I’ve become an admirer of Richter over the years, but have to say that the Robert Storr-chosen squeegee pieces in Venice in 2007 looked complacent and in need of some reinvention. Close by were phenomenal new Polke paintings, Cheri Samba, Nozkowski, Izumi Kato…Richter and Ryman looked pretty stale, pretty tasteful.
On the other hand, might there be an ingrained resistance to the whole idea of rejuvenation in a project like Richter’s?
That sums things up, then. The only time I ever heard a guy with a mullet, being dragged through a museum by his girlfriend stop in front of a painting and say WOAH! was in front of one of the squeegee Richters there in St. Louis. I can’t get over how appealing these things are, to so many people, with so many different levels of expertise regarding contemporary art. Betty, I’ve also observed, is a real stop em in their tracks painting, though it usually produces a quieter category of reaction.
But all this seems to be in antipathy to much of what Richter says about these things. And is definitely in contrast to critical reception of the paintings. I remember an old Modern Painters where Dore Ashton called Richter a nihilist and said his paintings were misunderstood and dangerous.
I’m thinking about Matthew’s idea about Richter’s project being anti-rejuvenation. And I think I ‘ve read interviews with Richter where he seems to believe in rejuvenation and interviews where he seems pretty opposed to the idea.
Venice, I can imagine, would be a hard city to see a Richter in. I remember seeing the Freud show there a couple years ago, and the Bacon and Guston rooms at that Biennale and having completely different takes on their works than I’d had other places. Guston looked scarier, more tradition but in a subversive way. Freud looked more like an extension of Old Master painting. Bacon also seemed a bit de-fanged by the knowledge that his usually putrid and fleshy oranges were the same color as many of the canal-front architecture.
Before you commit to that: the squeegee painting that got the woah! response wasn’t one of the somber grayscale paintings that Sam mentions. It was a big bright primary color number. Looks a lot like the Trapper Keeper that I had in the 4th grade. I don’t think the SLAM has it on line.
That’s funny, because I often interact with 19 year olds with the opposite position, that the squeegee paintings are only justified, if at all, with this demonstration of “real” skill.
but of course that’s the point with Richter, the other bodies of work are always tapping you on the shoulder when you look at one single work. Well, for me, anyway.
and if I can comment on something way back: I didn’t go to Venice but I saw Ryman’s thinned-out white on nearly black ground paintings at the show at Pace-Wld, and I thought these were some of the wildest Rymans ever.
Betty is easily in my top 5 list of favorite art works of the past 50 years. I sadly had no idea that SLAM owned it. It certainly looks to be time for me to make another road trip out to see it in person once again. After all, I have not been to St. Louis in perhaps 8 years. I am long over due.
This conversation seems to have ended a few days ago, but I’d like to toss in a few thoughts and questions.
Betty is striking and seems inevitable– a work that had to be made, a work that captures the spirit of a time, call it the postmodern condition if you will, solipsistic times— art about art.
Richter gives us the signifier without a signified, or a signified that is an absence, an unknown,an impossibility. We get a shiny sign, brightly patterned, turning away.
I don’t need art to make me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but I do like to see honesty and the struggle for meaning…I like to see the imagination at play. With Richter I see death. A dead end. Glossy, sealed shut. And the irony I see is that this sophistiction, this “avant-garde” nihilism, comes from a conservative desire for a shared cultural meaning. I see it as essentially idealistic and conservative, because by mourning the loss of shared cultural meaning, it reveals the desire or nostalgia for cultural symbols and identity that really mean something to the hearts and minds of the masses. I would argue that this broken idealism, this cynicism, this mourning, is a veiled nostalgia, a conservative impulse.
Critics like Benjamin Buchloh blame “advanced capitalism” for this loss. I would argue that meaning is a matter of belief, and therefore essentially private; public meanings are always going to contain elements of redundancy and propaganda.
Some might argue that art inevitably reflects the time and place of its creation, and we should not, or cannot ask more of it than this.
For the sake of being bone-headed, in this conversation with myself, I’ll pose the question: What is the value of making a painting about nothing? Shouldn’t we ask more from art than to bask in the glossy light of nihilism?
Of course, it’s not a painting about nothing…it’s a painting about signs, it’s a painting about language, and meaning, anf the elusiveness of both, in a time when we are bombarded by signs, and we don’t trust them, and yet we have no choice but to deal with them.
So– a few long-winded thoughts. I see Richter’s work as inevitable…it reflects the solipsistic, endgame nature of art post 1960…and I wonder if it is not a trite offshoot of what I consider to be the more interesting works of Minimalism, such as Judd, Morris, Smithson, Serra.
Perhaps this is the issue: Richter has spent his career trying to paint phenomenologically? Has spent his career painting, all the while believing painting (illusion, metaphor, beauty, personal gesture, private meaning made public, figure vs. ground, authorship) is dead?
Chad, I agree with almost everything you’re saying. The conservative impulse, nostalgia for a simple, shared meaning—I think the truth of these things are evident just from the various reactions we’ve gotten. We don’t usually get a lot of the ‘I love this…” variety of comment. But Betty really seems to bring this response in folks. I’ve seen it, too, walking into the SLAM with educated people who have more of a knowledge base about contemporary art.
Where I need a dot connected is that I’ve never quite gotten how Richter’s nothingness is a form of nihilism, even solipsism. I seem to remember the interview with Storr in Art in America a few years ago, Richter admitting to the sentimental attachment, and talking about a sincere idea of making a better painting. And going back, there have been paintings with social content, or acting as response to Adorno’s ‘no lyric poetry after Auschwitz.’ I guess that I’m still seeing a lot of engagement in Richter. Contrasting with someone like Luc Tuymans who is intentionally trying to paint disengagement, disaffectedness and who seems to have little regard for any individual work’s effectiveness.
So my question is, can anyone expand on this link between Richter’s work and nihilism? It still seems like a big leap to me.
Chris, you raise an interesting point. Here’s a quote I took from the wikipedia entry on “nihilism”:
“A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought NOT to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of ‘in vain’ is the nihilists’ pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 585, translated by Walter Kaufmann
This quote hits on a couple of issues for me related to Richter’s work. One is the conservative, nostalgic under- current I see in his work. The other is the inconsistency I see of making paintings whose primary meaning is the negation of the possibility of meaning. Come to think of it, though, Ad Reinhardt had a similar approach, and for reasons I have yet to figure, Reinhardt’s paintings don’t bother me the way Richter’s do.
And the more I think of it, the nihilism I see in Richter’s paintings is not what irks me… I think it is the complacency I see that bothers me. The paintings seem to be decided beforehand; there is no search. This art tells me that ‘the search’ is passe. I don’t see his works struggling or playing in an imaginative way…in a sense, even the ‘mirror’ paintings are pre-determined….and this strikes me as dishonest, becuase in effect the author is pretending to give up authorship, but it’s all a ruse.
I don’t need angst and gesture to appreciate art. Ellsworth Kelly is one of my favorite artists. But in Richter I see a complacency, a self-indulgence, -in spite of its nothingness, that makes his work kitsch for me– like countless cool, art- school- art that has a buzz and then leaves me empty.
The solipsism I see in, Betty, for example, relates to the representation of a sign which refuses to point to a signified. For me, this illustrates the artist’s decision that shared meaning is not possible, and instead, self-consciuosly reveals the source (photograph) and the context; the work primarily functions to speak about itself: its source material, its process, it’s relationship to the syntax of painting. It is self-conscious artifice, which falls back in on itself and the history of it’s syntax, in a maner of critique, because it does not believe a sign can truly point to a signified. It is a work that illustrates a circular logic: No meaning is possible other than a negation of meaning. I don’t take issue wth this strategy per se; I just don’t see Richter using it very imaginatively. Perhaps I’m simply turned off by glossy, ironic paintings.
In conclusion– the nihilism I see is the ‘negation of any possible shared meaning’ becoming the meaning of the work, and the solipsism I see is closely related, in that a work that doesn’t believe it can speak sense or truth outside itself and its context, and then has no other option but to speak mostly about itself, self-consciously; it’s an art full of artifice, showing its hand, like a free floating sign, all the more ironic when picturing a historical event of ‘significance’; it’s like a magician who tells you there’s no such thing as magic, and spends his entire act showing you how he does all his tricks…
As I reread the Wikipedia quote on Nihilism I left in the pevious entry, it gets me thinking that if Richter’s work showed more ‘struggle’, or pathos, it would then be inconsistent with a Nihilistic tendency. So perhaps Richter is consistent in his Nihilism after all.
This argument could seem quite trivial, I admit; but Nihilism is an interesting question, I think. It seems both radically conservative and radically liberal; not to mention, how does one define it? How does one ‘believe’ in nothing?
Come to think of it, maybe the difference between Reinhardt and Richer in terms of nothingness is this:
Reinhardt’s nothingness was more like zen emptiness, or transcendence through icons of nothingness, while Richter’s nothingness is a nostagia for a time and a place of shared cultural meaning, unfettered by consumerism???
Or, Richter’s nothingness is more an expose of our sign systems, of how images are reproduced and manipulated, without true origin or final meaning?
As far as the R. Storr interview with Richter goes, my take is this: I trust the works more than what an artist has to say about them….artists often don’t really know why they do this or that, and they just as often say things to look good in interviews, or to seem ironic or unpredictable. We all want to look good, and none of us wants to be defined too narrowly, right?
When I read that Richter says he is concerned with making better paintings, I don’t believe him. How can paintings get ‘better’ when the project behind the works is the deconstruction of painting?
Good question: if we can adopt a very liberal definition of “deconstruction” (and there is no indication that Richter is a Derridian — I don’t think I’ve ever read him use the term deconstruction) as the more or less systematic examination and challenging of painting’s assumed qualities and functions, then maybe all the best, most challenging modernist painters have deconstructed, from Manet letting-show of the conventions of painting as conventions. So Richter deconstructs or lets-show the conventions of meaning production through an overload of iconography — and furthermore recognizes/uses abstraction as an iconography too.
I think this is compatible with making good paintings, because good paintings make us think about painting. A very modernist perspective, I know.
But if I say Manet deconstructed, it might tend to efface the distinction between modernism and postmodernism, which is worth questioning, but I do think that some kind of rift emerged in the 60s through the 80s and RIchter is a part of that rift. At the same time, I think the only modernism that is dead, or mostly dead, or no longer hegemonic, is the kind that dismissed Dada and Surrealism.
Not that I believe everything Richter says either. I really like the Buchloh interview in the collection of Richter’s writings.
And I can imagine Chris still not being satisfied with any connection between Richter and nihilism, even though Chad amended it , so how bout this: Richter demands his output to be seen as an output: the autonomy of individual masterpieces is compromised. He makes a field. Not quite nihilistic, but a real change according to how we are used to conceiving art. And it has been with us for so long that maybe we dont even notice it anymore, but i think Richter deserves a lot of credit for this.
But isn’t this a masterpiece? As much as anyone gets to make one? Isn’t this better than other of his work? A piece that can shoulder your Nietszche, Adorno, whatever else, without being burdened by it? So that the initiated and uninitiated have equal access?
This is Richter’s Las Meninas. The thing that questions its own existence. The thing that transcends philosophical spinnery. Or his Olympia, the thing that says, “what do YOU represent?”
I think I’m with Chris (and some others?) on this. Some people refuse to regard him fairly, because it would undo their own towers of meaning. It’s easier to keep him out of the mix. But others do give him genuine consideration, face fear, and they get to move forward.
How is Richter any different from, say, Hieronymous Bosch? Bosch painted hell, when many people feared hell. Many people today don’t fear hell, but they do fear loss and meaninglessness. Why wouldn’t his image-making elements be the soul-stealing photograph and the meaningless gesture?
if Richter’s paintings signify the photograph; or they signify the gesture, then they call into question the assumed symbolic language of painting as a means of creating correlation, of creating meaning. they are repetitive, becoming: pictures that exist within pictures, and style that exists within style. therefore, their content is mimetic, while their process itself is the hidden element of content.
if you paint something, you paint something. it is an object that is a painting. and it is reducible in so much that it distills itself down to the notion of painting as an activity that engages the mind and body in a forceful, deliberate way, without so much needing to be predicated on a system of meaning determined by things outside of the activity of painting.
Richter’s two distinct bodies of work reinforce the notion that the rejuvenation present in his project comes as a product of sidling up to the empty potential of what is already familiar within two distinct avenues of painting-representation. he dissolves the illusion that what we (the viewer) find as correlation between the painting and the real world (either based on image or based on proximity to families of style) is of any real significance in determining the value of the painting. which obviously brings us back to the intrinsic impetus and desire to be painting a painting in the first place. which is hopeful (if you are a painter).
Sam, that’s exactly what i clumsily tried to say: he paints our situation. I don’t think RIchter throws masterpieces out the window, but he demands hat they be seen alongside very different, possibly contradictory impulses from the same artist simultaneously. I will amit that if any Richter painting sums up his project, it is this one., It is starting to look better and better to me. i never liked it because it topples my tower, that is, it shows something.
1. Right now, would Richter’s project be improved by adding a new trick to the repetoire? Like if he painted a cubist painting or made an underground comic?
2. The Richter career is 40+ years now, and undeniably influential. Can anyone make the leap to cite the Richter influence in terms of specific examples of nihilism and/or expressions of hope in younger/current artists?
But I’ll start with a shot at question #2. vc hits it writing about Richter using abstraction as an iconographic language. That is something that I see in current abstraction—the kind of stuff that http://www.anaba.blogspot.com would write up—Eric Sall, Anne Thompson, Brian Fahlstrom, or others, like Betsy Stirratt, Todd Chilton, etc. That I’ve tended to find a positive development.
Not exactly a young gun, but it seems to me that Oehlen follows Richter genetically, maybe even working toward a synthesis of Richter’s two tracks? And Oehlen’s collaborations with J Meese might represent a kind of wild scavenging on the plain, arising out of the remains of a Richterian image/meaning apocalypse?
See, that sounds fun. Scavenging the plains of post-art-apocalypse.
It might be worth mentioning that the introductory essay to Vitamin P, which seems to have had more college art class impact than The Art of the Real, had a pretty healthy meditation on Richter.
The second question kind of answers the first. No, he can’t do it, because he probably doesn’t have a feel for underground comics or even cubism (too far up the mountain at this point). Leave that to the following wave of sympathizer/questioners.
There is a kind of nothingness/nihil specter in some of the more exuberant contemporary painting…I think that’s what gives it its bite.
Also, I move that the next long-discussion thread reduce its preposition usage by about 40%. I keep losing my place mid-sentence.
I checked the Vitamin P essay, btw, the Richter bit is leaner than I remembered. He’s there though. Guston, Richter, Malevich, Rodchenko, Reinhardt, Kosuth, and Jonathan Lasker are creators of the images reproduced for the essay.
nothing much to add here, but i wanted to jump on and say how impressed i am with the dialogue that’s attended this thread. really, really interesting discussion. i don’t think i’ve ever thought about “betty” as much as this discussion has caused me to – even when standing with it on several occasions (the mirror paintings always did something more for me for some reason). i guess my gut reaction to “betty” has always been something along the lines of aversion. the play of verisimilitude in tandem with a lack of propulsive sentimentality seemed slightly vulgar to me (the anti-kitsch kitsch?). not sure what that says about me…