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 Squadron; Bombers; 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 1 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