Gerhard Richter: Doubt

Robert Storr

Can we really trust in what we see? Gerhard Richter’s oeuvre makes us cast doubt on the given ‘truth’ before our eyes. The artist has spent much of his sixty-year career confronting the nature of images, questioning their means of representation and their degradation. The result is paintings that do not simply depict the often-charged subject matter at hand — like a painting of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2011, or of the crematoria at Birkenau — but paintings that depict the mediated circumstances of the representation of that history.

As such, one may feel a sense of unease looking at a work by Richter, but as Robert Storr professes: ‘Doubt is not a negative thing. It’s something that pulls the rug out from under certainty. But if certainty is what has brought us any number of ideological and political nightmares, maybe less certainty is a good thing.’

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Gerhard Richter, for very good reasons, is one of the premier artists of the latter part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. And the reason he has that status is that he’s been able to do almost anything you can think of in terms of traditional genres: abstract, figurative, painting, non-painting. All of it without being sarcastic, all of it without being insincerely insincere. He’s done much of it by being deeply sceptical. So, if you look at a work of Gerhard Richter’s, consider that all of them, in a sense, are captioned by a question mark.

My first encounters with Richter were based on my first encounters with his work, which came some ten years before I met him. I was interested in him because he did not attract me, because he created problems. He disturbed my sense of what art should be. I couldn’t not pay attention to what I saw, but I couldn’t easily assimilate it either. And the more I thought about it, the more complicated it became.

He was born in 1932. In ’45 the war is over. His youth is contemporaneous with the Reich. When the war is over, he is in the Eastern zone. He is in the GDR, the German Democratic Republic, and is directly under the weight of the Soviet Government. Both regimes are totalitarian. Both regimes believe that art is propagandistic, essentially. Both regimes have very, very conservative aesthetic values. In the GDR, he excels at making mural paintings. He goes into the mural division because it’s allowed to be more involved in formal questions. He turns out to be very good at it. He gets some very important commissions, and then begins to have doubts about it. He had a car, which very few people had, because he was successful. He was allowed to travel, which very few people could. He travelled to Moscow and he also travelled West to Kassel to see the second Documenta. He saw the work of Giacometti, and of Fautrier, and other things like Fontana and Pollock around the edges. And they puzzled him deeply because this was exactly the kind of art he was encouraged not to think about. He was a successful artist in a conventional, highly conventional, highly programmatic kind of thing and he didn’t want to linger there. He went to Moscow, and took with him documentation of his work, and sent it to the West, to wait for him. Then he turned around, and he drove to Berlin, got on the subway and passed from the Eastern zone into the Western zone. This was just before the wall was actually up. Which meant that by the time he was 30, he was a successful artist in the Eastern terms and could have gone on forever, but he didn’t want to. So, he then started all over again and went to the Academy in Dusseldorf and retrained as an artist starting at the age of 30.

The thing that clicked in was his experience working with photographic sources. As somebody who’d been a developer for a local photographer, he was familiar with photographic means and he also saw lots and lots and lots of family photographs. As somebody who read the newspapers, he was aware of what went on in the world through pictures. So, the next step was to decide just to decide to paint a picture of a picture – a picture already made by a photographer and then to turn it into painting. It was, in a sense, the gesture of Pop Art. It was a gesture of what became Photorealism. The idea that you didn’t fit in either East or West was very important. That he was not rejecting the East in order to embrace the West. He was sceptical of everything. And the briefly active movement with which he was associated, Capitalist Realism, pretty much says it. It’s a satire of the idea of Socialist Realism. It’s a variation on Pop Art, but it’s anything but a celebration. The entire sort of logic of his early career is in these contradictions.

Gerhard understood somehow that the way to find himself as an artist was to lose himself as an author. And was to just not be interested in his signature look, his expressionistic feelings or whatever his gesture. But to be a picture maker. And he’s over and over and over again talked about the fact that as far as he’s concerned, all painting is pictures. So Abstraktes Bild means ‘Abstract Pictures’. And then there are Photo Bild and so on. He doesn’t believe that anything is non-mimetic, non-representational, really. Or at least, once it’s made that we don’t transform it into pictures in our attempts to read it. So, if you make a gestural abstract painting with aleatory processes, accidental processes, it’s still going to come up with something in it that’s going to make you want to resolve it into a picture. And, as far as he’s concerned, we’re hard-wired to do that.

In Russian literary criticism there’s a thing called the ‘alienation effect’ that Viktor Shklovsky and others have written about. And it was that you weren’t going to use photographs to create an illusion of reality, you weren’t going to try and compete with nature. You were going to build into your representations a disclaimer or a loose end that would remind the viewer that they were looking at a representation and remind the viewer that your stake in it was not too fool them, but actually to show them something else. And also, and this is where Gerhard really has done the most amazing stuff, is to show them that all images are illusions. The photograph, the original photograph, is an illusion. The painted photograph is an illusion of an illusion. The degradation of illusions is the fate of all images. And the degradation of memory is part of what goes on as well, because if we make images in order to preserve experience and turn them into memory, our memories are very imperfect. The truth is in accurate representation, his rejoinder is a series of imperfect truths, or actually lies, are in these representations and we should be conscious of them all the time and our desire to capture something is also the predicate for our self-betrayal, and to believe what we know not to be true.

If you look at Gerhard’s production over a long time, there have been paintings which you could call History paintings and some of which are obviously intended that way. When he paints mustangs, for example, it’s an image of the overflight of British fighter planes and the overflight is over Germany. And implicitly, he and most of compatriots of that time were under those planes. More recently he painted a series of paintings called Birkenau, which is a cycle of paintings based on photographs taken from inside the crematoria at the Birkenau concentration camp by inmates. And that is a painting of history, it’s an image from history. The first move in the paintings was actually to reproduce the photograph, and then he decided there were certain images in paintings that could not be painted. He found he couldn’t trust the image and he painted over it. So, the painting that you see is a painting which is a reflection on the impossibility of the painting that he attempted.

In 2005, about 4 years after the event itself, Gerhard Richter painted a painting called September which is a history painting of the bringing down of the World Trade Center in New York. Many many thousands saw it with their own eyes and people around the world saw it in reproduced forms, both still photography and video. Gerhard painted it, based on photographs, he struggled with this painting quite a lot. There are many studies for it and versions that he discarded, or at least that he cancelled on the surface, so this was not an easy, quick thing to paint at all. The experience of that particular day was that in one case it was mediated, and for many of us it was unmediated. So there’s both the remembered experience and the documented experience. He was not there to see the thing with his own eyes. Gerhard was on his way to the United States when that event took place, so he was literally in the air.  And he painted a fairly straightforward likeness of the photograph that he had, and then he erased it. And, in that case, the particular erasures are more resonant than in almost any other painting because it atomises the image which is exactly what happened when the plane hit. You see a building that is one minute there and the next minute not there. And that small painting tells volumes about mediated realities, specific realities, individual lives, mass destruction – it’s all there in that one painting. The size of the painting is roughly the size of a flat screen TV, so it’s like you’re looking at a painting of something that could be moving image but it doesn’t move, it’s frozen in time. It is forever suspended in the moment of impact. It is a history painting because it doesn’t just paint the subject, it paints the circumstances of the representation of history.

I think people see in Gerhard’s work shades of the things that they love, and they gravitate towards that. And then, they realise that they’re not going to get the full thing that they love. It’s been withheld in some manner. It is deeply frustrating and disturbing to people in just the way that Gerhard wants it to be. If the truth is subject to distortion, if it’s almost inaccessible because it so faint, if it’s unbearably intense because it’s so bright, what is it that we say, ‘do I believe my eyes?’ And the answer is: you can’t believe your eyes. It’s not just a philosophical position; it’s true, you can’t. And if you can’t believe your eyes, what can you believe? How do you move in the world? How do you verify your experience in relation to someone else’s? You have to negotiate those differences. You have to negotiate the different position that you have in front of something and the person next to you in front of the very same thing. And that’s not a bad thing. Doubt is, by the way, not a negative thing. It’s something that pulls the rug out from under certainty, but if certainty is what has brought us any number of ideological and political nightmares, maybe less certainty is a good thing.

With thanks to

Gerhard Richter

 

Music

Music Vine

 

Works

Tote
Dead

Gerhard Richter, 1963
Oil on canvas
100 cm x 150 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 9
© Gerhard Richter

 

 

Bagdad

Baghdad

Gerhard Richter, 2010

Lacquer on glass mounted on Alu Dibond

50 cm x 40 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 914-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe)   

Ema (Nude on a Staircase)   

Gerhard Richter, 1966

Oil on canvas

200 cm x 130 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 134

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Abstraktes Bild

Abstract Painting

Gerhard Richter, 1984

Oil on canvas

100 cm x 140 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 562-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

Lesende
Reader

Gerhard Richter, 1994

Oil on canvas

72 cm x 102 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 804

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Rana

Gerhard Richter, 1981

Oil on canvas

120 cm x 175 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 479-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Betty

Gerhard Richter, 1988

Oil on canvas

102 cm x 72 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 663-5

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

Abstraktes Bild

Abstract Painting

Gerhard Richter, 2016

Oil on wood

40 cm x 32 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 944-10

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Zwei Kerzen

Two Candles

Gerhard Richter, 1982

Oil on canvas

140 cm x 140 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 512-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

11 Scheiben

11 Panes

Gerhard Richter, 2003

Glass and wood construction

259 cm x 180 cm x 51 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 886-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 15. Nov. 06

Gerhard Richter, 2006

Oil on paper

128 cm x 119 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 898-12

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

7 Scheiben (Kartenhaus)
7 Panes (House of Cards)

Gerhard Richter, 2013

Glass and steel construction

257 cm x 650 cm x 360 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 932

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Haggadah

Gerhard Richter, 2006

Oil on canvas

152 cm x 152 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 895-10

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Schädel
Skull

Gerhard Richter, 1983

Oil on canvas

95 cm x 90 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 548-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Bomber
Bombers

Gerhard Richter, 1963

Oil on canvas

130 cm x 180 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 13

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Mustang-Staffel
Mustang Squadron

Gerhard Richter, 1964

Oil on canvas

88 cm x 150 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 19

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

24.2.98

Gerhard Richter, 1998

Oil on colour photograph

14.7 cm x 10 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Bühler Höhe

Gerhard Richter, 1991

Oil on canvas

55 cm x 72 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 749-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Festnahme 1
Arrest 1

Gerhard Richter, 1988

92 cm x 126 cm

Oil on canvas

Catalogue Raisonné: 674-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Hitler youth parading through the streets carrying swastika wreaths and flags

A&E Television Networks / Getty Images

 

 

Berlin Wall, 1970

Texas Archive of the Moving Image / Getty Images

 

 

After the Second World War the capital of Germany, Berlin, is divided into four areas

The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision / Getty Images

 

 

Map showing division of Berlin

Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

 

Phrases and…Bases, 1952, Artist: Govorkov, Viktor Iwanovich (1906-1974)

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

 

In the name of peace!, 1953. Artist: Tereshchenko, Nikolai Ivanovich (1924-2005)

Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

 

 

Lebensfreude

Joy of Life

Gerhard Richter, 1956
Mural (Now painted over)

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden

 

 

Skeletal Giacometti sculpture on Parisian street
Gordon Parks / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

 

Alberto Giacometti in France in August, 1964

REPORTERS ASSOCIES / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

 

 

Displaying an art sculpture by Italian artist Giacometti during the International Art Exhibit

Herbert Gehr / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images

 

 

Forêt Les Marroniers by Jean Fautrier (1898-1964). Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1943

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

 

 

Lucio Fontana hanging canvas on the trunk of a tree in the garden 1955

Giorgio Lotti / Archivio Giorgio Lotti / Mondadori / Getty Images

 

 

A man observing a Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana displayed at the 32nd Art Biennale. Venice, June 1964

Sergio del Grande / Mondadori / Getty Images

 

 

American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) stands amid some large paintings in his studio at ‘The Springs,’ East Hampton, New York, August 23, 1953

Tony Vaccaro / Getty Images

 

 

Pollock Exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, England, 1958

Express / Getty Images

 

 

1959 Locals, tourists and delegates alike visit the pavilion of the soviet industry and agriculture exhibition in downtown Moscow

Silverwell Films / Getty Images

 

 

1946: MAP: Germany w/ occupation break down, ‘British, French, American, Soviet.’ Post WWII

The March of Time / Getty Images

 

 

Potsdamer Platz In Berlin, 1948

Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

 

 

Photograph of Gerhard Richter, c. 1960-1969

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Photograph of Gerhard Richter, c. 1960-1969

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Photograph of Gerhard Richter, c. 1960-1969

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Albumfotos
Album photos

Gerhard Richter, 1962–1966

Atlas Sheet: 1

51.7 cm x 66.7 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Albumfotos
Album photos

Gerhard Richter, 1962–1966

Atlas Sheet: 2

51.7 cm x 66.7 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Albumfotos
Album photos

Gerhard Richter, 1962–1966

Atlas Sheet: 3

51.7 cm x 66.7 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Doppelbelichtungen
Double Exposures

Gerhard Richter, 1970

Atlas Sheet: 60

36.7 cm x 51.7 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Familie

Family

Gerhard Richter, 1964

Oil on canvas

150 cm x 180 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 30

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Faltbarer Trockner

Folding Dryer

Gerhard Richter, 1962

Oil on canvas

99.3 cm x 78.6 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 4

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Mann mit zwei Kindern

Man with Two Children

Gerhard Richter, 1965

Oil on canvas

80 cm x 110 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 96

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Familie Hötzel

The Hötzel Family

Gerhard Richter, 1966

Oil on canvas

76 cm x 50 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 105

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Kuh

Cow

Gerhard Richter, 1964

Oil on canvas

130 cm x 150 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 15

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Ferrari

Gerhard Richter, 1964

Oil on canvas

145 cm x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 22

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Präsident Johnson versucht Mrs. Kennedy zu trösten

President Johnson consoles Mrs. Kennedy

Gerhard Richter, 1963

Oil on canvas mounted on card

12.7 cm x 8.9 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 11-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Düsenjäger
Jet Fighter

Gerhard Richter, 1963

Oil on canvas

130 cm x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 13-a

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

Klorolle

Toilet Paper

Gerhard Richter, 1965

Oil on canvas

55 cm x 40 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 75-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Reisebüro

Tourist Office

Gerhard Richter, 1966

Oil on canvas

150 cm x 130 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 120

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Alfa Romeo (mit Text)

Alfa Romeo (with Text)

Gerhard Richter, 1965

Oil on canvas

150 cm x 155 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 68

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Telefonierender
Man on the Phone

Gerhard Richter, 1965

Oil on canvas

70 cm x 130 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 62

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Große Sphinx von Gise
Great Sphinx of Gizeh

Gerhard Richter, 1964

Oil on canvas

146.1 cm x 166.4 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 46

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Orchidee
Orchid

Gerhard Richter, 1997

Oil on Alu Dibond

29 cm x 37 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 848-9

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Zwei Fiat
Two Fiats

Gerhard Richter, 1964
Oil on canvas
130 cm x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 67

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Abstraktes Bild
Abstract Painting

Gerhard Richter, 2016

Oil on canvas

46 cm x 41 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 947-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Beerdigung
Funeral

Gerhard Richter, 1988

Oil on canvas

200 cm x 320 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 673

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Uran (1)
Uranium (1)

Gerhard Richter, 1989

Oil on canvas

92 cm x 126 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 688-1

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Seestück (See-See)
Seascape (Sea-Sea)

Gerhard Richter, 1970

Oil on canvas

200 cm x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 244

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Matrosen
Sailors

Gerhard Richter, 1966

Oil on canvas

150 cm x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 126

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Aerial shots of Hamburg, Germany, and its harbour after end of World War II
Grinberg, Paramount, Pathe Newsreels / Getty Images

 

 

Richter painting first stages of Birkenau paintings

Photograph: Joe Hage, 2014

 

 

Original studies for Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau Series

Photographs: Joe Hage, 2014

 

 

Birkenau

Gerhard Richter, 2014

Oil on canvas

260 x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 937-2

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Birkenau

Gerhard Richter, 2014

Oil on canvas

260 x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 937-3

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Birkenau

Gerhard Richter, 2014

Oil on canvas

260 x 200 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 937-4

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

The Collapse Of The North Tower On September 11th

Nuray Pictures – Footage / Getty Images

 

 

September

Gerhard Richter, 2005

Oil on canvas

52 cm x 72 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 891-5

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

September 11, 2001

Bruno Levy – Footage / Getty Images

 

 

September 11, 2001 – World Trade Center Towers burning

MADO Productions – Footage / Getty Images

 

 

World Trade Center on Fire and Collapsing on 9/11

Viacom Media Networks / Getty Images

 

 

Eis

Ice

Gerhard Richter, 1981

Oil on canvas

70 cm x 100 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 476

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

13.2.98

Gerhard Richter, 1998

Oil on colour photograph

10.1 cm x 14.8 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

14.2.08

Gerhard Richter, 2008

Lacquer on colour photograph

15 cm x 10 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Wolke
Cloud

Gerhard Richter, 1970

Oil on canvas

200 cm x 300 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 270-3

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

MV.25

Gerhard Richter, 2011

Lacquer on colour photograph

10 cm x 15 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

MV.82

Gerhard Richter, 2011

Lacquer on colour photograph

10 cm x 15 cm

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

Vorhang
Curtain

Gerhard Richter, 1965

Oil on canvas

38 cm x 38 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 48-5

© Gerhard Richter 2020

 

 

4 Glasscheiben
4 Panes of Glass

Gerhard Richter, 1967

Glass and iron

4 parts, each: 190 cm x 100 cm

Catalogue Raisonné: 160

© Gerhard Richter 2020

Exhibition: Gerhard Richter | About Painting, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.), Ghent, Belgium, 21 October 2017 – 18 February 2018

 

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