The Intermediary’s Approach
Gerhard Richter: Painting After All
The Met Breuer, New York
04.03.20 – 12.03.20
Joint Second Prize
Entry in Chinese
Translated by Bridget Noetzel
Although Gerhard Richter expressed deep agreement with Theodor Adorno’s admonition in the 2012 film Gerhard Richter Painting – ‘Paintings are mortal enemies. Each is an assertion that tolerates no company’ – he has still exhibited his artworks together, even if he is always hiding behind them. In March 2020 the Met Breuer presented Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, originally planned to run for four months, although the exhibition only lasted nine days due to coronavirus. Thanks to exhaustive online resources, visitors who could not attend the exhibition were able to appreciate Richter’s prolific and broad career spanning nearly sixty years. Rather than seeing it as an almost commanding affirmation, it might be better to understand the exhibition title as a question: Why paint? More specifically, after experiencing all this – painting has been declared dead many times, and art itself is often interrogated – why continue to paint?
This exhibition, which is not a retrospective, occupied the third and fourth floors of the Met Breuer, beginning with Table ( 1962 ), the work that also opens Richter’s catalogue raisonné. Visitors at the third-floor entrance may be puzzled, because even before they have approached the piece, they clearly see that three works occupy the same wall, like a triptych. Table on the left and September ( 2005 ) on the right are based on media photographs. Richter’s scraping and covering process pauses the image in a specific moment in the transition from figuration to abstraction. The images are given a mutually contradictory quality: they are simultaneously being constructed and deconstructed. If the presentation of these two elements in Table is an overly direct and detached confrontation, then the vague effect in September, created more than forty years later, makes the scraped attacks on the canvas much gentler. Considering the fact that September touches on the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the damaged image and the wounded people are emotional records that connect historical memories.
The installation 11 Panes ( 2004 ) is located between the two paintings. The layering of multiple glass panes attenuates the transparency of the glass and strengthens the mirror effect. Strictly speaking, the work is not painting. Through reflections, the glass becomes an imaginary canvas on which visual forces – the viewer, the surrounding landscape, and anything that randomly appears – come together. Glass is an anti-painting method of painting. The self-assembled triptych before us suggests that Richter’s work is a closed-loop structure. On the fourth floor, the artist has also placed a mirror between two paintings of family photographs. Richter’s works from the show can be generally divided into photo-based paintings, abstract paintings, and derivatives of the two ( in his glass or mirror installations ). Richter was born in 1932, and he crossed the border between East and West Berlin in 1961. He never went back until German reunification. His experiences with multiple political systems ( Nazi Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany ) has meant that he keeps his distance from any ideology. As an outsider to the West, it seems that Richter can only respond to fear by avoiding reality; the pictures have become an intermediary option in the service of this goal.
In Uncle Rudi ( 1965 ), which is based on Richter’s family photo albums, the figure is smiling, seemingly unprepared to fight a war. ( During the Second World War, Rudi died in action, fighting for Nazi Germany. ) The work is hung on a white wall, and the building on the other side of the street is visible through the adjacent window. Beyond the wall on which the painting hangs, visitors can see the hidden trees and buildings. This wall touches a nerve in the viewer time and again, hinting at Germany’s Nazi past and directly pointing to the controversies of the present. Due to the blurriness of the image, the historical subject matter is muddled with the present. By depicting the Nazis in his family, Richter attempts to respond to Germany’s terrifying past, and family memory is fused with national guilt. As Richter wrote, he produced photography ‘not to use it as a means to painting but [to] use painting as a means to photography’.¹ Style-less amateur snapshots, as in Family at the Seaside ( 1964 ), and ordinary objects, as in Kitchen Chair ( 1965 ), suggest a lack of intention, or point to a pursuit of neutrality. The pictures float between hand-painted paintings and photographs.
As the ‘heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting’, Richter’s defence of tradition is inseparable from the recasting of the academic painting genre.² The thick mist in Iceberg in Mist ( 1982 ) places everything behind a veil. The indistinct iceberg poking out of the surface of the water disappears against the backdrop of the ocean meeting the sky. The placement of almost minimalist elements makes the image lose all narrative, while opening the possibility for deeper contemplation. In works such as Seascape ( 1975 ) and Study for Clouds ( 1970 ) Richter uses landscape pictures ( and not the landscapes themselves ) to depict a mediated reality, connecting the history in the pictures. Richter strives to pay ‘Homage to Caspar David Friedrich’, simultaneously capturing Romantic taste and conviction with his keen sensitivity to nature and his passion for mysterious, distant things.³
The ‘Chromatic Abstractions’ section of the show is situated between the ‘Family Pictures and Artist Portraits’ and ‘Scenes and Scape’ galleries; this juxtaposition highlights Richter’s sudden shift from representation to abstraction. As the only colour chart work included in the show, the underlying compositional principle in 4900 Colours ( 2007 ) is randomness. Arranged in a grid structure, all of the elements are connected to one another on an equal footing, smoothing out any kind of ranking of colours. When viewers try to identify them, this work is experienced as a rich display that transcends words. The composition echoes the gridded patterning on the floor and ceiling of the gallery, making it the most modernist part of the entire exhibition space. In fact, in the mid-1960s Richter had already conceived the colour chart concept, using paint sample books as a model and attempting to move beyond the limitations of picture-based painting. Regrettably, because this is just one work, the exhibition overlooks this important transformation in his work and attenuates the moment in which Richter moved towards abstract ready-mades.
The six-part Cage ( 2006 ), in the central exhibition gallery, shows the changes that Richter introducing the squeegee as a painting tool brought to his abstract work. In contrast to his previous abstract pieces, which were primarily presented with mixed colours and the strokes of a brush, the squeegee dispersed, condensed and mixed the paint layer in an unexpected way, leaving its mark on the original paint layer. In these paintings, the places where the squeegee stopped can be clearly discerned. Chance and control are sometimes manifested as the simple alternation of two tendencies, but sometimes they can be extremely complex, because these two tendencies are often combined in one act of painting.
Grey, cut off and isolated from emotions and associations, has an intermediary effect, much like a photograph, in the world of colour. Richter’s early grey paintings still retain identifiable representational subjects, which later evolved into canvases entirely covered with scrawled grey brushstrokes. In some of the works the marks left by the movement of the brush ( and sometimes the hand ) can still be seen clearly, and the impenetrable surface texture allows us to envision the actions and rhythms of the creative process. Richter’s greys are never singular or undifferentiated; they are always a mixture. The repetitive exteriors and minutely differentiated interiors of his grey paintings represent the presence of a neither/nor construction, full of ambiguity and insight.
Birkenau ( 2014 ), shown in the middle of the fourth floor, comes from pictures that survivors had secretly taken of the Nazi concentration camp. Through Richter’s process of smearing and scraping paint, the representational characteristics are completely obscured. This estrangement delays the viewer’s emotional reaction. The vague imagery and the ash grey intensify the horror; the colour no longer evokes any harmony. The massacres happened in an area hidden by trees; the forest, once considered a refuge, is here depicted as a dark, sealed-off accomplice to those crimes. The reflection in the massive mirror in the same gallery transcends the space to include this foundational resource for Richter’s work.
The perpetual stylistic breakthroughs and the coexistence of divergent attitudes show that Gerhard Richter will explore all possible options. He moves from one extreme to the other, but never entirely arrives at either. Richter’s works are answers, expressed as questions. By highlighting its existence, he questions the traditional medium of painting, while showing its resilience.
1. Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Rolf Schön, 1972’, in Gerhard Richter – Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961 – 2007 ( London: Thames & Hudson ), 2009, p. 59.
2. Gerhard Richter, ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, 1986’, in Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962 – 1993, ed. Hans Ulrich Obrist, trans. David Britt ( Cambridge MA: The MIT Press ), 1995, p. 148.
3. Gerhard Richter, ‘Conversation with Paolo Vagheggi, 1999’, in Gerhard Richter – Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961 – 2007 ( London: Thames & Hudson ), 2009, p. 348.
即使里希特在 2012 年的电影《格哈德·里希特绘画》中对于阿多诺的忠告深表认同，他依旧将图画聚集展示，不过始终隐藏在自己的图画背后。2020 年 3月，纽约大都会艺术博物馆布鲁尔分馆（ Met Breuer ）迎来特展“格哈德·里希特：终究是绘画”（ Gerhard Richter: Painting After All ），原计划持续四个月（实际只持续 9 天，因新冠大流行）。多亏详尽的网络资源，无缘抵达现场的观众得以领略艺术家横跨近60年多产而宽阔的职业生涯。展览标题，与其被视为近乎命令的肯定，倒不如被理解为疑问：为何要绘画？更具体地说，在经历一切——绘画数次被宣告终结，艺术本身也频受拷问——之后，为何还继续绘画？
这场绝非回顾的展览占据布鲁尔分馆的第三层和第四层，以里希特作品目录的开端《桌子》（ Table, 1962 ）为起点。三层入口的观众也许会迷惑，因为在未走近作品之前，分明看到的是共同占据一面墙壁的三件作品，就像一幅三联画。左边《桌子》，右边《九月》（ September, 2005 ），两者都基于媒体照片，擦除覆盖使得画面停留在从具象向抽象转化过程中的某个特殊时刻。图像被赋予彼此矛盾的品质：同时构造和破坏。如果说《桌子》中两种元素的呈现还属于过于直接的冷漠对峙，那么在四十多年后的《九月》中，模糊效果让擦除对画布的攻击柔和许多。考虑到《九月》所指涉的“9·11”恐怖袭击悲剧，被损害的图像与被创伤的人们，构成连接历史记忆的情感记录。
处于两件绘画之间的是装置《11 片玻璃》（ 11 Panes, 2004 ），多层玻璃片的叠加使玻璃本身的透明性有所减弱，而镜面效果被增强，严格意义上并不属于人工绘画。通过反射，玻璃变成一幅虚构的画布，各种视觉动量——观众自身，周围景观，随机出现的任何事物——在此交汇。可以说，玻璃以“反绘画”的方式绘画。眼前的自我装配三联画，恰恰暗示出里希特作品的闭环结构，四层的布局亦然，只不过在两幅家庭肖像照片绘画之间嵌入一面镜子。大致上，里希特的参展作品可被纳入照片绘画、抽象绘画以及前两者的衍生品（ 诸如玻璃或镜子装置 ）。1932 年出生的里希特，于 1961 年穿过东、西柏林边界，从此一去不复返，直至两德统一。跨越多种政治体制（ 纳粹德国，民主德国和联邦德国 ）的经历让他对任何主义和意识形态都保持距离。对于身为西方局外人的里希特而言，仿佛只有规避现实，才能应对恐惧，而照片成为服务于这一目的的中间选项。
取材于家庭相册的《鲁迪舅舅》（ Uncle Rudi, 1965 ），人物带着笑容，看起来没有准备与人作战（ 二战期间鲁迪曾为德国国防军服役并阵亡 ）。作品依靠着白色墙壁，透过旁边的玻璃飘窗，对面的建筑清晰可见。而越过画中的墙也可以看到后面被遮挡的树木和建筑。“墙”一再触动观众的敏感神经，它不仅暗示德国纳粹的过去，而且也直指存在争议的当下。由于图像的模糊，历史题材早已与当下混淆。通过描绘所谓的“家庭纳粹”，里希特试图应对德国可怕的过去，家庭记忆与作为国民的愧疚融合在一起。诚如里希特所言，他“不是将摄影用作绘画的手段，而是用绘画作为摄影的手段”来制作图画。没有风格的业余快照（ Family at the Seaside, 1964 ），平庸的日常物品（ Kitchen Chair, 1965 ），暗示着意图的缺乏，或者说，指向一种对中性的追求。图画漂浮在手工绘制的绘画和摄影之间。
作为“丰富绘画文化的继承者”，里希特对传统的守护离不开对学院绘画题裁的重铸。风景画《雾中冰山》（ Iceberg in Mist, 1982 ），浓雾给一切都蒙上面纱，隐约露出海面的冰山，消失在海天相接的背景里。近乎极简主义的元素设置，在让画面失去叙事的同时，却打开沉思的可能。连同《海景》（ Seascape, 1975 ）、《云图》（ Study for Clouds, 1970 ）等作品，里希特借助风景的照片（ 而不是风景本身 ）描绘出一种中介化的现实，蕴含在图像中的历史被联通。里希特力求“像卡斯帕·大卫·弗里德里希那样画画”，这意味着他同时抓住了浪漫主义的品位与信念：对自然的高度敏感，对神秘的遥远事物的热情。
彩色抽象的主题展厅介于肖像画与风景画的展厅之间，这种并置强化了里希特从具象切换为抽象的突然转向。《4900 种色彩》（ 4900 Colors, 2007 ）作为此次展览唯一被收录的色表（ Color Charts ）作品，将偶然概念作为构成图像的原则，使用网格结构进行排序，所有元素都以平等的关系相互联系，色彩的等级被抹平。当观众尝试识别时，该作品便被体验为一种超越言辞的丰富显示。联想到展厅地板和天花板的网格结构进行匹配，整个展览空间体现出网格最现代主义的地方。实际上，早在 20世纪60 年代中期里希特就已萌生色表的想法，利用颜料样本卡作为模型，试图跳出照片绘画的局限。遗憾的是，仅通过一件作品，忽略了画作内部的重要转变，里希特通往抽象之路的现成品时刻也被淡化。
中央展厅六幅《凯奇》（ Cage, 2006 ）组画，集中展示了里希特引入刮板（ Squeegee ）作为绘画工具之后带给抽象作品的变化。与此前主要凭借色彩混合与画笔姿势来呈现抽象性不同，刮板以不可预见的方式将颜料层分散、压缩和混合，给原有的颜料层留下印记，在一些图画中甚至能够清晰辨认刮板停顿的痕迹。偶然与控制，有时表现为两种趋向之间的简单交替，有时又极为复杂，因为这两种趋向经常被结合在一个绘画行动中。与情感和联想绝缘的灰色，在色彩领域发挥着类似照片的中介效果。早期的灰色绘画中仍然包含有可识别的具象主题，再发展就变成全部涂成灰色的画布。在有些作品中人们还能看到清晰的笔刷（有时是人手）运动痕迹，无法穿透的表面纹理，想象创作过程的姿势和节奏。里希特的灰色从来都不是单一、无差别的，而是所有的混合。灰色图画不断重复的外观，细微差别的内部，代表着非此/非彼（ neither/nor ）的存在，充满歧义与洞察力。
四层中央展厅的《比克瑙》（ Birkenau, 2014 ）组画源自幸存者所秘密拍摄的纳粹集中营照片。经过涂色和刮板处理，具象特征被完全遮蔽。陌生化的姿态，延缓了观众的情感反应。模糊图像，灰色骨灰，使恐惧变得锐利。即便此处的彩色也不再唤起任何和谐。而屠杀就发生在树木遮挡之处，曾经代表避难所的森林却在此处充当黑暗的帮凶，密不透风。同一展厅内的巨幅镜子中的镜像可能早已超出空间内容，而涵盖里希特作品的资源库。