Gerhard Richter: “Painting is something completely vital”
[machine translated from the German]
Gerhard Richter in conversation with Doris von Drathen
GR: I’m much less capable than you think.
D v. D : To paint?
To talk. I never learned that, it was never my passion, never my ability.
But to write?
This is very rare, when I am alone and in a special mood, then maybe it works sometimes. But talking is difficult.
We only wanted to talk about “simple” things, such as the question of whether the aesthetically analytical discussion about your painting might mask the images themselves and their power. For me, they are painted by someone who believes in pictures.
By faith, that has many sides. Believing in images as believing in God or images so practically, today, with painting rather out, believe that images still make sense. And I’m already convinced of that. We always do pictures, for example with fashion – we put on something, because we believe in it, and thus deliver a picture of us, telling others who and how we are. This is so in all areas that we constantly create images that others can or should understand.
So also the painted –
Certainly more must be done today than it used to be; because there is not much to see on such abstract pictures here. Faith certainly plays a bigger role here. And often it turns out that you believed in something wrong.
Do you believe in your pictures?
There are a few that I like, but I would not want to take the big word “I believe in it.”
Although that would have to be so, why else all the effort?
Sure, I have to believe that I can make something useful. On the other hand, the lust for doing certainly plays a bigger role in painting. Like when someone makes music, there’s no reason to doubt.
That this would be nonsensical or not necessary, passé.
About the fact that this is still feasible, a credible picture?
There are so many credible images in the world, and we love them; we travel far to see her. We need them. And some just need them to produce pictures themselves.
How does this need relate to your earlier claim to seek the greatest possible indifference?
It was more of a protection claim that I was indifferent, that I did not care about anything, and so on. At the time, I was afraid that the pictures would then be too sentimental. In the meantime, it does not bother me to admit that this had something to do with me, that I did not paint so accidentally all the tragic types, the murderers and suicides, failed and so on.
If you look at photo painting, picture atlas, and abstraction as a coherent piece of work, you might see something common in someone trying to figure out how and if to make an appearance.
Might be. But what appearance – how the reality appears, or what appears in the pictures?
I am more concerned with understanding a phenomenon in the sense of Giacometti: The immersion of your pictures seems to me similar to its attempt to catch another piece of reality; or as Sartre describes this delicate boundary between the registers of “there is” and “it exists”.
That’s too difficult for me. Here is the cup, that is there, and it appears, and the photo there, that only shows the glow of the cup.
And the painted picture?
Is the painted picture closer to reality or to appearance?
First of all closer to appearance, but it has more reality than a photo, because a picture itself has more object character, because it is visibly painted by hand, tangible material is made. As a result, it has its own reality, which then virtually replaces the reality of the cup.
Can painted appearance now tell more about reality?
Maybe because he is more irritating; he is always more or less different from reality; that irritates you then ask more.
So more approach?
Yet, our relationship with reality. The cup alone is boring.
I agree. Let’s take the Gulf War.
That’s too difficult.
But we are actually talking about this problem. What do you think of the theories of such philosophers as Baudrillard or Virilio, who observe virtuously the loss of a reference to reality, the disappearance of reality, even an aesthetics of disappearance? what do you think of such essays as Baudrillard’s essay, which probably also appeared in German: “La Guerre du Golf n’a pas eu lieu”?
I do not think so. For not much has changed in comparison to the past, they also knew about hearsis by hearsay, they were told in different ways; that’s the same as television and newspaper today. But sometimes such distant wars are no longer enough for us, and we would like to join in a proper one again. A touch of murder.
I thought, above all, that the theories on the aesthetic question of losing reality might pass completely by the “task” of getting a picture of reality, whether it would not be much more interesting to ask, as in a flooded media world than there is still consciousness that is awake enough to actually work out and react to reality.
So a little war here?
Sometimes without nonsense – do not you think, there is perhaps something like an obligation to grasp reality and act accordingly?
But that is a reality, that we hear the war from hearsay or in front of the television. And then we have other less passive realities, like the ones I have here and now. And for me, this distant, that is indirect, reality is also like an example or an illustration of my behavior or my state of mind. If people are slaughtering out there, it’s not so foreign to me.
Because this is a slaughter for you here in the studio?
Something like that.
Now I can hardly ask what meaning painting still has today for such a task to grasp reality.
It is hard to say that earlier on painting had more effect and more reality, as one sometimes assumes, that it was better understood, more popular, or always visible in churches, for all. But painting today has reality and effect. It is shown and bought and discussed, all with a lot of effort. And as long as the art justifies this effort, that is interesting enough, everything is fine.
It could be that pictures would trigger something like a leap in perception or consciousness, someone would suddenly look different, react to the “face” with more doubt or more commitment. It could be, indifference would be broken up by pictures.
I think that’s possible. But I can not think of anything.
You do not have such wishes?
But – it does not do any good to face such noble tasks. We know what those pictures look like that are well meant.
Kasper König once showed figurative pictures – the cycle October 18, 1977 – and abstract pictures one behind the other, to say that’s the same theme.
That was a good act of his. Nevertheless, that is difficult; figurative pictures are always more attractive than abstract ones. As soon as people or objects are seen, it wakes people more.
In the time of the Gray Pictures, the window, a double board appears, meaning “passage”. I had the idea of sacrificing something, so in the happy “pagan” sense of giving something and getting something for it. Did you feel as if you were leaving something behind, as if you shook off something, wandered off to find something else?
Certainly. And you have to give up something or destroy or scratch away, like this little abstract here.
Let’s stay with the cockroaches. Is this subtraction of color something aggressive?
That has something to do with injury.
Yes, with injury and with extinguishing what has been done, taking it away again, scratching it away. And then the pleasant feeling that you can get something else for it.
That’s basically the thought of giving up.
That you get something better for it.
In the completely new pictures, cockroaches are even more radical; and it goes hard, down to the bottom of the canvas, which is exposed.
Does that have anything to do with pleasure? It may well be that only doing only satisfied.
First of all yes, but afterwards you see what has become, and you are no longer satisfied. So start again and again, until it’s true then, – it looks pretty simple, somehow managed, as if it were quite easy to produce and easily repeatable. But unfortunately this whole complicated path always has to be gone, which again and again consists of the attempt to paint a painting, to fail, to paint on, and so on.
What about the pictures with the light? In the early abstract paintings, it seems, the light is central, as in the early Renaissance the Gesù Bambino; in contrast, in the series “Forest” or the red series, the light is diffuse, as is light under a water surface. How do you put light, just as intuitive as anything else?
Definitely; I never thought about it. Somehow I start anyway with very bright colors, which are then more and more concealed or prefetched or even be set. But light is the right expression, because these brightnesses also have an illusionistic side.
You once made two eagles for Marcel Broodthaers – what kind of contact did you have, and did you also have to deal with his ideas?
He was an incredibly likeable and fascinating man; We always greeted each other in a friendly way and ate together every now and then – but I still do not understand what he is doing. I like it and I like it.
And the eagles for the “Département des Aigles”?
He had asked me if we trade. That’s how it came.
But you never had an affinity to his ideas.
I have never dealt with it.
The eagles have a lexicon-like non-binding nature like the 48 portraits.
They are also from the dictionary. A lexicon used to have something comforting for me.
Comforting in the sense of limited, controllable?
Yes, neutralized and therefore painless.
And why do you say “earlier”, do you no longer need such comfort today?
He uses up unfortunately.
Looking through your atlas, I always felt that I was about to grasp what system to choose; but then all criteria are wiped away again by new pictures that pop up.
I can not understand that – I thought rather that there is a consistent view, as a fundamental concern that simply exists, whether I want it or not.
Can you even share such a view on your work, in the way that is tried here in the monograph, so to see the pictures as an existential tightrope walk?
I do not know how to describe it.
Would such a viewpoint run completely beside the thing?
No. But how should I say something like that? I can not say I’m doing a tightrope walk here; I’m still hard at the border, one more day, and I’ll kill myself.
What reason is there for continuing to paint?
You ought to have had enough of that by now. So you probably do not believe that seriously.
No – but what else should I do if I question painting?
That’s just it. Why is painting needed? that it is needed, shows yes.
You can not rely on that; that’s like a fashion or what do I know. People believe in painting blindly for a while, and then they wake up like a big dream, realizing that they have just bought nonsense.
But back to “need pictures”. Can they save us? Does painting make us better people?
Generally, yes. Yes.
Is painting perhaps better suited than other media to respond to Sedlmayr’s yearning to find the middle again?
We have long since lost this middle, and it would be quite nonsensical to want to restore it.
But painting is possible and necessary? Necessary, perhaps, to have images in the flood of images of the mass media, which – without falling back into the 19th century – can create distance even under the consideration of the new experiences of virtual worlds; which, as Warburg says, open a “thought-space of prudence” that could possibly make people feel their autonomy?
With such terms as distance and autonomy I have my difficulties, and I also shy away from naming what painting gives us. All I know is that it is useful and important, like music and art in general, that painting is something vital to life.
The conversation was conducted on 4 March 1992.