Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image in Contemporary Art
The “Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image in Contemporary Art” project came into being through the collaboration of the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina (CCCS) and the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, as part of the CCCS’s programme of international partnerships that has enabled us to bring to Florence works by great masters and also younger artists on the international contemporary art scene.
This exhibition develops the critical approach of the recent show Manipulating Reality held at the CCCS from 25 September 2009 to 17 January 2010, which explored the concept of reality in relation to the possibilities of its representation in contemporary society. Indeed, both projects are informed by an awareness of the problem of representing reality in the modern world. Manipulating Reality was mainly concerned with shedding light on the contradiction of recording reality and, at the same time, falsifying it, which is typical of photography and of video. The new CCCS exhibition goes further to analyze the role of the image itself in the light of its increasingly fragile status as an objective description of reality, and its value as a reflection on the world that is able to achieve its own autonomy rather than being merely the specific object of representation.
Gerhard Richter has devoted his whole artistic career to searching for what one might call the essence of the image, where it is no longer a representation of the real but the creation of a reality unto itself. The well-known critic Dietmar Elger, the author of the first biography on Richter, describes his works as “material that illustrates a lost truth”, since they appear to represent the real but accentuate the archetypal characteristic of a specific subject rather than its actual value. Richter makes not only the subject of his works disappear, but also pictorial technique itself, questioning the construction of a work by combining diverse artistic genres or techniques in the same piece. Well aware of the power of images, Richter strives to destroy or to cast doubt on their clarity. His signature blurred painting goes as far as making the subject unrecognizable, while at the same time questioning it by oscillating between abstraction and figuration and creating a play between reality and appearance. By employing a deconstructive painting procedure and challenging established principles, he experiments with the value and the various meanings of the image within a contemporary society based on the constant production and reproduction of images.
Richter’s works create a dialogue with those of seven contemporary artists whose activity has focused on the disappearance of the image and the problem of its very definition, through the use of various media. They are the Britishers Antony Gormley and Roger Hiorns, the Americans Marc Breslin and Scott Short, the Chinese Xie Nanxing, the Italian Lorenzo Banci and the German Wolfgang Tillmans. The work of each artist is assigned its own space in the exhibition, which enables the visitor to evaluate the specific characteristics of their respective researches within the overall context.
A typical element of Richter’s painting is the direct confrontation with photographic models extracted from the flood of mass-media images. This has enabled him, from the mid-Sixties on, to reflect on media images and the way we relate to them. He chooses ordinary, almost banal images, citing the visual repertoire of his time: illustrations from magazines, family snapshots, motifs from genre painting, used like objets trouvés. He draws on what one might describe as a collective visual vocabulary as well as private worlds captured at an amateur level. Their reproduction through painting is neither clear nor precise, however. Richter nebulizes the images with his trademark blurred effect: outlines and details seem to disappear.
He aims for a resemblance to photography to verify the presumed authenticity and objectivity of painting in the age of the technological reproduction of the image. However, at the same time, he negates these values by emphasizing the constant ‘mobility’ of his pictorial activity: the superimposition of different layers of painting, the blurrings, the interventions on the painting itself with secondary tools. While, on the one hand, Richter’s using photography is consonant with the need for ‘simplification’ typical of Pop Art in conflict with the generation of Abstract Expressionists; on the other, the German artist seeks a new complexity in painting, which through diverse genres, typologies or formats makes it possible to find an innovative new key for interpreting an image that was originally produced by technical means.
The artist’s work is marked by a constant effort to rid images of a single interpretation by not only removing but also isolating them from their original context (e.g. personal photos taken from family albums or media images clipped from magazines and newspapers) by placing them in the new dimension of the “painting-object”. The adoption of ordinary photographic models gives Richter the freedom of action he needs to dispense with formal registers, iconographic constraints or precise symbolic connotations. Thus an ‘image of the image’ is created, a work that exists according to its own laws, with diverse characteristics, conditions and meanings from those it possessed at the outset. “I do not wish to imitate a photograph; I want to make one. (…) I make photographs with different systems, and not paintings that resemble a photograph.” (Interview with Gerhard Richter by Rolf Schön, catalogue of the 36th Venice Biennale, German Pavilion, 1972, pp. 23-25)
Richter makes the motif disappear by using diverse techniques: painting over the original motifs, bringing into focus some of their smallest details, eschewing definite outlines and making the figure less recognizable by using various tools. He thematizes the difference between the subjective perception and objective experience of reality and stresses the fact that an artist can only offer tentative solutions regarding the difficult relationship between the object and representation. Making the initial image disappear can thus be interpreted as a metaphor of the conditioning of perception itself, which enables us to become consciously aware of an object for a second, before it vanishes again to become a mere probability. Richter sees the image as an object but not as objective; it is placed on the plane of perception and of its nuances, but does not take the form of a simple and direct statement.
Richter’s intention is clearly expressed in the so-called Bilderverzeichnis, a catalogue raisonné of his works from the beginning of the Sixties, which he himself compiled in 1969 and is considered a work of art in itself. This reclassification of the works enables us to evaluate precedents and significant elements pointed out by Richter himself and hence particularly meaningful. The opening piece in this catalogue is Tisch (Table, 1962), which thus assumes a fundamental importance. The picture shows a realistically painted table on which Richter has superimposed broad brushstrokes of colour that partially obliterate the motif. This seems to be an almost programmatic statement by the artist about the image being central to his work, its original relationship to photography and his conviction that representation-as- reproduction and the abstract gestural form are both equally valid means of conveying reality.
Richter’s distrust of painting that represents explicit stances or sends explicit messages derives, first and foremost, from his experience as a young artist in the Democratic Republic of Germany and from his having been born during the Nazi dictatorship. While Nazism branded avant-garde art as degenerate, in a Socialist context the State is the sole patron of art, thus making it a mere tool of political ideology. Nevertheless, Richter’s move to the West only caused him to reject more vehemently art with political or ideological content, which in Western countries is translated into an equally standardized subjection of art to capitalist power. The artist presents himself as a lone figure who is sceptical of current art trends and assumes independent stances.
The works in the exhibition represent various stages in Richter’s career that spans over fifty years. However, if we compare periods and styles, they reveal a constant experimentation that distances him from any hierarchy of values regarding the different types of works and from a consistent, progressive, linear evolution of styles, genres and techniques.
Richter’s Fotobilder (“photographic images”) are represented by Familie Schmidt (Schmidt Family, 1969) and Porträt Liz Kertelge (Portrait of Liz Kertelge, 1966) which exemplify the pictorial reworking of photographic models projected onto the white canvas, and attest to two of the artist’s principle means of iconographic appropriation. On the one hand, we have images taken from the media, like the portrait of the actress in a close-up that develops the models of American Pop Art according to new criteria; on the other, ordinary snapshots from a family album, represented according to conventional middle-class iconography: father, mother and children seated on a sofa at home.
Executed in 1969, Wilhelmshaven and Brücke (am Meer )(Bridge Over the Sea) attest instead to the artist’s approach to a traditional genre like landscape painting. Richter addresses the technical and linguistic characteristics of this subject, but also stresses his complete indifference to the original topographical reference.
The absence of a hierarchy of the various genres embraced by Richter is evinced by the dates of works such as Eule (Owl, 1982), Schädel mit Kerze (Skull with Candle, 1983) and Krems (1986). While exploring the memento mori genre through calm and meditative painting reminiscent of the 17th century, Richter also conducted radical research on the elimination of the figure by means of a powerful gestural element that was either of a decidedly abstract nature or was used to obliterate the original figurative motif. He took this research further in Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Image, 1988) and Canaletto (1990), in which a complex colour scheme, large format and a persistent confrontation with tradition are translated into works that accentuate Richter’s ability to construct, destroy and reconstruct the relationship between the human being and the world through images.
Decke (Cover or Ceiling, 1988) would appear to be part of the ‘Abstrakte Bilder’ series dating to this period, but it is also linked to the cycle of works Richter dedicated to the suicide of Gudrun Esslin and other members of the RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) during the night of 17 and 18 October 1977 at Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart. Richter applies a layer of white paint over the original painted image similar to those in the cycle 18. Oktober 1977. In keeping with the ambiguity of the title of the work, Richter “covers” the subject of the image (Esslin’s hanged body painted from the photograph published in the German newspapers), leaving only a few recognizable elements, including the ceiling of the room, and thus focusing on a play of language, reality and image.
Richter’s approach to the picture-object itself, the transposition of principles from one technical means to another and his commitment to avoiding any hint of emotion, are characteristics also to be found in much younger contemporary artists. In recent decades, the globalized media society has seen an exponential growth in the production of images, which are now considered a central means of communication with respect to language. For its part, the general public, who thanks to digital technologies has itself become a producer of images, expects an artist to constantly renew his relationship with images. The individual image is no longer considered an icon or a collective symbol, while the growing hunger for images that are always new has resulted in their being produced and consumed at dizzying speed. Advertising, news, promotional films, images in blogs and social forums constitute an almost uncontrollable mass of visual information, which is at the service of a constant search for the new and for the surprise effect, rather than an analysis of the true value of the image. While Richter used photography to create a short-circuit in needs and characteristics with the aim of analyzing painting’s role in the contemporary world, today’s digital tools for elaborating the image have brought photography itself increasingly closer to the iconicity of painting.
The artists creating a dialogue with Richter in the exhibition have all devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the effects of images, to the conditions of their production and to the ever-more complex relationship between the viewer and the producer, establishing a critical distance and an analytical approach similar to Richter’s own. Naturally, the majority of the artists chosen do not consciously follow his tradition. They are independent personalities who have forged diverse paths in social conditions differing from those that Richter himself experienced. What they all have in common, however, is their research on how to represent reality and on the formal and conceptual issue of making the image disappear with different artistic techniques like painting, photography, sculpture or installation.
The Chinese artist Xie Nanxing combines video, photography and painting to create images that reflect the present human condition dominated by the media aesthetic, and go beyond the objectivity of representation pure and simple, to elicit a new kind of involvement from the viewer. By further accentuating the role of the spectator in the actual formation of what is represented, Antony Gormley’s work falls into the category of social art that shifts between figuration and abstraction, using the concrete space and the actual body of the viewer. He creates a kind of abstract design in real space by means of an installation that constitutes an interactive place in which the observer becomes the object and subject of the visual process at the same time. By contrast, Lorenzo Banci and Marc Breslin study the relationship between figuration and abstraction through painting. While Banci depicts disintegrating forms taken from photographs of seemingly insignificant places in which light is the main protagonist, Breslin uses the pictorial surface as a palimpsest on which signs and marks on various layers of painting create a metaphor of the human mind and of the overlapping or cancellation of memories and events.
Scott Short’s conceptual work is based on photocopying the same white sheet of paper hundreds of times until, quite by chance, signs are generated that create a random image which is then translated into a painting. As with Gerard Richter, chance becomes a means of reducing the artist’s creative and decisional intervention in the composition to a minimum, focusing instead on the specific construction of the work as an independent object. In a similar way, Roger Hiorns creates sculptural installations whose forms are created independently rather than by his intervening directly. Chemical components trigger transformation processes that generate amazing evanescent shapes, which become the manifesto of the artist’s refusal to search for his own particular and recognizable signature style, in a way that is very similar to Richter’s.
This absence of an established, consistent stylistic approach also forms the basis for the work of the German Wolfgang Tillmans, whose creations cannot be classified in any single category. Just as Richter explores and constantly pushes back the boundaries of painting, Tillmans is engaged in investigating the limits and possibilities of photography. Working in various genres and pushing himself towards abstraction by means of images created directly on the negative, he truly annihilates the image as representation as an end in itself. The disappearance of the image paves the way for the creation of a new object, which seems to lie halfway between painting, photography and the ordinary world.
Like all the exhibition projects conceived by the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, “Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image in Contemporary Art” is being realized in three distinct yet complementary phases: an exhibition, a publication and a series of lectures, so that the theme can be explored in depth and the possibilities for enjoyment increased.
Particularly outstanding are the critical essays in the catalogue by Benjamin Buchloh, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University, who is currently in residence at the American Academy, Berlin, where he is working on the text Gerhard Richter: Painting After the Subject of History, of which his essay is a preview, and by Wolfgang Ullrich, a philosopher, art historian and professor at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, who explains the theories central to his recent publication Unschärfe (lit. Blurring) devoted to the study of the ‘out-of-focus’ technique as a cultural phenomenon of modern times.
The series of lectures will be given during the entire run of the exhibition by various experts and professionals with different backgrounds and from various milieux: Fulvio Carmagnola, Lecturer in Aesthetics at the Bicocca University of Milan; Simona Chiodo, Lecturer in Aesthetics at the Milan Polytechnic; Raul Calzoni, Lecturer in Literature and German Culture at the University of Bergamo; Gian Marco Montesano, an Italian artist who can attest to the present state of painting on the Italian art scene; Cristina Baldacci, a researcher and author of the essay “Il duplice volto dell’Atlas di Gerhard Richter”.
“Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image in Contemporary Art” is the 8th thematic exhibition devised by the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina since it began its activities in November 2007. The show was organized in collaboration with the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, and we would especially like to thank the director, Hubertus Gassner. Special thanks also go to Ingrid and Georg Böckmann of the Böckmann Collection in Berlin for their extremely valuable cooperation, without which the exhibition could never have been staged.
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