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Gerhard Richter, The Cage Paintings (1-6)

Robert Storr talks about Gerhard Richter's Cage paintings. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

The Cage Paintings Were First Exhibited At The Venice Bienale 2007. Robert Storr Explores The Connections In Aysus 2005, to my considerable surprise, I was asked to be the director of the Venice Bienale. I was surprised because a native-born American has never been asked before. I tried to think about what kinds of exhibitions should be made around the Bienale; what kind of exhibition I should make, and in the mix of that, thought about, "well I'm the first American to do this". "There will be a lot of thoughts about American-ness of whatever I do". And if I were to pick an American artist that I was proud of and that I thought represented positive things, Who would that artist be? Not a single person to represent everybody because that's impossible, But somebody who'd get touched on. Although there's no arguing that as a painter Pollock had profound influence, and also beyond painting, he was the father of installion art and performance in some ways too. Or, that Andy Warhol has profound influence. The person who seemed to me to had, really, the most (influence) was John Cage. Cage was a cosmopolitan man. He worked in multiple mediums and he had attitudes that influnced art in every domain. Cage was the artist Richter first encountered in the early 1960's while a student at Dresden Art Academy. In the context of a Fluxus Festival that was convened more or less by Joseph Beuys. Far and away the most compelling of anybody was Cage, who if I recall, performed a piece where he wrote, With the mic attached to the pen so the sound of the pen moving on the surface of the paper was what you heard. Cage, it seems to me was a reference for Richter on a kind of avant-garde practice that he himself didn't follow, but that he respected and that he could learn from. Some years later, a friend of Gerhard's, who was also a friend of John's, took John to see an exhibition of Gerhard's work, and what was on display included on of the very large grey paints that looked like they were finger-painted, almost, with lots of non-directional lines and squiggles and so on, And took a wonderful picture of John standing with his sort of beatific smile, in front of one of Richter's paintings. So, although Richter and Cage didn't ever meet, in a sense Richter saw him on stage but never encountered him. Cage encountered Richter's work but never met him. Although they never met, there was this kind of charge, this current, going back and forth. Something else that's been said which is, I did not know until just recently, was that he was also thinking when painting, about the Israeli bombardment of Berut during the most recent wars between Israel and Lebanon. And that puts the whole different cast on what those pictures might be. When I wrote the book, I used analogies, that were essentially landscape analogies for describing, But that wasn't because I think in any way these were landscape pictures. It's because that natural environment is the only source that quirked me then anyway, that would provide the metaphors to describe particular textures and particular colors and particular ways in which the surfaces of those paintings move. But if you them all together, there is in the background, of a lot of his abstractions, a response to nature, But not the desire to represent it in any romantic or naturalist way. If there is in the back of his thinking, a response to Cage, and to the idea of composition which comes about without normal kinds of intentionality, and that we're specks, accident chances of the things that happened in the process of doing something, such that in making these paintings, Richter paints and paints and paints, and then chooses to stop. And if the background, the harshness of some of paintings the surfaces that are scored intensively with color, also suggest violence, at some level. And that violence correlating to the news of the fighting in Lebanon, if all of those things sort of come together, then I think you have a relatively good idea, if you will, of how an artist of Richter's caliber, is never 'influenced' by anything, but feeds on everything, uses everything. A friend of mine once said, "a genius is somebody who, rather like, a really good engine, burns clean." There's no residue. And in Richter's case, this is actually true, he uses everything, and there is no residue. And in this case, 'no residue' means there is ultimately no 'single reference'. There is no single thing that ties the immediacy of the painting back to something that is not as immediate as the painting. So it may help to think about these points of reference, but this painting is not about them. Never was. And, where the painting will take you, is not confined to those references either, because the kinds of thoughts that occur, the kinds of phenomenological experiences that occur, and the subject matters, the moods, the tensions, are way beyond any particular subject matter. If you think about it, Richter's a very methodical painter. And he's developed his method gradually but he's very consistent in his application of it, a lot like Sol LeWitt. He's consistent in his application precisely to create patterns that are not repetitive. He starts in the same place, plus or minus a particular ingredient or variable. He has made many series of paintings by this time, he's made many paintings by the process of application, scraping back a layer of paint. He's done lots and lots of things, but each one has a particular tenure, a particular scale, and so on. Now, the method he's used for the Cage paintings is the format he's used before. He's done for and he's done more, actually, in some cases. But the particular number of these paintings is, to my knowledge, unique at this format and with this surface and so on. And, for example, the block paintings to these were juxtaposed to the abstract show with was done in Cologne. And it was very, very interesting to see this contrast, because these block paintings are, comparatively speaking, swath and atmospheric, whereas these are gritty, and they crackle. And they do, actually have this sort of visual equivalent of sound that Cage was always after which was the sound of a prepared piano. It's a kind of percussive, audio texture, rather than an audio atmosphere. The Cage paintings are also intact as a group, which is not true of many of his other series. Increasingly hes able to place bodies of work in their entirety but this has only happened in recent years and many of his series have to be reconstituted in bits and pieces. I faithfully also think of Cage paintings even with the Berut Association, it has a kind of lift to it, I mean some of the greens is strange, the reds and greys can be very harsh. But there is a kind of, openness to those paintings, the surface is also paid to mind, the words betray me in a way, but anyway, when I walk intot that room for the first time, felt a kind of lift from them. And I think Richter is after a kind of exaltation, in paintings in general has been looking for that, but he's always denied himself the easy ways to it. He didn't want to be Rothko. He wanted to be Newman, and Newman is a painter of transcedence whose paintings are, oddly enough, rather clunky, a lot of them. And unforgiving. And Richter's painting are never clunky. But they're quite often unforgiving. So it's as if he's permitting himself only rarely to sort of take off with paintings, but when he does, he really flies. And I think, in this group, that's what actually what happens. Richter's technical innovations in this area are really remarkable, and they're the extension of a perception made very early on in his career and it's the perception of, actually almost any painter whose every picked up a palette and knife makes; that when you scrape a painting to remove a passage that you don't like, or when you scrape paint off your palette and then wipe it off it makes this smear where all the colors mix. And if the colors are relatively fresh, it gets a kind of wonderful, optical jump to it because of these accidental collisions of different tones and textures. Rosalind E. Krauss the art historian who sees everything froma very narrow, American perspective, and a very art-historically deterministic perspective, explained all of this in terms of Jasper John's "Device Circle", which is a painting where Johns makes uses of a ruler to go round in a circle to spread and smear paint. Now Jasper was a great painter but he didn't invent this. And he certainly didn't invent it for Richter. Krauss' lack of knowledge about Richter and her attempt to simply line him up with American painting in chronological mode, is an indication of how much the problem Richter has been for artists in general in this country. No, I mean the source that is 1. that any artist will do that, and the other source is actually a painting called "liebespaar" by Sigmar Polke, in whichthere's this pop image of a couple, and then there's these smears of paint on the side, and that single use of smeared paint in this manner and to date, Richter's own use of it. Richter and Polke have a kind of relationship that Johns and Rauschenberg had, they traded things back and forth, they took from each other freely, they were inimately connected with each other's work for a very long time. In any case, Richter, when he began to develop his work and to first of all think about how to blur the image that was an image originally favored fan brushes and house painting brushes, and he would drag it across the fresh paint, in order to make the image spread and smear and so on. To use a palette knife is a more abrupt thing, because it actually removes paint, at least in the first application, and so it's much more like flaying a painting, like taking the skin off but with a knife. But as he developed the abstract work it became the dominant mode, it was his way of creating large spaces with enormous amounts of activity, in fact with an enormous amount of paint, because if you look at the paintings like the group that are in St. Louis, on January to December or if you look at any number of paint before that, you'll see layer upon layer upon of very wet, very rich oil paint. And as the paint is dragged each time, some of it sticks and some of it doesn't, and as it's dragged again, there's skips where there's no point of contact for the next layer of paint to go in, so if you look at those paintings, what you're seeing is 1. The juxtaposition of colors that comes with 1 schmear, and when you look at again the 2nd time, or percieve, is that every place where you actually see from the top surface down into a crevice, you're also getting the mixes of colors that are down there, it's almost they're in canyon, and you can see this stuff firing off, layer by layer by layer, all the way up to the surface. And there's an extraordinarily efficient way to create an incredible amount of accidental imagery, or accidental optical incident. And as with Cage, Cage used to say, you know, the thing about accidents is that you do choose the ones you want to keep. It's not like there's no intention whatsoever. The process of arriving at a result is a process you set in motion almost blindly. The part that's not blind is the decision; once you've made something, to keep it or not. And in Richter's case, that's what it's all about, the numbers of layers of paint have to do less with the desire to load it up and make some busy, physical thing, than dissatisfaction with everything that was there previously so he keeps putting it on until something happens that he can then hold on to it. The one other, I think, crucial part of this has to do with his relation to painting of the 1940's, 50's and early 60's that we call abstract expressionism or (french). The general tendency at that time was 1. To use brushes, and 2. To associate the brush mark with some kind of direct transmission through the artist and of an emotional content or of a structural intention or what have you. And then to couple that or link all of that with a kind of signature mark, that thing that only that hand would do, and so when we look at a de Kooning or a Pollock dripping, you know, the old rules of connoisseur-ship come in, you know, that is Pollock's mark, that's de Kooning's mark, or that's Fo Triaz' mark, or that is Schumacher's mark, or whatever the case might be. All of that has to do with the brush, or what the, Siqueiros, who was a Mexican painter who was against this kind of art also said, "the stick with hairs on it." What Richter has done, basically, was to reintroduce the gesture without gesturalism; use a tool that makes it impossible to make a signature mark, unless of course, you think of a broad sweep of, you know, moving lava-like paint as a mark. So he was able to surface the work, to create movement within the work, without, for the most part, allowing the hand itself to be the protagonist, much less the artist, whose hand that is. The only exceptions to this would be those paintings where he then takes the end of the brush and scores things and makes marks within it, often, I think, just to expose the hidden layers at a certain point of the paint. There you begin to get the idea of gesturalism as it was practiced before, but by and large, it's this other thing. It's this process it's this willingness to let go of certain kinds of control in order that other things happen.