ART BOOKS IN REVIEW: Gerhard Richter is Speechlessby Benjamin Gottlieb
September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter
(Tate Publishing, 2010)
The 2002 exhibition Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, at the Museum of Modern Art—the artist’s first major retrospective in the United States—was greeted by many familiar with Richter’s art with a common refrain: How could this have taken so long? Richter had long been a prominent figure within the international art world, but the exhibition, curated by Robert Storr, was something of a corrective to the voluminous interpretations—and, in Storr’s view, misinterpretations—that had long beset the artist’s work: He had been aligned with neo-Expressionism, with Fluxus, with postmodernist critiques of the validity and value of painting, and with political agendas of all hues. Forty Years put forth, to a larger audience, what had more recently become the growing consensus on Richter: that he was a visual articulator of the inexpressible, an interrogator of codified belief systems, and a sincere practitioner of an artistic medium that had for decades been lamented as moribund, if not long dead. It is by now more or less unquestioned that these concerns form the bedrock of his artistic inquisition.
Storr has written quite extensively on Richter. In addition to the commanding text that accompanies the Forty Years of Painting monograph, Storr has composed essays on such works as Richter’s 1988 painting cycle “October 18, 1977” and his 2006 series “Cage.” His latest, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, is composed of four cumulatively inchoate though discretely coherent essays. They are expansive to the point of seeming unfocused, managing an uneasy blend of nuance and generalization.
But it is not problematic that September seems somewhat unfocused; in fact, that is its strongest element. Richter’s art is profoundly difficult and, while many of Storr’s earlier essays on his work acknowledge this, they all bear an emphatic argumentative thrust that conflicts with this recognition. September offers implicit analysis where his other essays were explicit and pedagogic. Because of its fragmented and incomplete form, this book approximates the ambiguity central to Richter’s work.
Were he subject to Isaiah Berlin’s cheeky scrutiny, Storr’s wide-reaching curiosity would likely classify him as distinctly foxlike; but his previous essays on Richter bear a hedgehogian willfulness that occasionally leaves Storr digging furiously in place, his naturally idiosyncratic inquisitiveness stymied by the demands of the critical mode to which he is conforming his aesthetic inquiries. September finds Storr in what feels like his natural, peripatetic element: He discusses his personal experience of the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers; he situates Richter’s 2005 painting September within a brand of anti-ideological thought that he finds throughout Richter’s work; he considers how the ubiquitous photographic documentation of the September 11 attacks affects the uniqueness of one’s distinct remembrance of the events; he offers a valuable comparison to Richter’s “October 18, 1977” cycle.
It is when Storr offers insight by inference and notable omission—much as Richter does in his painting—that his criticism is most potent. When he guides the reader toward a distinct and obstinate point of interpretation, as he is often wont to do, he undermines his own endorsement of Richter’s value. Take one of the final sentences of his essay on September, which begins with a useful and articulate distillation of the wisdom of Richter’s technical approach:
A focal point of thought that troubles the eye because of its small scale, indeterminate depth of field, and lack of vanishing point, while troubling the mind by condensing every uncertainty, contradiction, and ambivalence the viewer brings to it—
Yet it concludes with an overwrought summation that does not seem quite apropos of anything:
—“September” commemorates the events of 9/11/01 as well as everything that led up to them and everything that has ensued since and might be called a consequence, by holding all in perpetual suspension and irresolvable tension.
Storr’s defense of the critic’s responsibility to discuss an artist’s methodology and technique, as in his essay on Richter’s “Cage” series, is one of his most finely argued critiques. But one wishes that he didn’t feel the need to ascribe to their effects such impossible feats.
In “September,” Storr’s prose style has undergone something of a drastic transformation: Where once it was nearly clinical in appeal, marked by the occasional florid, generalizing flourish, it is herein notable for an aphoristic pith akin to that of Susan Sontag, with whose Regarding the Pain of Others this book shares many sentiments. Like Sontag, Storr has a wonderfully capacious intellectual appetite and, particularly in “September,” these variegated interests can guide his arguments in unexpected and fertile directions. Also like Sontag, his keen insights and canny articulations can often feel like a forfeit of subtlety; an epigram in place of true discursive examination.
Nonetheless, as a result of his formidable efforts toward heightening public and critical awareness of the seriousness of Richter’s contributions to contemporary thought and art, Storr occupies a unique place in our understanding of the artist and his work. In short, Storr is the preeminent American authority on Gerhard Richter: He has codified much of the current thinking on Richter, and little discourse on the artist can circumvent his contributions. He is now, therefore, in a distinctly uncomfortable position: His analyses of Richter, an artist whose wariness of ideology and prescription is fundamental to his work, have gained a prescriptive tenor.
Storr is not entirely free from culpability in making his analyses so; but, given the genuine affection and admiration he has for the thought behind Richter’s art, one certainly wishes he were—his intellectual, emotional, and visceral communion with art is rare and invigorating. It is all the more unfortunate, then, that his analyses often suffer from the same kind of Stockholm syndrome that pervades contemporary art discourse, wherefrom new works of criticism pay captivated heed to their critical forebears. The difficulty with Storr is that he isn’t merely toeing the line in the critical discussion around Richter’s work—he also helped construct it. He is his own captor.
“Construct” is a useful term in analyzing what Storr has done: He has taken Richter’s woolly, uncertain, speechless imagery and fashioned sense out of it, which is neither an easy task nor one germane to the artist’s thought. Richter’s art has a deconstructive impetus at its core, even a destructive one. In an interview with Storr published in the Forty Years monograph, he states, “Very often I have the feeling that what I do is very destructive, born out of the need and inability to construct.” The troubling poignancy of Richter’s work is built upon the unshakeable and unnerving desire to make sense out of the senseless. Storr’s eagerness to make Richter’s art cohere into an explicable argument against truth or belief or ideology is therefore an equally poignant example of their power.
In his 2000 essay on the “October” cycle, Storr quotes Richter saying “It is impossible for me to interpret the pictures…they are, if possible, an expression of a speechless emotion.” The danger of following Storr’s—or, for that matter, anyone’s—interpretation of Richter is precisely this incongruity between the essentially dumb nature of his art and the traditionally persuasive nature of criticism.
When Richter’s “October” cycle was first exhibited in the United States, it was accompanied by a text intended to offer viewers a better understanding of the historical circumstances of the Baader-Meinhof group, the painting’s subject. Storr quotes Richter’s response in his essay on the cycle: “The only disadvantage is that people spend more time reading than looking at the pictures.” While the small amount of time people often spend looking at pictures is certainly a problem, it is also entirely understandable: Very often, a clarifying text can supersede the images to which it refers. The intention may be one of elucidation, but the result is often substitution. When Storr offers his readers summary endorsements and dismissals of the rightly abundant understandings of Richter’s art, he also offers them a reason to not look as closely at the pictures.
For this reason, Storr’s essay on “September” is most notable for its lacunae of exegesis and explanation—a promising, if not fully embraced, stylistic and critical decision. He seems aware that the most appropriate, if not the most approachable, means of conveying Richter’s art is to write himself into silence: to encircle Richter’s work with noise—about the method of its production, about the events it depicts, about critical reactions to it—but, upon closer engagement with it, to fall quiet. The implications of this may make one uneasy, as they should.