“I don’t know what motivated the artist, which means these paintings have an intrinsic quality. I think Goethe called it the ‘essential dimension’, the thing that makes great works of art great” (Richter, Text, 85)
Criticality in painting developed in such a way as to determine the intentionality of the artist, the formal handling of medium in relation to the work, and the intrinsic individuality that resulted from a fusion of the two. That said, it would be considered extraordinarily blunt and prejudicial to look at, say, Dutch art of the 17th Century and conclude that the paintings of Vermeer, de Hooch, ter Borch and/or Maes are fundamentally the same. Sure, it’s true that in popular art-historical terms, this era has been generalized into a convention (the Dutch “Golden Age”); but connoisseurs have located the differences between these artists quite clearly. Therefore, an analysis of painting based solely on the didactic nature of the image represented should be considered uncritical. Why, then, is representational painting now only discussed in light of photo-based painting? It seems as if photo-based painting and its critical discussion in contemporary criticism has been fully conventionalized to the point that it envelops most forms of representation. No one seems to be making a connoisseurial argument on this front. The kind of sensitivity that used to be applied to discussing painting seems completely absent.
In order to get to the root of this matter, we must look at the most seminal figure in postmodern representational painting: the German painter Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). Richter is at once inclusive and divisive when it comes to postmodern theory and painting. His training ranged extensively, moving from a traditional art education in Dresden in the 1950s to his exposure to modernist and postmodernist ideas in the 1960s, meeting and working with Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke and Joseph Beuys. These experiences helped to guide Richter’s artistic approaches, thus leading to an impressive stylistic diversity in his work. He certainly pushes paint into an arena of vibrant discourse, especially when it comes to his photo-based work: often testing the waters of critique with nods to history painting (as in the Baader-Meinhof suite, October18, 1977, ), the Duchampian-readymade (Kitchen Chair, ), and German Romanticism (Himalaya,). The aporia that erupts in the work –and this is what elicits the greatest fascination in critical circles– is made manifest via a purposeful aridity in his delivery. That is to say, Richter paints – as much as he is able – with a deft, but formally anonymous hand. Employing no idiosyncratic mark-making, nor eye-catching surface manipulations, Richter desublimates the tropes of painting and eludes much of its historical associations, while simultaneously provoking postmodernist critique by the very use of the medium. He has stated that he paints “to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, with the greatest possible freedom” (Daily Practice, 166).
As is well known (and obvious in the work), Richter employs the use of photographs: his own; found or co-opted; newspaper and magazine clippings; postcards; and snapshots of screen images. The distortion that results in these photographic reproduction processes is something that Richter has often mimicked – blurring, warping, imitating the dot-matrix of a screen – in the painting itself. One of the most interesting effects of this imitation is that it calls to mind the harmony/dissonance binary of photography and painting: while the blur of a photo is due to the lens of
the camera, the photographic image can be imitated in a painting via a skilled hand. However, the painted surface is not actually blurred or distorted; paint is paint, no matter how one applies it. And Richter is indeed skilled, well-schooled in the manipulation of oil paint, even in impasto techniques. However, he reserves this mainly for his abstract paintings. The surface-related activity in these works is very much related to their conceptual scope, with complex layers and effacements alluding palimpsest.
There is something sincerely fundamental in Richter’s explorations– a deep-seated mistrust of ideology; his upbringing under the pall of two dictatorships –first Hitler, and then Stalin, because of his life in East Germany– certainly gives him a strong reason and resolve to question the nature of dogmatic thinking. He follows the line of a fellow German intellectual, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who claimed that the “idea of art [is] to gain control of semblance, to determine it as semblance, as well as to negate it as unreal” (78). With this in mind, Richter wishes to continue to imbue, or perhaps invoke in painting and representation that “essential dimension” to which Goethe referred. In doing so, it can be imagined that his art might transcend the conventionalizing nature of postmodern criticality/academia – the preeminent ideology of the contemporary art world. It is easy to note this polarity between artist and critique in Richter’s 1986 conversation with Benjamin Buchloh. Here Buchloh postures as a postmodernist ideologue, misunderstanding Richter’s intentions at many turns. One particular instance is in Buchloh’s mistaking Richter’s photo-real painting oeuvre as pastiche, calling it “a cynical retrospective survey of 20th-century painting,” to which Richter replies, “I see no cynicism or trickery or guile in any of this” (Daily Practice, 146). Rather, the very linkage of the painted objects – the photos, the images, the likenesses, conflated into one source-point “reality” – reveals not just a didactic lack of continuity, but elemental associations that are almost musical. Look at the sequence from painting to painting: a cloud, a roll of toilet paper, and then the artist’s Uncle Rudi in his Nazi uniform – the resonance of the latter work is that much greater in the harmony of the surrounding works. The Buchloh-Richter conversation in toto is vital, as it provides solid insight into the overreaching tendencies of postmodern criticality when confronted with art that subverts and/or expands beyond ideological theoretical modes.
Thus, Richter has become iconic of “anonymity” in representational painting. And much like Buchloh’s misfires in his cat-and-mouse with Richter, the trope of the “anonymous hand” has been conventionalized into all discussions of representational painting; it is discussed solely on the grounds of photo-based tropes. What was once an indefinable space of experience (the essential) has undergone typical morphological deconstruction through critical agencies and become incorrectly concretized into a canonical model for contemporary painting. “X-factors” in art always delimit a fragile space, for, in the Foucauldian sense, the armies of discourse will rush in and seek to instrumentalize them.* Through such instrumentalization, ideologies spring forth.
So now a certain kind of myopia is prevalent in the critique of contemporary representational painting. Of course, artists are aware of this, and many have aligned themselves with this stunted kind of criticality. “Painting by committee” is fashionable in this arena. It not only fulfills the latest, edgy model of artist as solely Conceptual, but also subverts any emphasis upon skill, leaving the painting job to a studio of “workers”. Postmodern tropes have blunted the edge of representation as it pertains to photography, and the non-styles of the studios of Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wylie and Rudolph Stengel, for example, perpetuate the problem. Far more slick, the surfaces of the products of these artists are very different than those of Richter, yet they are meant to be read as didactically photo-based, with no individual “hand” present in the work.
What is it, then, that can lift a painter such as myself out of these constrained conventions? How would this one painter of the realistic image individuate himself from others? If the nature of the discourse has been blunted, then perhaps the tactics a painter might bring to bear need to be fairly blunt. If I want to function in this strange terrain of generic approaches, it may be time to return to structural roots, such as the very physicality of paint. The aesthetic of painting needs to be re-embraced, alongside contemporary conceptual narratives. Why would a painter not want to embrace that part of painting’s history that still resonates so strongly? Madlyn Miller Kahr, in her essay on Velazquez’ Las Meninas, calls the masterwork “a demonstration of the combination of intellectual subtlety and aesthetic sensibility that the best of its practitioners bring to painting” (245). Why can’t this sentiment function in this day and age? I believe it can.
There are a few artists who bring this aesthetic to bear today, about some of whom I have already written: Michaël Borremans, Jenny Saville, John Currin, Vincent Desiderio. And there are others – Johannes Kahrs, Vija Celmins, Eberhard Havekost, Lucien Freud, and Ulrich Lamsfuss – to name a few. For many of them, paint application is a strong sign of a return to a more painting-specific aesthetic. Surfaces can be highly imperfect and erratic, with instances of stray brush hairs lingering in extruded strokes, fingerprints and exposed raw linen. The very textures call to mind a warmth/mystery/myth of the European painter’s studio. The straightforward, conservative aspect of such historical structural reference serves to distance and positively differentiate itself from the contemporary ideology of representation, which is conventionalized as “photo-real”. Peter Rostovsky, upon seeing a Borremans in person, remarked, “It’s like a Sargent with its surfaces, but combined with the content, it becomes a Richter with dreams, instead of just photographs” (42:29).
It is vital for me to understand and incorporate an aesthetic physicality into my imagery. I have experimented with this, but need to continue in order to make manifest that signature “mark”, using the traditional surfaces and mediums in which the paint is suspended. In this, I will be able to find again the dignity of “painter as painter”. That is, in the creation of a painting, the physical and mental are dualistically indistinguishable.
* Foucault’s attitude in this regard is reflected in this example: “When social and political scientists increasingly claim the importance of categories like “invention”, “fiction” and “construction” for their work, they often double the theoretical attitude they initially set out to criticize… [this] lacks any sense of the materiality of the process of theory production.” (Lemke, 63).
Robert Sullivan is a practicing artist and professor at the Maine College of Art. He works and lives in Portland, Maine. His upcoming solo show “The Detached Muse,” will be opening in July, 2013 at Galatea Fine Art, Boston. His work can be viewed on line at robsullivanart.com.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Print.
Kahr, Madlyn Miller. “Velazquez and Las Meninas.” Art Bulletin 57.2 (1975): 225-246. Print.
Lemke, Thomas. “Foucault, Governmentality and Critique.” Rethinking Marxism Vol. 14, Issue 3. September, 2002: 49-64. Print.
Richter, Gerhard. The Daily Practice of Painting. Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. Print.
– Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters. London:Thames and Hudson, 2009. Print.
Rostovsky, Peter. Personal Interview. Recorded in Brooklyn, New York. 7 May 2011.