In Conversation with Robert Storrby Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird (Rail): One of the things that most surprised me about the Richter retrospective is its continuity and coherence, especially given the diversity of Richter’s practice. Did you find that Richter’s work, taken more or less chronologically, fell into this shape, or is this the product of curatorial decisions?
Robert Storr: I think it’s the result of both. There is this room with a small painting of his daughter, Betty, which is actually from a photograph taken from the same time as a later painting of her in which she is turned around, and then nearby is this other painting that is a copy made after Titian, and then across the room there is a painting of Bridget Polk. Each one of those paintings has a quality that the other one has but not all the same qualities. The technique is fairly straightforward academic rendering and blending technique, which taken to its height has an old master look. Which allows you to dissolve the basis of the Titian copy, which in regards to its look is very atmospheric, and right across the way you have a full rich painterly set of brushstrokes. And the idea is that these things all correlate but that he’s never a full dramatic painter saying I want to do this and I want to do that. So you want to look at these things visually without trying to modernize them past a certain point because they are living paintings.
Rail: Let me go back to the beginning when Richter started to paint from photographs. People associate the paintings with Pop Art and indeed Richter was for a moment associated with it. I was struck by how much they don’t feel at all like Pop Art, Lichtenstein or Warhol, which always relates to images in popular culture. What do you think Richter was reacting against by taking up painting from photographs?
Storr : First of all, there is a direct connection, there is no doubt about that. It seems like Lichtenstein really impressed him a lot. He had gone to Paris and had seen one or two paintings in the flesh. He was aware of Oldenberg. That is a body of work that really had an impact on him. Mind you, he saw paintings in 1960, a couple of paintings in 1962 and a few in 1963, and his own paintings overlap in that period. The sort of overlay if you want to call it that is very tight. And it is less about, in this case, influence in the sense of actual devices that were used, than about setting a tone. It’s an indifference or at least it’s the appearance of indifference; it’s factualist, both in terms of how it is made and what it is that you are looking at. And all of the things that we associate with painting and the American statement of “cool” were things that he found to be a wealth and a relief from the existentialist expressionist tendencies in art at that time. So he got something from Pop, but it wasn’t a style, it was an attitude. Pop showed him a certain kind of detachment, which he actually had thought about and struggled with back in the days of being an art student. He could move over and deal with hot subject matter in a cool way rather than having it shift back over to a more academic style. So that is what that’s about. At the same time if he makes a unique work, it will hold its place. Richter is doing the things that come home so to speak. And that is as individual examples out of the series began to occupy a place in daily life, and began to acquire the habits of daily life. So it’s not about production, dissemination and advertising, but rather about space. That shift is very basic and that’s automatically what you see. He was stil working in very close sympathy with America Pop artists, but he is after something else.
Rail: Again, while Lichtenstein and Warhol depend on the association of images, Richter seems to strip away associations rather than generate them. What do you think the blurring is supposed to be and do?
Storr : The blurring is supposed to remind you that it is a representation, and an accurate one. It’s to remind you that this is a painting and not something else. It’s to use mechanical devices to set up something and then proceed according to other rules. If you think of Rauschenberg and Pop Art, it’s because they used silk screen to generate the photographic image. To degenerate the image to a degree and to give it a painterly quality, if you will, ad not a painterly touch. It is still a print process dealing with a print process. Silkscreen is a reproductive medium. All the semiotics change when you get a handmade version of a reproducible image.
Rail: And yet “hand” is virtually removed from it in a an uncanny way.
Storr : Yeah, I have to say it is no longer gesture, there is no handwriting in it. But there is actually a lot of “hand” and there is quite a lot of paint. In other words, he doesn’t glaze, he doesn’t do all sorts of things, and in fact, if you look at those surfaces they vary and he takes advantage of the painting as a painting to give accents and allow for a kind of physicality. Take Jackie Kennedy. Warhol’s Jackie is no Jackie, they are like a postage stamp of an icon. In the painting that Richter made, you don’t know who it is right off the bat, and then suddenly you are like, “Oh, wait a second, that’s Jackie!” And it reverses it again with a brief turn of the head, or the frame. And at the same time, the way he paints it has got a whole cast of qualities it ends up in this remarkable and sort of tender way of making an image, rather than being, in a word, holy, which strips out even more information and pushes it back even farther. The question of detachment is irrelevant. Gerhard says himself that, even as he made those things, he thought of them as being incredibly trivial. And from a certain perspective, they are. What they do is they find this zone that is a sort of magnetic field of statement versus in-statement, physicality versus lack of physicality. He finds a place in that zone where it doesn’t move and it doesn’t get caught.
Rail: I find myself constantly moving closer to the paintings and then farther away. They are not really alienated images but they do something that photographs can’t do, that is that the surface is extremely intimate and the object seems to be receding. You try to get closer and you realize you can’t get closer but you feel like you ought to.
Storr: But also the presence of photography gives us information. Which if it were done in the same way without photographs would be symbolist or would give it a type of romantic stigmata. The fact that we know it is degenerated focus rather than a type of transcendental mist is important.
Rail: It feels like it is in the viewer, not in the painting.
Storr : When it’s in the painting it is not because of the painter.
Rail: Do you think there was some sort of wavering early on in his relationship to public events? There are a number of early pieces that are much more clearly collage oriented in which the images are obviously clipped out of newspapers and then cropped: I’m thinking of the bomber paintings, and also paintings like "Cow", "High Diver 1," and "Ferrari." Then suddenly that type of gesture disappears altogether and you start getting these lonely figures.
Storr : They are, actually. His relationship with collage, well, there aren’t any collage paintings that immerse themselves as such. There is one series of paintings of nude females, which is actually pieced together. What I had not known was that the seascapes from the early seventies were pieced together and that the sky and water did not always come from the same place.
Rail: The painting that I think is just called "Seascape" had an extremely strange quality.
Storr: Well, it’s where the sea meets the sea, so to speak, and I thought originally that was the only case of it. But he has more landscapes where he did this as kind of a gestural way of breaking up the dimensions of the landscape. It turns out that in the one that is next to it, which is much straighter, the sky is separate…
Rail: The sky and the water move in opposite directions.
Storr : Which is also interesting if you think about how he has influenced, like Gursky. When you think of Gursky’s way of manipulating images in the computer and it’s relationship to something that is totally contemporary, the way Gursky manipulates to get something that is fabulous, yet Richter did the same thing. The important factor is, though, their distinct style with which they work, as do a number of other artists at this time. His collage does not announce itself as a collage.
Rail: We inevitably have to talk about the October 18, 1977 paintings. Those paintings were controversial in Germany when they were first shown. What is your sense of the perception of them in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center and what has followed , although none of that is exactly parallel to what happened in Germany in the late 1970’s.
Storr: I am not so sure they are different at all, or not fundamentally different, though the context is. I was asked about his by the German press, and what I said then I will say again, that the thing Gerhard is after is the consequences of conviction, in its extreme forms, or the lack of it. I am not sure I can remember the quote, but there’s a line in Yeats that goes “the best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate insanity.” And I think, it’s the same thing in a sense when you live in historical moments of incredible violence and disruption. People who believe in those moments sincerely end up doing horrendous things. And in a sense Gerhard is dealing with a lack of conviction, but he feels it, he feels the repercussions. The particular context of these paintings was that the large segments of the population mostly students of the idle class, felt so disaffected that they took a stance that drove them further and further into the margins of politics. And they made a mistake. They in return provoked a state response that was also very extreme. Mohammed Atta is not so different from their social background in desperation in destructiveness…
Rail: I am curious about the transition from photo-based paintings to the abstract work. I don’t know what to make of the colored charts.
Storr: Gerhard was really about color and what made him an interesting artist is an attitude that is totally active with what was going on around him . Which was perceived the wider media as an impulse to take something under. There was in Germany and France at this moment a kind of a rival constructionist movement, and a lot of artists were essentially trying to rekindle that. Basically, it is just abstract painting. And what Richter did was to just send it off. But those pictueres in their Pop Art origin are really about color sample. And then he set up this system that really concentrates on the pathways…
Rail: It’s interesting that he can pursue abstraction without those early twentieth centurty obsessions about creating a pure language.
Storr: Yeah, there is no spirit assumption, there is no Kandinsky in there.
Rail: I kept seeing a gradual line form the sort of illusionistic landscapes to the abstractions, a movement towards increasing abstraction. Do you think that there is a line from the landscapes to the abstractions or is abstraction a separate kind of project?
Storr: I think he was operating in parallel categories. There are qualities that can be transferred from one to the other, but there are no resolutions from one to the other.