...a unity of eyes and firelight...

Gerhard Richter and the Holocaust

In Art on December 21, 2014 at 8:42 pm

As you walk into the Richter exhibition at the Marion Goodman Gallery, you are immediately confronted by a glass sculpture. Seven huge panes of transparent, shiny glass stand at funny angles, leaning on each other, awkward and awesome. You notice odd reflections; if you stand in the right place you can see yourself, distorted. But the transparency means that it is easier to see the person you followed in, standing on the other side looking back at you. From behind this huge structure you feel free to observe that person, to spend a whole second – maybe more – looking at them. The sculpture is like a majestic peeping Tom’s window, distorted but not distorting, at least not ostensibly.

In the adjacent rooms are his ‘Flow’ paintings, swirls of bright coloured enamel paint behind glass, each one spanning more than one plate. The paint is seemingly arrested in chaotic movement. Your eyes follow the lines of this movement across from one plate to the next, and as they do you notice what had initially evaded your attention. Discontinuity. The lines don’t connect. Not quite. The impressions of fluidity of movement are replaced by discontinuity and disjunction. As you contemplate this, you realise you can see your own reflection again, your face caught up in discontinuous whirlpools. You turn away.

But in the next room, you find mirrors, darkened and smoky in parts. These are the grey paintings, grey paint behind glass. As there is no other colour to them, to survey the work you are forced to look at your own reflection, but through a smoky barrier. The detail of the painting seems somehow secondary. What matters remains cloudy and mysterious. There is an uncomfortable feeling of wanting to get in behind the painting in order to better see that image or representation. The painting conceals something, it hides you from yourself. And the more concealed you are, the more you want to look. When less concealed, when directly and undistortedly reflected, you feel a need to turn away.

To the ‘Strip’ paintings, inkjet printed colour charts, again on shiny, reflective plates. He calls these pieces “pictures”, as if he is depicting something. Robert Storr says they are his most “retinal” works. Looking at them certainly strains the eye. You can’t look for more than a few seconds. And, unlike the other paintings, the lines of colour are so intense that you cannot see your reflection. Following the mirrors and swirling colours, you wonder what discontinuities are present here? What is being concealed? Is abstraction itself a form of concealment?

It is. This is demonstrated by some of Richter’s most famous paintings, which do exactly this, conceal by abstracting, or at least obscure by abstracting. I am referring to the blurred paintings of photos. The subjects of the photos are often described as banal or random. The one painted here is far from being either. Four youths sit in a convertible Cadillac, joyfully cruising down an American highway. This is the apotheosis of mainstream American youth culture, as marketed in the 1950s. The same America that defeated Richter’s country of birth in war when he was 13. The same consumerist, ‘free’ culture that must have seemed so seductive to so many in the East Germany in which he grew up until he got out in 1961, just before the wall went up.

So with this historical perspective, you go upstairs and find a series of small photos that really are banal. Actual photos, not paintings of photos. Oddly composed landscapes that could’ve been taken in the English countryside. Houses. People, perhaps people on holiday. Some are ensconced in action without explanation. But they all have thick splodges of paint strewn across them, lending an air of absurdity to them. So not painted photos, but paint on photos, the paint not adding anything to them but just concealing whatever is behind the paint, sometimes in a maddening way. What is this photo actually of? What is going on here? Evocation is suggested but consciously frustrated.

So what is all this concealment about? Why the will to hide? (I use the word ‘hide’ aware of its transitive and intransitive potential.)

In my last post I mentioned that Adorno had once said it was barbaric to write poetry after the Holocaust. And I wondered about how you could really do anything after the contemplation of the Final Solution. This is what I was thinking about as I considered Richter’s work, what he was trying to conceal and why. Afterwards, I read this article by Peter Wollen in the LRB which focuses on Richter’s grey paintings of the Red Army Faction and their belongings. He quotes Richter as saying that grey is “suitable for illustrating ‘nothing’”, it is “the epitome of non-statement”. I think there is a link here between this idea of a statement that is effortfully made as a non-statement and hiding. In fact, I think they are basically the same thing. In order for a person to be confident of making a non-statement, he or she must know what a statement is, and do the obverse. (Of course, the existence of the non-statement as conscious non-statement makes it a statement as well.) Similarly, in order to conceal reality, one has to represent reality (e.g. in a conventional manner like a photo) and then obscure it (e.g. by blurring). The real becomes mysterious. Peter Wollen puts it like this:

He became attracted, even committed, to grey because it was ‘suitable for illustrating “nothing”’; because it was ‘the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference’; because grey, ‘just like shapelessness etc, can only notionally be real’; because each picture ‘is then a mixture of grey as fiction and grey as a visible, proportioned colour surface’. In other words, grey is simultaneously both real and unreal, committed and uncommitted. In the grey photo-based work the real is given a ‘transcendental side’, each object has its own particular mysteriousness, becoming a metaphor as it melts away into an ‘incomprehensible reality’.

What is important to note is that the reality that is incomprehensible is not the one ‘out there’ in the world. It is the one created in the work. Whether this means that Richter truly thinks the reality ‘out there’ is incomprehensible, I am not sure. I think it is more likely that he thinks it is unacceptable. I am reminded of Levi’s friend in the Lager who has carved at the bottom of his bowl, “Ne pas chercher a comprendre”. Don’t try to understand.

Until 2008 (or was it 9/11?) the hegemonic way of assessing utopian ideologies was to associate them with catastrophic consequences. Nazism led to the Holocaust. Communism led to the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields. Even the French Revolution was condemned. It led to the White Terror. Ideology breeds zealotry. Ideas have “a terrifying power” and it is this that he actively seeks to turn away from. Speaking of the Red Army Faction paintings, Richter said, “the pictures are also a leave-taking in several respects. Factually: these specific persons are dead; as a general statement, death is leave-taking. And then ideologically: a leave-taking from a specific doctrine of salvation and, beyond that, from the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle.” The nihilism is palpable, but it does not seem philosophical. One takes leave from the things one finds difficult, not the things one uses logic to argue against. Philosophical nihilism turns away from things because they do not matter or even do not exist. Richter’s nihilism takes leave of things because they are unacceptable. He faces up by facing away. But as already mentioned, facing away or hiding from requires recognition that the thing you hide from exists in the first place. And that it matters. It may not be a mature response to difficulty, but it is something to work with.

I am not attempting to say that Richter’s work consciously tackles the Holocaust, its implications or consequences. But as a postwar artist who was born in Nazi Germany and has continued to live in Germany for most of his life, I do think that much of his work will have been informed by the same concerns as the rest of the country. How to face the horrors of what has happened here. How to get on with normal life, how to buy bread and milk after the gas chambers. (Nor am I saying that these are specifically German concerns. These are human concerns. But they will have been felt particularly acutely in postwar Germany.)

The aim of his work appears not to be to represent, to explore, to dig further into, to investigate. He wants to deliberately obscure. To take leave. To face up squarely is simply too much. Is this the only way to face the Holocaust? Must one hide from it? Must one remain consciously unconscious? On the way out, you return to the glass sculpture. It’s transparence is a shock of levity. The panes refract light, creating new ways of seeing. But at the same time, they are completely transparent. It is quite possible to see clearly through them. On the other side, you see a human looking back at you. In another direction, two grey mirrors. Again you can see your reflection, this time clearly.



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