Forum Paper : Painting and Photography, Parsons School of Design, Paris, October 1995.

It is often said that from its beginnings’ photography has been locked into a conflict with painting. Photography stripped away the functions that had given painting in an earlier era a utilitarian value. Though other art forms were also transformed by the arrival of photographic images painting was placed in the extraordinary position of having its very existence challenged. The invention of photography was accompanied by enthusiastic claims that painting was now dead and just a redundant technique from an earlier and less technologically developed phase of western culture. This way of thinking about painting in terms of mechanical techniques of representation is still operative today. Painting has to periodically justify itself fundamentally as a living and engaged form of representation if it is not to fall foul of denouncements of it being anachronistic, nostalgic, serving the cult of the individual and expressivity or anything else that will marginalise it in terms of avant garde culture.
Gerhard Richter’s work has been at the heart for some time now of a discussion based around this relationship. If painting, as a crucial cultural medium of representation can be seen as having been negated by photography then the pressing question of ‘why paint?’ arises.
This seems to be what Richter has been addressing in his work for over two decades. This very position of persisting in making paintings in the full knowledge that photography has a monopoly on the consensus of the semblance of the world has over the years attracted an enormous amount of discussion. This is particularly true in the last few years when Richter’s work has been the main site of a debate to discuss issues generated by a general shift in interest back toward painting (and particularly in terms of abstraction and painting). This discussion, in terms of Richter, takes many different positions, is often contradictory in its readings and invariably is at odds with Richter’s own accounts of his practice and his work. The discussion invariably settles upon the two distinct form of painting which Richter, since 1976, has concurrently produced.
On the one hand he makes photo-paintings which have evolved since the 1960’s when as a young East-German artist and newly arrived in Düsseldorf in the Western sector he was amongst a group which identified themselves as German Pop artists. Richter started using photographs as ready-mades for his paintings, initially as images of mass-culture but this soon became conditioned by the actual process of making an object like a painting from an object such as a photograph.
A relationship to the past , to a history of painting, became evident within the photo-painting strategy.
One of Richter’s early quotes is that ‘Many amateur photographs are more beautiful than a Cezanne’. When he was asked by an interviewer if this was just a provocation he replied
“It was primarily a method, and its main target was the Academy, the stifling prototypes that I had before me, and from which I wanted to free myself. Photography had to be more relevant to me than art history: it was an image of my, our present day reality. And I did not take it as a substitute for reality but as a crutch to help me get to reality.”
He started to use other peoples’ snapshots like that of the Nazi officer, which when it was a framed portrait on somebodies’ sideboard was simply a fond reminder of an Uncle. Richter would increasingly use painting to work within the boundaries where images with potentially strong ideological overtones would be worked into other contexts and other associations where uncertainty, transience and incompleteness are the horizon of meaning rather than the matter of fact reality of the photograph as a faithful document. In this context he started to use the blending brush. As a technique in the 19th century blending and blurring was used to soften outlines and blend areas of tone to imitate photographic effects of soft focus and depth of field incidents . Richter’s use was more to blur the image, to give the sensation of camera shake to arrive at a sensation, which in his words, “has a great deal to do with imprecision”.
In 1976 he started to paint abstract paintings. These were made alongside his photo-paintings and cannot be viewed as developmental events i.e. a movement from figuration toward abstraction.
These abstract paintings maintain a close dialogue with the photo-paintings in many ways. He uses many of the photo-painting techniques like the blending brush that give effects which could be likened to photographic space. He will also painstakingly copy painterly effect, a brush stroke or a splash which is probably a detail from another abstract painting of his. This procedure is similar to the way he copies photographic effects. Here a sense of reproducibility is introduced into the dynamics of an abstract painterly space which has historically been conditioned by notions of an “authentic” event.
More recently he has made abstract paintings using mechanical means like silk screen spatulas which he uses to pull paint across a wide surface in one swift action. There is a strong sense in the relationship of the abstract works to the photo-paintings of a type of inversion of the means employed in terms of the model that is referred to. Simply stated a painting of a photograph whose origin was made mechanically and took a split second to take in the photo-painting will be made by hand and will take several hours if not days of labour. The abstract painting similarly is reduced to a single event, the movement of an arm pulling the paint across the canvas perhaps echoes the camera’s shutter action. In the earlier abstract works a similar situation was created by the imitation of spontaneous painterly effects through laborious and meticulous means.
Many senses of history are evident in Richter’s distinct categories of painting. In the photo-paintings there seems, ironically, to be a recuperation of photography’s negation of painting. Richter seems to restore a sense of the value of paintings as a representational medium by literally using photographs as models. The inverse relationship of painting to photography throws up a new index of meaning as an image is translated from one medium to the other.
It is perhaps that Richter is, through his productive means, endorsing the well known reading of the photographic image in the terms Walter Benjamin laid down in his famous essay. That through mechanically reproductive means the photographic image does not possess the aura that other, non-mechanical, means of representation somehow have. This would be true if Richter was solely pre-occupied with the photo-paintings whereby he would be recuperating the status of paintings in terms of its negation by photography within an auratic idea of the hand-made image superseding the mechanically derived image. However as we have seen, his abstract works question a certain canon of abstraction, i.e. that abstract painting is the site for authentic expressive gesture. In American Greenbergian Formalism this authenticity was accompanied by a drive toward the specific means of the medium of painting. The historical destiny of each artistic medium was to purify the means until meaning is contained within a frame of self reference. Painting would only have itself as subject, painting about painting. Richter’s abstract paintings can, in a sense, be read as a critique of such a Formalist, essentialist discussion. Perhaps the abstract works situate themselves as ‘second order representations’, a sort of painterly rhetoric. This acts like a counter-movement that undermines any efforts to read his large abstracts in terms of a heroic, transcendental, abstract expressionist canon that has since World War Two been the overwhelming framework for ‘seeing’ abstract painting. Richter is not the first to challenge American Formalist canons as he is not the first to respond to photography and mechanical reproduction in terms of representation. However what is marked about Richter is his commitment to stay within the boundaries of an activity that is specifically ‘painting‘ while at the same time responding to issues and questions that have led so many others toward a position so far away from the practice of painting that they can be heard to continue to proclaim that seasonal decree that painting is in fact dead.
Bound up within Richter’s two strategies is what each form of his work negates along with the fact that the movement of each of these negations can be read as a contradiction. Peter Osbourne has proposed that this contradiction is in fact the crux of Richter’s work. He says;
“Richter’s work is produced at the point of contradiction which it endlessly meditates but can never resolve: a contradiction between the end of painting as a living form of collective representation and its continuation within the art institution on the basis of a serial ingenuity which, symptomatic in its individuality, carries the weight of a historical condition. Richter adopts a variety of strategies to make painting out of the self-consciousness of this contradiction, and he produces a variety of forms of painting. Yet each derives its meaning and its importance from this common condition; from the way in which this condition is taken up, replayed and negated, within the work, within the very act of painting, affirmative and thereby determinate in its negation.”
Two recently published books Gerhard Richter, Painting in the Nineties and Gerhard Richter; The Daily Practice of Painting move the discussion around Richter’s work into another light. An essay in the former by Peter Gidal titled The Polemics of Paint can be seen as a revision of former descriptions of Richter’s paintings. It can also be seen as strangely locating Richter’s work within a concern that Richter himself shares. The Daily Practice of Painting includes many statements by Richter where he seems not to be thinking in terms of a rhetoric of painting. At one point he explains his:
“[P]rofound distaste for all claims to possess the truth, and for all ideologies - a distaste which I have often expressed with varying degrees of skill.....survival lies in the ‘gropings of human self-doubt’: in our awareness of our own limitations. And so I hope that my ‘incapacity’ - the scepticism that stands in for capacity - may after all turn out to be an important ‘modern’ strategy for humankind. “
Gidal poses the question that Richter’s painting work against recognition, that they produce unrecognitions. That they obliterate readings of sublimation or a sublime. Here the material and process concerns of the structures of both the abstract and the photo-paintings do not allow identification. That somehow the viewer is left with ‘nothing’. The nothing includes being unable to recuperate a viewing position which is metaphorical, historicized and, which by implication, would be an ideological construct. Gidal sees this as being radically different from other interpretations of Richter’s strategies. The reading which talks of Richter’s rhetorical practice frames the interpretation within a sense that a process of denial is taking place. Gidal points out that a form which sets out to deny another established form rather than canceling its other out only ends up reinforcing that structure within a notion of opposition. Gidal prefers to describe these possible rhetorical positions as acts of avoidance. In their avoidance Richter’s paintings truly seek an identitylessness and that such a condition is truly a ‘concrete abstract’.
The difficulty of understanding such an interpretation and its inherent problematic can perhaps be clarified by contrasting this text by Gidal with a recent text by Brian Muller.
In the catalogue for the exhibition Real Art - A New Modernism - British Reflexive Painters in the 1990s (Southampton City Gallery until 12 November 1995) Muller makes strong claims for a contemporary form of materialist, processed based abstract painting. He describes the work of this group of ‘reflexive’ painters:
“A link between the work of many of the artists emerging in the 1990’s is that the work lives purely through its audience, in other words the art takes place within the interaction between the viewer, with his/her body of knowledge, and the art object, as information structured in a particular way by the artist, whereas unseen, it remains simply structured information and ceases to be art.”
The attractive claims of an art which somehow privileges the audience is a distraction from the fact that such a tactic works against the ethical sense that Gidal has articulated in the Polemics of Paint.
Muller’s position can be seen as a revival of minimalist ploys (and particularly Robert Morris) where by process and material had to somehow agree with the production values of society of the time. In the sixties this meant industrial mass production and the idea of the ‘active’ spectator, situated within a relationship to the work of art . That this ‘active’ participation was in fact a highly controlled situation which seemed to endorse an American democratic principle as well as providing a sensorium whereby the spectator is naturalized into a sense of the values of an industrial culture has been much noted in criticism in the intervening two decades. Muller’s account of this ‘new’ art seems to replay this scenario. Industrial culture is much less relevant today. Instead we have the culture of technology. It is information and interaction which this ‘new’ painting seeks to aestheticise. The empowerment of the viewer here can simply be read as the construction of a new viewing subject who will feel familiar and safe within a culture that values information and interaction. Muller’s position is a straight forward revival of a cyclical and institutionalized (and thus ideological) activity. It is not a revision. He fails to account for the ethical problems of constructing a viewing subject who will feel that they have volition. This is the ground which Richter’s work radically challenges. Gidal’s essay is a difficult text which addresses these issues. The complexity of this ethical ground that is opening up around a revival of interest in abstract painting cannot be understated. Contemporary artistic practice is faced by highly determined conditions where the reluctance to face critical questions raises ethical issues which have been the subtext of Modernist art since its origins.
It is worth noting Walter Benjamin’s sense of a danger of the difference that lays between “uncritical assumptions of actuality rather than a critical position of questioning.” Ideology cannot be wished away by erecting ‘pure’ structures which make claims upon the ‘real’, For this reason Richter’s work remains a constant reminder of the need to remain sceptical in face of such claims to possess truth.

Mick Finch, 1995

Gerhard Richter, Painting in the Nineties which includes the essay The Polemics of Paint by Peter Gidal is published by the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London
Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting is published by the MIT press in associations with the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London.