peculiar take on the problem. Examining the early photo-paintings in the show, I was struck first by how little they finally looked like photographs, and second, by their recurring subject matter. There is something alienating about these paintings, a distancing quality that for me became an important part of their fascination. Real photographs always evoke loss. Looking at a snapshot, even when I am unfamiliar with the people, the room, or the landscape it captures, I feel that I am holding a trace of what has disappeared. Ordinary families document these losses regularly and with nostalgia for babies now grown up, young women turned into grandmothers, the youthful former self and, most importantly, the dead. As Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida: “Painting can feign reality without having seen it.” 6 The lens, unlike the painter, must have something out there to record. The photographs Richter projects and then paints over haunt his finished works as fragments of reality without actually being the paintings themselves. Depending on how you look at it, the painting is either the ghost of the photo or the photo is the ghost of the painting, or perhaps they are the two things at once. Because in this culture we believe more in the truth-value of photographs than we do in paintings, Richter borrows our belief and then subverts it through art.

The photo-painting Uncle Rudi (1965) serves as a case in point. The canvas depicts a smiling German officer posing for a picture. The title immediately places the image in a family context, one of countless pictures we all have in albums or stuffed into boxes. Whether we know that it depicts the artist’s uncle or not is less important than its obvious connection to the familiar. While the black-and-white palette of the painting mimics what we recognize as a snapshot, the brush strokes that define the figure of the man and the banal urban background behind him create an atmosphere of partial erasure and dimness, as if he’s in the process of vanishing. The lack of clarity suggests the blurring of an out-of-focus snapshot, but it does not reproduce it. This is not photo-realism. The viewer recognizes the gestures left by the painter’s hand.

The artist has come between the photo that recorded someone in time and the spectator who is looking at its translation on a canvas. Uncle Rudi, like many of Richter’s photo-paintings, combines the documentary quality of the snapshot and its accompanying feelings of loss with the presence and dignity of traditional painting. Together they create a strain of doubt and ambiguity that simultaneously undermines and enhances the viewer’s perception of the image. Uncle Rudi feels at once alien and terribly familiar. This tension is alive even when the subject matter appears more trivial: a phantom kitchen chair, two paintings of strangely luminous toilet paper; a chandelier from a lower-middle-class interior; an ugly administration building; Egyptian Landscape, four pictures that suggest faded travel slides; and a newspaper ad (with some text) for a Ferrari, in which every saleable feature of the commodity has disappeared in a wash of gray. The apparent randomness of subject matter has led some critics, like Benjamin Buchloh, to insist that the artist’s subjects are purely arbitrary,7 but I disagree. Richter has admitted to being attracted to certain pictures over others. He did not pick them out of a hat. The elevation of toilet paper to painterly status made me think not so much of Pop Art, despite the obvious connection, but of Dutch still life ennobling the leftovers on a table. Richter returned to still life more pointedly later in his career with pictures of candles, a skull, and the ethereal record player in the Baader-Meinhof series. And yet, the obvious link to the early genre and its theme of mortality is both changed and reinforced by the pictures’ mechanical origin, which brings the viewer back to the oddly spectral character of the photograph itself and its role as another object, just more paper, in our lives. In Uncle Rudi, the allusion to family document is enveloped in the chilling realities of history. The man’s Wehrmacht uniform is immediately recognizable, although its symbols—the swastika and eagle —which we know are there on his cap, can’t be made out. And yet, the pre-existence of the photo and the associations that surround it make the inference not only possible, but inevitable. The painting in which the insignias of National Socialism are illegible could be read as the very image of the repression of fathers in Germany after the war and the willed amnesia of horror. It is this, and it is the smiling family member innocently posing for a picture.

Barthes argues that photography is where we put death in modern society, now that it has left religion and ritual, that it finds its anthropological context in “this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life.” 8 Richter uses the inherently morbid quality of all photography, and then in a number of works, layers that “dead instant,” the actual lost moment that will never return, with references to broader cultural memories of the dead— a theme that reaches its peak in the Baader-Meinhof paintings, October 18, 1977. But the predilection for painting the dead and for allusions to death run through the early works as well—in Coffin Bearers; Dead; Mustang SquadronBombers; Phantom Interceptors; two pictures of Helga Matura, a murdered prostitute; the eight nurses killed by Richard Speck; a beautiful, disguised image of Jacqueline Kennedy with her hand over her mouth, called Woman with an Umbrella; and the forty-eight encyclopedia photo-paintings of prominent men.

The latter portraits seem to have been widely misunderstood. It struck me as comic that Richter has been criticized for not including women in his catalogue of luminaries. For me, the work so clearly refers to the paternal that to put women in the series would have disrupted its very essence. At the same time, these black-and-white heads are not hanging on the wall encased in glass as an ironic joke about dead fathers. They are not the Old World equivalents of Warhol’s Pop icons that blankly trumpet the excesses of capitalist star culture. They are the emblems of a lost Europe, of trauma and dead hopes— a loss not expressed by the work these men produced, which is irrelevant, but by the encyclopedic idea itself, born of the Enlightenment and its optimistic ideas about certainty, category, and truth. To borrow a term from psychoanalysis, Richter’s heads are overdetermined. The artist has lifted his pictures from the book that claims to have dissected human knowledge alphabetically, and then he has reorganized them according to another rigid and equally arbitrary formula, this time visual—the faces turn gradually from either side toward the center —an exercise that felt to me like an embalming ritual, at once futile and eminently serious. It is also worth remembering that Richter’s Atlas, a vast collection of photographs and clippings, some used and some unused in his work, have been mounted and shown as art. This compendium of a life’s labor demonstrates, at the very least, a classical penchant for order.

The mistrust of images is age-old. Pictures have long been credited with great power, given magical properties to heal, destroy, and seduce. From the ancient story of Pygmalion to the suppressions of the Reformation, the artist has been seen as a kind of sorcerer whose illusions, depending on the moment, are praised or decried. Richter is certainly a creature of the more recent battles in art, the stormy what-is-possible debates that shape the minute-to-minute world of galleries and shows, but his is now a long career, and his references stretch backward in time, much further than most artists’ quotations and allusions do, into the heart of Western culture and the politics of seeing. He partakes not only of the now, but of the then, and his imagination is stamped with a worry about pictures that is not only contemporary but part of a long tradition about what representation means.

Richter’s self-consciousness has deceived many critics into the belief that his work is made without the unconscious—that his art is purely theoretical, that he paints to show that painting can’t be done. This is nonsense, and if it were true his work would be boring, nothing more. The discipline and sorrow that accompany Richter’s struggles with representation are both intellectual and emotional, and they have led him down paths he’s had to take alone, even when they’ve been trod before him. How else to explain the color charts or the monochrome gray canvases? The man needed to go to the end of his own vision. I’m sure he thought of Malevich and Newman while he was going there, but he was compelled to explore the annihilation of images himself.

The heads of the forty-eight men on the wall are painted almost as if they were blown-up photographs—not quite, but almost—and they correspond to the viewer’s expectations of what the camera does. The heads exist at one end of a scale that moves between the relative clarity of a recognizable image to its erasure, blotting out, or disappearance into the gestures of abstraction. Richter has commented that painting can’t be blurred, painting is painting. He’s right, of course. It can’t be blurred, but it can refer to blurred photography, for example, or to nonfigurative painting, or to our own romantic notions about veils, mist, and fog, so that the viewer holds at least two, sometimes several images in his mind when looking at one of Richter’s pictures.

A painting from 1962 called Table is the first example of suppression and multiple reference. The gray image of a table taken from a decorating magazine is painted over with a fast brush—a gesture that necessarily resembles the hand of the abstract painter. In its doubleness, Table is a simpler painting than many of Richter’s landscapes and abstractions from the seventies and eighties, in which the boundaries between photograph and abstract painting collapse entirely. The highly painted black, gray, and white urban pictures like the one of Madrid; the mysterious blackened depths of his Himalaya; his cloud pictures—the one from 1970 that looks like a cloud, and the clouds from 1982 that look like a colorful abstract picture —his Seascape; his Gray Streaks; his Brown Detail; and his Un-painting (Gray), in which the gray palette of photography is turned into an abstract canvas: all merge as experiments in both perception and naming. A canvas from 1984 called Abstract Picture and one from 1985 called Bush are certainly different, but the one designated as abstract is no more or less abstract than the one identified as a bush. The play at work in these titles is revelatory of a complex host of allusions not only to the history of art but to its perception through cultural fictions at work in us whether we are students of that history or not.

I have always wished that I could look at a mountain, any mountain, before Romanticism got a hold of it and clothed it in glory. Cézanne wanted nudity, not a return to Classicism after Romanticism, but a whole re-seeing of a mountain, and set about trying to do it with Mont Sainte-Victoire. This was his optimism, one that doesn’t exist in Richter. In 1986, Richter wrote in his journal, “Of course my landscapes are not only beautiful or nostalgic, with a Romantic or Classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all ‘untruthful’. . . By untruthful I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature.” 9 The viewer doesn’t need Richter’s commentary, because this untruth or lie is embedded in the pictures through their proximity to or distance from established notions of how to read a landscape, ranging from the seductive beauty of an iceberg that quotes Friedrich to a banal meadow that makes one think of a family picnic in the country, during which somebody stood up and snapped a photo.

Every Richter image teeters inside a semantic tension between icon and anti-icon that no photograph could possibly achieve. But the desire for beauty in these pictures is real and strong and hopeful, and sometimes allowed to stand without erasure. The painting of his daughter, Betty, her head to one side, is like a color photograph turned into a Bronzino. It is as startlingly clear as his Annunciation, taken from Titian, is veiled in a romantic “blur.”

The first time I walked into the room at MoMA that holds the Baader-Meinhof paintings, I immediately felt their emotional power. It was like entering a sanctuary for the dead. Neither the theme nor the form of these paintings was new, and yet these fifteen works taken from photographs and film stills of the young German terrorists—Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Holger Meins, and Ulrike Meinhof—seemed to have elevated the stakes of Richter’s uncompromising technique to a new plane.

I knew about the imprisonment of the members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), the so-called Baader-Meinhof group in the Stammheim prison in the early seventies, and about the controversy over their deaths in that same prison, but I knew about them the way a reasonably well-informed American who reads American newspapers would know about them, not as a German citizen. On the other hand, I looked at these pictures while my own city was still uncovering the bits and pieces of the dead at the site of the World Trade Center, and the images of these ferociously ideological young people was given a wrenching historical twist. The second time I saw them, I had read the catalogue, several interviews, and essays. I remembered the concentration camp photographs included in Richter’s Atlas and his statement to Storr that for him the camp pictures were “unpaintable.” 10 The scale of events matters— a single image from a death camp represents millions of victims; one picture of a body or part of a body from Ground Zero signifies thousands. In the Baader-Meinhof works, Richter took on an event that has deep resonances in German history but is different in kind from the camp pictures he couldn’t use. The acts of terror committed by these four people and their subsequent deaths were important because they exposed a wound in German culture, a cleft between generations that cuts back to the Nazi era and the denial and repression that followed it. Nevertheless, the people Richter painted were not innocents. They lived and died violently.

Only a glance at the lurid photographs that were the basis for these works is needed to make clear that the paintings are radically different from their models. The paintings are lined, smeared, and dragged with paint. They look blurred, recessive, shrouded. The two Arrest canvases are so washed in gray that the small human figure of Meins can hardly be seen in them. Gudrun Ensslin walks, turns to the camera, and smiles, then lowers her head and continues walking in the trio of canvases: Confrontation 1, 2, and 3. In another, she is hanged —a very thin, very foggy corpse. Man Shot Down and 2 show the same image of Baader twice — gray, dead, and hazy. The empty cell and the record player are bleary evocations of human absence, as is the monumental funeral canvas of a barely differentiated crowd gathered to bury the dead, marked at the top of the canvas by a tree in the shape of a cross.

In an interview, Richter said that for him beauty is that which is uninjured. 11 The October paintings are in part a meditation on the idea of injury, wounding, and death, not in the present, but in the past. The first picture in the series, Youth Portrait, is also the most lucid and least altered from its model —a studio photo of Ulrike Meinhof as a girl. Meinhof was found hung in her cell on May 9, 1976. As with the other prisoners, there was suspicion of murder, but her death was ruled a suicide. The contrast between the picture of the childish Meinhof and the three canvases of her dead face in profile is indicative of Richter’s approach to his subject. In both the conventional child portrait and the death picture, she is cropped at the shoulders—a fact that links the two images as heads only. But the three visions of the corpse are less distinct than the undamaged face of the young girl. The dark cut on Meinhof’s neck can be seen in all three canvases, but the appearance of the wound changes. In the smallest and dimmest painting it can still be seen, but it looks wider and grayer than the darker, sharper incision in the second canvas. There is nothing graphic or clinical about the depiction of the injury. The shadow that runs across her throat is a phantom signifier of a death that we are asked to look at three times. Each time we look, her image diminishes, and the shrinkage creates the illusion of distance, as if she is farther and farther away from us, moving into the nothingness of forgetting.

Richter’s fragmented chronicle of real events rests partly on a simple, physiological truth: our direct visual perception of things in the world is far clearer than the memory pictures we retain of them. It is disappointing but true that the mental images of the past that we carry around in our heads are serviceable but vague. They offer not clarity so much as tools for recognition. The face you can’t summon vividly in your mind is nevertheless present enough so that you will recognize the real face on the street. To some degree, these canvases conjure the feeling of remembering itself, which is always a clouded or faded version of what was once seen. At the same time, the Baader-Meinhof narrative is one that was already mediated for Richter —the memory is a memory of the press and its pictures. Twelve years after the fact, he offers up the old images that were seen on tv, in magazines and newspapers, images every German would recognize, but now they have grown dim. Like revenants, these pictures return to haunt the living, not as documents anymore, but as transfigured images of a collective injury remembered—an ugly sore that time has turned into a scar.

Standing in that room, I felt that with these paintings Richter broke through an invisible barrier, and after I had left it, I became more convinced that I was right. There is something oddly liberating about looking at those pictures of the dead, as if the artist had discovered an extraordinary balance between perception and memory, recognition and blindness, photodocument and apparition. The corpse, after all, is human erasure. It means becoming nobody.

There is a greater freedom in the works that follow the October paintings. Richter’s discipline and restraint are intact, but the art is imbued with a new emotional tenor. To be blunt, there is more joy. Emerging from the room that held the Baader-Meinhof paintings, the viewer is met with three huge abstract canvases painted a year later and named after the winter months that follow October —November, December, January. Gray, black, and white remain as a base palette on these scraped and dragged pictures that are touched by flecks of brilliance —blues, reds, yellows. They are unabashedly beautiful, as are the other abstractions in which the game of naming continues— figure and nonfigure: Ice 2 (1991) and Abstract Picture (1990). The large, gray, two-paneled mirror and the smaller, blood-red one, in which we find ourselves as colored wraiths, are beautiful, too. The gorgeous picture of his daughter, Betty, in a red and white jacket turning away from the viewer into a deep gray background is the very image of uninjured beauty, looking into an ambiguous and threatening world.

The essential struggle in Richter’s work, however, is unchanged. Reading, a contemporary homage to Vermeer (no one has failed to notice), nevertheless keeps its photographic edge, its snapshot origin, which cools the picture and prevents sentimentality. The series of Madonna pictures of Richter’s wife and child have surprised some critics, no doubt because they have an abhorrence for “the subjective”—a terrain on which Richter isn’t supposed to tread or where he must go only with irony. But this series of images, with its varying degrees of clarity and covering over, interruptions, and streaking, seems perfectly in harmony with the character of his work— a desire to see where it is possible to go with a picture without losing a necessary tension. In a culture where images are produced at a rate that is nothing short of bewildering—where photographs, films, ads, and computer and video pictures are churned out so quickly that our heads spin and we feel continually battered, manipulated, and suspicious— evoking Titian, Vermeer, Raphael, and the transcendence represented by those images begins to look rather subversive.

I think Richter would be the first to say that he doesn’t subscribe to any of the belief systems that have ruled art in the West since the Greeks, but that doesn’t mean these ideas aren’t within us in varying forms—that vestiges of classical naturalism, the magical thinking associated with the Byzantine icon, the illusionism of Renaissance perspective and, more recently, Romanticism—aren’t still alive in us when we look at a canvas, just as our fear of illusions is also ongoing—not just our anxiety about marketing and persuasion, but older qualms as well. I have the long-standing Protestant version, one I think Richter carries along with him, too, not as an active practitioner of Lutheranism, but as a remnant of his early life. Protestants chose the Cross over the Crucifix—the abstract sign over the bloody body. Gerhard Richter was commissioned to make a cross, something he discusses with Storr in the catalogue interview.12 He gave the symbol the proportions of a body—lengthening the cross bar to match the proportions of a man’s arms. In this way, the body is there and not there at the same time: the iconic and the abstract meet. This encapsulates Richter’s ambition, which is nothing less than the metaphysics and history of representation—the passionate whys and hows of art itself.


gerhard richter: why paint?

1 Quoted in Robert Storr, “Interview,” in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting

(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 303. Catalogue for the exhibition

at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 14 February –21 May 2002.

2 Ibid., 303.

3 Ibid., 19.

4 Ibid., 22.

5 Quoted in Armin Zweite, “Gerhard Richter’s ‘Album of Photographs, Collages

and Sketches’” in B.D.H. Buchloh, J.F. Chevrier, A. Zweite, and R. Rochlitz,

Photography and Painting in the Work of Gerhard Richter: Four Essays on Atlas

(published on the occasion of the exhibition in Barcelona, Museu d’Art

Contemporani, 1999), 94.

6 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photographs, trans. Richard Howard

(New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) 76.

7 Benjamin Buchloh, “Readymade, Photography, and Painting in the Painting

of Gerhard Richter,” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and

American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 381. Buchloh’s

chief concern is to place Richter in the context of cultural and art history.

See also his essay in the catalogue for Richter’s exhibition at Marian Goodman

Gallery, New York, 14 September–27 October, 2001.

8 Barthes, Camera Lucida, 92.

9 Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1986,” in Hans Ulrich Obrist, ed., Gerhard Richter:

The Daily Practice of Painting, Writing and Interviews, 1962–1993

(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; London: Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1995), 124.

10 Storr, “Interview,” 290.

11 Richter, “Notes, 1983,” in Daily Practice, 102.

12 Robert Storr, “Permission Granted,” in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 83.


Siri Hustvedt_Mysteries of the Rectangle