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Issue 13

Reflections on Painting

An interview with Gerhard Richter

BY Hans Ulrich Obrist in Interviews | 05 NOV 93

A few basic premises in your thinking are immediately apparent from your writings. The most obvious is your distaste for any kind of ideology.

That's probably something I was born with. At the age of 16 or 17 it was quite clear to me that there was no God - which was a frightening experience for someone who was brought up a Christian. And I think by then my fundamental dislike of any form of faith, and hence of ideologies, was already fully formed. Movements and fashions always passed me by: religion at home, Nazism, Socialism, Rock music and all the many other fashions that made up the spirit of the age, in thought, attitudes, clothes, haircuts and so on... I found them all more frightening than attractive. Of course on the other hand I do believe that we need some kind of faith as a stimulus to live and act. In my writing, I sometimes describe this faith as a mania, or an illusion. At the same time I share the view that we're fundamentally no different from animals, that there is no free will. None of these statements appear directly in the texts, but they are convictions that were established very early on.

So you're a determinist?

You could say that. As far as I am concerned, this kind of fatalism or negativism is a very useful strategy in life. It means you don't try to fool yourself so much, and this can have benefits. The less we fool ourselves that it's ever possible to move a pencil from left to right as a free agent, the more we can avoid any kind of blind faith.

Let's talk about your early work. The press invitation to the 'Demonstration for Capitalist Realism' makes it clear that this was a unique experience, an action.

Yes, Polke and I certainly weren't intending to start a stylistic trend, as people now assume.

So it was more a parody of any kind of '-ism'.

I suppose it was.

You held the demonstration in a furniture shop, where nothing in the shop's display was changed. But you weren't trying to dissolve art into the context of everyday life.

We were playing with fire a little, certainly, to see how far one could take the destruction of art. But basically I never wanted to dilute painting and art at all. Being radical in that way struck me as nonsensical, although being radical was generally held to be the most important thing in those days. Sometimes I had a rather bad conscience that maybe I was not being radical enough.

Not even in the demonstration?

If you do something like that you can easily get on a high and just do it. But then when you make something yourself, you realise that other people are being incredibly radical - Pollock's drip paintings or Andre's slabs; Arman with his containers, even that was seen as extreme. And I'd never seen myself in that way, all I've ever done is paint.

But throughout your interviews and texts, the concept of the ready-made crops up over and over again. More recently you speak of abstract paintings as ready-mades - this follows through to Duchamp's statement that the concept of the ready-made can be extended to encompass the whole universe.

I believe in that comprehensive meaning of the ready-made as well, because if you only practise it in art it can easily become illustrative and cheap: Manzoni's 'pedestal of the world' was an example of that. At one point we were obsessed with the idea of producing an exhibition of paintings by Lichtensein, which we were going to make ourselves. But that would have been too much.

Was there already a reticence involved in your reception of Pop Art at that time, or were you simply interested in adopting the movement?

The detachment was reserved chiefly for making judgements between good and bad, and in any case I was only interested in those ideas for a very short time. And nothing has changed where that's concerned. I always thought some of them were bad and others not all that good - the best ones were Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, right from the start, and that's the way things have stayed.

Despite constant dialogue and exchanges of information with Polke and Fischer, there were never any formalised mechanisms, like Art and Language, for example.

Quite deliberately not. There were rare moments when we did something together and formed a kind of ad hoc association to deal with a particular set of circumstances, but other wise we were more or less in competition. It was only at the very beginning that we naively went round the galleries with Konrad Fischer, to Sonnabend and Iris Clert, saying: 'We are the German Pop Artists.'

But your use of pre-existing paintings and images had come out of the influence of Pop Art which freed the available, popular images from their contexts.

Yes, of course, but maybe you can see that as the familiar old practice of taking something else on board, putting it in a different situation and so on. Nothing new, then.

When you make paintings from photographs, you have written that behind the surface banality of the images, you suddenly see an unexpected picture-quality, something lasting and universal. Are you trying to legitimate illegitimate pictures?

These photographs, the souvenir snaps that people put up or hang up in their homes, these are the legitimate pictures that we sometimes use for art, pictures that we perhaps want to use for illegitimate purposes. So maybe it's illegitimate to turn snapshots into ready-mades. They only have this ready-made character because they're so easy to produce - all you have to do is select them. This distinction is far from secure, because we may yet be able to establish that there is no such thing as a ready- made. There are only pictures, of value to a large number of people or to very few, interesting for a very long time, or just for a few seconds, for which people pay very little money or a great deal.

So people who take snapshots are artists...

Yes, and if I do another painted copy of Uncle Rudi, the photograph of that little officer, I may even be diluting the art that was actually achieved by the two or three people who had framed and hung Rudi in private. The only way I can avoid this dilution is if I can make it more universal by copying it.

Because the process makes it iconic?

Yes, and blurring was the only possible way of achieving that quickly. The photorealists later painted things with panicky precision; I didn't, first of all because I am too impatient, and secondly because when you paint like that, something interrupts and disturbs the vision. Attention is always drawn to the accomplishment - the fact that it took a year to do, the astonishment at the result and the 'It-looks-just-like-a-photograph' effect. I wanted to avoid all that with a cheap production. And it worked, the pictures were enough like photographs without looking like laborious copies. You know, in the past, painters went outside and drew. Now we take snapshots. Many critics have interpreted my work as representing and criticising the fact that we live in a mediated world. Actually that was never my intention.

The camera can only locate a detail. It never produces a single absolute image.

People sometimes say that my paintings look like details. That may be, but I can never understand it, probably because it is staring me in the face. But perhaps they meant that they have a certain inconclusiveness, an openness - after all, they are pictures that are cut off on four sides.

And just one possibility of many.

Of course there are exceptions, like the Betty portrait or the Ema nude.

And the Burned-out House

Maybe the house too. They are on their way to masterpiece status, and if they never get there, it's because really, I know it's not going to happen. Perhaps it's more like quoting a masterpiece. In principal, though, everything is detail.

On the one hand you're talking about the impossibility of the absolute painting, and on the other you're re-introducing the concept of the masterpiece.

Maybe the masterpiece is what you strive for each time, but never attain.

In the context of the abstract paintings you made in the '80s, you introduce the concept of chance. Cage worked with chance, devising methods to achieve uncertainty. But in your work I never see chance in the same way that he describes it. It isn't so much of a serial dice-game with given parameters, as was usually the case in Conceptual Art.

Apart from the colour charts: they were serial, and I'd mixed the given paints and then applied them at random. It was interesting for me to link chance with a very rigid order. An architect once asked me what was good about the colour charts, what made them art. I tried to explain to him that it had taken me a lot of work to develop the right proportions and make something impressive. There are other possible ways of realising that idea. I could paint these biscuits bright colours and throw them around the room, and then I'd also have 1024 colours in a random form. The grey paintings could be seen as another example of my use of chance. I mean, if the idea behind them was really that nothing had occurred to me, and nothing made any sense any more, I could have tipped the paint into the street, or done nothing at all.

Wasn't it Barthes who said: 'To be modern is to know what is no longer possible'?

What is no longer possible is all kinds of idiocies and stupid slogans, pseudo-cultural messages and hypocritical attitudes. It's hard to avoid all that, but if you can, things are OK.

You have also made plans to create specific places for your paintings.

Things like that only go into sketches, though, because actually carrying them out would be unbearable - over-dramatic and bombastic. But it would be very nice to design spaces where the paintings would have an incredible effect.

Basically your attitude has always been not to try to determine the journeys that the paintings take, or where and how they are hung, but just to let the paintings go.

Yes, to let them go unconditionally. Because they don't need to be cared for: if they're good they'll find an appropriate place, and if they're bad they'll end up in the cellar, and that's fine too.

Haacke, for example, tries to maintain total control. His intention is to strengthen the position of the artist.

Imagine Giacometti trying to do something like that! I'm glad he didn't. His sculptures look different every time, and each time they remain the same. There are terrible examples of artists who have made monuments to immortality like that. On Capri, for example, there's a certain Herr Tiefenbach. Embarrassing.

There are some positive examples - the Segantini museum, the Rothko Chapel, Walter de Maria's Earth Room...

And his Lightning Field. Also in all the beautiful churches, of course, it worked wonderfully well.

But you built a specific room for your space at Documenta IX. When I saw it I immediately wondered if the wood panelling referred to the pavilion architecture. The wood could have been part of a prefab kit, and the space felt like a petit-bourgeois interior. At the same time, it very strongly validated the break away from the ubiquitous 'white cube'.

Paul Robbrecht suggested the wood panelling. White walls have only been compulsory for about 60 or 80 years.

I have only ever seen this kind of 'Petersburg hanging' in your studio.

It only works in small spaces, rather privately. When I've tried it on an extra wall at large exhibitions it's never worked.

One thing that surprised me in Kassel was the flower painting. Did that follow on from your trip to Japan?

Yes, the trip may have influenced that piece - it certainly affected those vertically scratched stripe paintings.

So far you have only made two flower paintings, but it occurred to me that they could be a starting point.

I've tried to take photographs of flowers again, but none of them was right, and my attempts to paint flowers were failures as well, sad. Actually I should have known - I've hardly ever succeeded in taking a photograph for a painting. You make a photograph for a photograph, and if you're lucky you later discover it for a painting. It's more of a happy coincidence if you take a photograph that has such an individual quality that it's worth copying as a painting. That's what happened with the cathedral painting. I took the photograph in 1984, when I wasn't in the best state of mind. And when I painted it three years later, I tried to photograph more cathedral corners like that - but I didn't get a photograph I could use. If I were to go to the same cathedral now, I wouldn't have any idea what to photograph. It's not something that I can force. I also made a special trip to Greenland, because Caspar David Friedrich had painted that beautiful painting of failed hope...I took hundreds of photographs there, and hardly a single painting came out of it, it didn't work.

So the search for subjects has rarely led to a painting?

The search for subjects is just for professionals. If I sit down somewhere in the open, with no particular intentions, and I'm not looking for an image, I'll suddenly find myself taking a shot of something I wasn't looking for.

When did you first use mirrors?

I think it was in 1981, for the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Before that, I'd conceived a mirrored room for Kaspar König's Westkunst, which was never made. There are just the designs, four mirrors for a room.

The spheres were said to be mirrors as well.

The sphere's a strange thing, because I used to say that a sphere's the most ridiculous sculpture I can imagine. As an object a sphere has this idiotic perfection, I don't know why I like that now.

When you made the four-part transparent glass work in the '60s glass was being used a great deal in art and architecture.

In art as well?

Yes - In Minimal and Conceptual art; in Robert Morris' mirrored cubes, in which the exhibition space and the spectator became a part of the work, and of course in Dan Graham's work. In the 'Corporate Arcadia' essay Graham shows the strong presence of glass in the architecture of the building. In buildings from the mid-60s you can see people working in the lower floors - transparent architecture.

What I liked about my mirrors was that there was supposed to be nothing manipulated about them. A piece of bought mirror. Simply hung up, no additions, so that they look immediate and direct. They run the risk of being boring, just a demonstration. The mirrors and, even more, the glass paintings were certainly directed against Duchamp, at his Large Glass.

The Duchamp boomerang always comes back. You have to set yourself in opposition to The Large Glass, but at the same time the idea of the ready-made is always there.

Maybe. But I was more concerned with opposing that pseudo-complexity - the mysterious object, with dust and little lines and all kinds of stuff on it. I don't like manufactured mysteries.

In Four Panes of Glass, the artistic act was reduced to the most minimal level.

On the other hand I had to make an effort to find the right proportion, the correct mounting. So it isn't a ready-made, anymore than Duchamp's glass is.

Because there was so much work involved.

Precisely. At one point I came close to buying a ready-made, a clown doll about a metre and a half tall, with a motor, which stood up and then collapsed. At the time it cost more than 600 Marks, and that was too expensive for me. Sometimes I'm sorry I didn't buy that clown.

You'd simply have shown it like that, as an uncorrected ready-made?

Exactly. There are rare occasions when you regret that you didn't do something, and this is one of them, otherwise I'd have forgotten about it long ago.

In your studio there's a little mirror positioned so you can always see details of the most recently produced works in it.

In this instance, it's good that it isn't hung at head height, but a bit higher, so that you tend to look at the mirror rather than, as is usual a reflection of yourself.

Over the past two years you've made grey and coloured mirrors.

They're sheets of glass with a layer of paint on the back. So they are somewhere in between, neither proper mirrors nor monochrome paintings. That's what I like about them. The pictorial space is even more variable and random than it is in a photograph.

Even more open?

Yes, they're the only paintings that look different every time. And maybe a reference to the fact that every picture is a mirror. You could take the view that every picture has space and meaning and is surface and illusion simultaneously.

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.