An Aesthetic of Doubt?
In mid-February 2002, the Museum of Modern Art opened a very large survey of the German painter Gerhard Richter, called “Forty Years of Painting.” Curated by Robert Storr, it was a highly visible—if contested—assertion of the artist’s importance.1 The exhibit featured work from the early 1960s through 2000 and covered most aspects of the artist’s varied, often serial, productions. Variety is one hallmark of Richter’s work. He has utilized imagery from popular media, painted seemingly straightforward portraits and landscapes, and also made abstract canvases, of which some are geometric and hard-edged, while others are more painterly or gestural. Consistency is not a word easily applied to Richter, and its apparent lack has been one basis for debates about his importance or worth.
In adjacent galleries to the Richter exhibit was another varied show, “Life of the City.” It mixed photographs of New York from the museum’s collection with a continually changing display of photographs of the city made by the public. The museum took contributions from anyone and pledged to “do its best to display every picture it receives, at least for a short time.” In addition, the exhibit included a digital display of “Here Is New York: A.D.mocracy of Photographs,” gathered by a group of artists in the aftermath of September 11th to record and display people’s pictures about the tragedy. In a strange way, the exhibit resonated with the Richter show, because of the common presence of photography and the mixture of populist imagery with fine art.
For me, “Life of the City” also provided a compelling contrast. I had found the Richter show a bit overdone. Neither the imagery nor the artistry seemed to merit such extravagant attention and critical support. One can certainly admire aspects of Richter’s work. The craft of his paintings, which may reflect something of a traditional education at the Dresden Art Academy in the mid-1950s, as well as inherent talent, has a fastidious quality of facture that has grown more evident over the years. In its entirety, his work poses intellectual puzzles regarding representation, which can be engaging. But, in the last galleries, when I encountered the (then) recent paintings of his wife, Sabine, nursing or his son Moritz in a highchair, my bemused engagement turned a shade darker. These paintings were made through Richter’s characteristic transcription of photographs. Both the photographic sources and their rendering in paint suggested intimacy, tenderness and even love. They struck a warm note in a pervasively cool exhibit. But others that were almost identical in subject and pose were obscured, partially erased or overlaid with smirches and smears. The effect was to complicate one’s responses to the subjects, and the artist. What was the point? Is a painting’s subject of no consequence? Was the artist perhaps frustrated by an inability to fully give form to those bodies he knew so well? Was he like some latter-day Holbein, signifying a parallel, invisible plane of existence? Or is representation itself so problematic we need to be reminded that it is all really “just” paint?
It was after musing on those paintings that I rounded the corner into the “Life of the City” galleries. There the passions of native New Yorkers, both about their city and about 9/11, were hard to miss. There was plenty to engage and to think about. The museum’s photographs—by the likes of Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander and Cindy Sherman—created a strong counterpoint to the people’s photographs. It is not that the art photographs lacked passion or conviction, but rather that one was very aware of their artistry, and if you knew something of photographic history, you could see the evolution of photographic ideas and attitudes. In the end, what warmed me about the “Life of the City” exhibit was a sense—in the midst of very distressing pictures—of some affirmation. There was the immediate affirmation of the intelligibility of pictures. But beyond that was also evidence that the representation of human existence, for all of its enigma and mystery, does not require a critical decoding before it is comprehensible. This is not to assail critical assessment and reflection. But something happens when exegetical texts are necessary to really grasp the art of one’s own culture. Then the visual artifact too easily becomes packaging for words, a material husk for an idea. In this situation, sensory apprehension is pushed to art’s periphery, as comprehension of the idea(s) moves to center stage.
Photographic imagery is at the heart of Richter’s representational work. He began using photographs in the early 1960s and continues to use them. To see a representational painting by Richter is to see a painting based on a photograph. He uses both photographs he has taken and ones culled from mass media, and has stated that the photograph provides him with the appearance of neutrality, and frees him from the expectations of a style, with its handmaiden “ideology.”2
The relations between photography and painting have been long and intimate. Painters have used photography since its early development, including Manet, Degas and Eakins. Yet there is a considerable difference between using photographs as a source of information, a means to an end, much as one uses sketches or studies, and what Richter does. Richter wants the look and feel of a photograph and employs an out-of-focus “blur” that signifies the painting’s photographic source. Thus one of his landscapes is a painting of a photograph of landscape, instead of a landscape painting. The intervening photographic layer helps muffle the subject and yields a feeling of distance between the viewer and what is represented. One’s feeling of distance may be abetted by another aspect of photography, its relation to time. The photograph’s unique sense of authority derives from its creation in a moment, as a witness to events from the past. There is always an implicit recognition of a history when we see photographs. In Richter’s work, some of the photographs he has chosen, like one of an uncle who was killed fighting for Germany in World War II, conflate his personal past with the highly charged issue of German history. The painting, Uncle Rudi (1965), has both the distance of personal loss and the distance created by a disastrous national history, one many post-war Germans felt was better forgotten than recalled.
Whatever representational image Richter chooses—Allied planes bombing Germany, the dead members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, a beautiful landscape or seascape, a bouquet of flowers or his daughter—all have a photographic “aura.” Consequently, our awareness of a painting’s origins in apparently objective records can create dissonance between the painted representation and its subject. We may respond with horror or delight to the subjects, but such responses are abraded by the monotone of a neutral photographic sensibility. That sensibility is exaggerated by its own displacement into paint.
This is particularly clear in the series of paintings titled October 18th, 1977, which are based on video footage, press photographs and police archives of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a notorious German leftist terrorist group also known as the Red Army Faction. Over the course of almost three decades, the self-styled urban guerillas killed more than thirty people. After capture and a highly publicized trial, the original RAF leaders were sentenced to life in a maximum security prison. Sometime during the darkness between October 17th and 18th, 1977, as attacks in Germany continued, these high-profile prisoners were shot, hanged or stabbed to death in their cells. Many members of the German public believed that the deaths were not suicides (which was the finding of an official investigation), but were assassinations by the German government. Richter’s series, which was painted in 1988, includes paintings of a cell, the dead bodies of the terrorists and the very public funeral. These are charged subjects, but the pictures are not clear, either to our eyes or about the events they refer to. The paintings are all rendered in highly blurred, almost abstract greys, which recall the feel and indistinct graininess of old newsreels. Richter’s choice of these polarizing events, many of which occurred without witnesses, is significant because it nullifies the concept of a reliable history. So one’s response—as with many other Richter paintings—moves toward the tentative and ambiguous, unless the viewer already has strong personal convictions about the subject.
The idea that the life of the artist is noteworthy and deserves recording goes back to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. But the idea that the life of the artist is the key to unlocking the artwork’s meaning is more recent, and descends from Romantic and expressive ideas of art, as well as the difficulties modern art has posed for its viewers. Those difficulties demanded explanation, and that need has helped fuel the growth of critical and historical writing. It is easy to assume this is the normal condition for experiencing art, but the sale of catalogues, monographs, art histories and critical texts found in the last room of an exhibition, or the use of headsets to accompany viewing, are practices that have only flourished in the last forty to fifty years.
The obvious source for accounts of the artist’s life, as well as guidance about what to make of the work, is the artist’s own words. Richter has given many interviews, and a collection of his writings has been published.3 Yet in spite of this, he is both reticent and elusive. His earliest statements deflected questions of meaning and share the Pop anti-art, anti-serious attitude of the 1960s. While diffidence and indirection remain, he has changed as he has aged and, in later interviews, entertains questions of intention more willingly. But even when they are clearly stated, intentions are only one small aspect of what determines how an artist is received and valued by a culture. In our culture, the institutions of exhibition and criticism coalesce in a creative act of interpretation, where both meanings and reputations are made.
Robert Storr, who was MoMA’s Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the time of Richter’s exhibit, and is now the Dean of the School of Art at Yale, has been a thorough and thoughtful interpreter of Richter’s work. For Storr, the basis for understanding Richter’s work is found in his life experience of two totalitarian systems, Hitler’s Third Reich and the GDR, the East German Democratic Republic. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, and his family later moved to a nearby village, which was close enough to the city to leave him with memories of the intense Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945. After the war, the Russian army occupied the area, which subsequently became East Germany, with a soviet-style Communist government and social order. Richter had some success as a young artist in East Germany, and because of that he was allowed to travel to the West, where he was energized by encounters with the works of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana. He and his young wife fled to West Berlin months before the wall dividing the city was completed.
The experience of two totalitarian political ideologies has given Richter a lifelong distaste for any orthodoxy, including artistic ones. This helps explain his desire to avoid a stylistic identity,4 his penchant for bouncing between various abstractions and differing representational genres, and his reluctance to be forthcoming about his motivations. This has also meant that he was—in spite of his position well within avant-garde circles—able to work somewhat apart from dominant opinions about what artists ought to do, and able to ignore the avant-garde version of historical progress which held that painting was “no longer possible.”
It is clear from his statements that Richter loves to paint, and I believe his ability to ignore “progressive” criticism stems from that desire. But it is difficult to continue painting and to be highly regarded by people, like the art historian Benjamin Buchloh, who have made it their mission to cleanse contemporary art of any remaining vestiges of outmoded, false beliefs. Thus Richter can be seen as a “conservative,” even as his work has been so clearly shaped by the dialogues and dogmas of advanced art.
Storr sees Richter as an artist who acted within a series of polarities: “faith versus skepticism; hope versus pessimism; engagement versus neutrality; self-determination versus fatalism; and imaginative freedom versus ideology.” He continues that these “dialectical binaries” have led to visual and material corollaries such as “veiled intimacy versus formality of presentation;…optical splendor versus physical remoteness; and…forthright assertion of image as object versus mistrust of the image as representation.”5 The experience of being pulled in several directions and of trying to negotiate conflicting and contradictory claims is hardly a new experience. It is a staple of human existence, and some of the great narrative subjects of theater, literature and art have been about the cost of that struggle or its resolution. But in the modern period, that began to change, as doubt assumed a heroic dimension.
Storr finds affinities between Richter and Samuel Beckett, “whose protagonists incarnate blind faith and tragicomic futility,” and Alberto Giacometti, “another master of shivering but inertial grayness, another dedicated sometimes desperate taxonomist of the erosion of impressions.”6 Both Beckett and Giacometti were emblematic figures in mid-twentieth-century existentialism, which valorized the lonely individual doggedly determined to be and to act, even as the idea of meaningful being or action was constantly undermined by fundamental doubts. In this light, it is significant that Storr titled another publication about Richter, released a year after the MoMA exhibit, Gerhard Richter, Doubt and Belief in Painting.7 The book is virtually identical to the exhibition catalogue, but has an additional four-part essay by Storr on the October 18th, 1977 series, originally published by the museum in 2000. I think Storr would like to argue that Richter has successfully charted a path between doubt and belief, and has in fact achieved a kind of belief. The question is, belief in what?
Given the resurgence of acrimony between religious believers and the “new” atheists, it is easy to understand doubt as the opposite of religious belief or faith, the negative response to an affirmation. That viewpoint emerged during the Enlightenment, as both scientific and philosophic skeptics interrogated the claims and supernatural creeds of the faithful, and found them wanting. But, of course, doubt, including doubt within religion, is far older than the early modern period. In her breezy book, Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht characterized Christianity as a movement that “permanently changed the history of doubt …” because it developed “an image of agonizing doubt as part of our model of the religious life.”8 This was not the doubt of the skeptics about God, but something different, where doubt has a role in shaping faith. What this demonstrates is the mutability of doubt, and that doubt’s relationship to belief is more complicated than a simple model of opposition.
What really seems to have changed as a result of modern, empirically driven skepticism is that doubt can become the default mode of progressive intellectuals. Once you start to doubt, where do you stop? What kind of proofs makes belief warranted? So many of our significant beliefs rest on some kind of faith without the support of incontrovertible evidence. You don’t have to be a supernaturalist to believe in the dignity or worth of human persons. Yet anybody who believes that about humans faces the same questions that people holding supernatural views encounter. “What validates the idea?” Unfortunately, the evidence is far from clear. Both the complex of events surrounding October 18th, 1977, and their ghostly incarnation in Richter’s paintings should give any cheerful believer in the human prospect ample reasons for doubt.
Storr would like to invest Richter’s series with the qualities of history painting. But it is a different kind of history painting than what is conventionally understood by art historians, since a belief that some historical events are worth celebrating or that history might be a reliable source of truth about the human condition has been discredited by the march of doubt under the banner of critical thinking. What Storr ends up with is “that faith in an overarching order or principle that might somehow make sense of these horrors and set right the discord that produced them, no longer held against the onslaught of violence and unreason and the mounting evidence that there is no end to it.” This rather bleak assessment of the human condition is not because he affirms “any fixed and therefore reactionary definition of human nature.” It’s just that the “unstable continuum of attitudes and instincts within the society…all ensure perpetual disquiet,…disallow any consistent standards of right and wrong,…and in the final analysis promise no relief,…”9 Hope anyone?
It is ironic that Storr finds in Richter’s work at least one truth, which sounds like an overarching idea of perpetual disorder. In this, I think he has gone beyond Richter’s beliefs and intentions. While Richter is well aware—and often critical—of the debates and positions that animate artistic discourse, he seems to work more intuitively, and his statements over the years do not add up to a calculated, reasoned approach to art.10 Yet, certainly, his extensive contacts with Storr must indicate a level of trust regarding Storr’s interpretive enterprise. While there have been no end of essays and articles about Richter, Storr’s voice has been a dominant one, and almost seems like the authorized version.
This essay is posed as a question. It was sparked by my experience of the Richter exhibit, where I had the instinctive, visceral sense that the artist distrusted or doubted the conventions of art. This doubt was embodied by the dissonance between his varied imagery and a consistently cool sense of disengagement. But is there an aesthetic of doubt? Given its hesitant and querulous nature, perhaps doubt has no formal embodiment, no real style. My own caution pushes me to doubt there are such forms, and yet I return to my experience of the 2002 exhibit. What I felt then has not really been changed by anything I’ve read since. I think Richter has found the style for his doubts and the doubts of our time.
Theodore Prescott is an Emeritus Professor of Art at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. He is a sculptor, and recently completed two interior works for a hotel at O’Hare airport. He received first place in sculpture at the current “Art of the State” exhibit at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg, which closes September 12, 2010.
1. The most infamous negative review of “Forty Years of Painting” was Jed Perl’s “Saint Gerhard of the Sorrows of Painting” in the New Republic. It began with the sentence “Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter.” See the New Republic (April 1 and 8, 2002), pp. 27–32.
2. Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter, 40 Years of Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), p. 298. Richter has spoken about photography extensively, and its allure for him is multifaceted. He has often discussed its fascination because it exists apart from the pretensions and problems of “art.” See the entries about photography in Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962–1993, ed. by Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
3. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962–1993 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).
4. In his notes of 1964–65, Richter wrote: “I like everything that has not style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings. (Because style is violence, and I am not violent.),” ibid., p. 35.
5. Storr, ibid., p. 17.
6. Storr, ibid., p. 87.
7. Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter, Doubt and Belief in Painting (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003).
8. Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), pp. 174–75.
9. Storr, ibid., pp. 261–62.
10. Ibid., p. 237. Here in Storr’s essay are extended quotes from Richter about the wretchedness of art, his distaste for painters with “themes” and “concerns,” and his conviction (at least for a moment) that formal elements generate content.