I think every observer of contemporary art sometimes wonders if warmed-over modernism is the only possibility left for abstract painting. Once the dominant expression of both the historical and the neo-avant-garde, but now pursued only by a select few, the mode feels locked into an endless repetition of long-tired tropes like objecthood, flatness, and material specificity; or else the esoteric investigation and extension of certain minor formal questions—what happens if the stretcher is placed this way, or made of this material, or put in dialogue with this kind of mark, and so on. On the surface Gerhard Richter’s latest series, the Strip paintings (2012) he recently exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery, appear to be yet another symptom of this stale endgame.
Richter’s Strip paintings solicit such a reading because they explicitly play with, by making reference to, aesthetic terms Richter has been working with for several decades now. To be specific, the Strip paintings take the image of a particular example of one of Richter’s abstract paintings, “Abstract Painting 724-4” (1990) and submit it, with the help of digital software, to a complex set of rules for a game of chance that resulted in the fracturing of the painting into a horizontal patterning of 8,190 linear striations. Richter’s 2011 artist’s book Patterns documents many of the more than 4,000 patterns that his software-driven game generated, some of which Richter selected to be made up into paintings. The paintings themselves consist of a digital print of one of the patterns made up at a size ranging between roughly 60 to 80 inches wide by 60 to 120 inches long, mounted between aludibond and perspex, and hung on the wall of the gallery like a traditional oil-on-canvas painting.
The aesthetic experience of a given Strip painting is a very particular and unexpected one. From a distance, as in reproduction, the paintings are unassuming, seeming to verge on the decorative in their insistently flat patterning of stripes. However as one approaches a Strip painting, and allows its field to fill one’s vision, fairly quickly a particular kind of optical experience begins to unfold as the viewer’s brain attempts to process the information being relayed by his or her eye, and the experience is something like a descent of static across the retina. The eye tries to ascertain a sense of pictorial space by teasing out relationships between the individual stripes and their positioning across the overall pattern, but the attempt is somehow foiled by the precise way that Richter has calibrated the stripes and their coloration (or rather, has done so via the selections he has made from the many possibilities presented by the computerized game of chance). The eye remains caught, suspended indeterminately as it were, within this field of static color.
Instead of either resting flat on the picture’s surface, or leading the eye into an abstract, fully optical space, Richter’s stripes blur out vision, much in the same way that his familiar “Richter effect” of blurring representational photographic imagery makes it seem in those paintings as if we are looking at the image through murky water. In a photograph-based Richter the image before us never fully coheres, always seeming to be at a certain remove that we can never truly bridge, and as our eyes attempt to focus the image it only seems to pull farther away. This is a playing up of the constructed nature of photographic representation, yet in the new Strip paintings it is not the nature of photography that is being commented upon, or even of representation; rather—because the works are fully abstract—the same trope of blurred vision is made to operate at the level of perception itself, the object having been removed, the subject here is that act of perception made self-reflexive.
The Strip paintings generate this aesthetic experience because of our expectations of how to look at a painting, and as such our first demand—made unconsciously of course, because with eyes trained by centuries of cultural conditioning—is that the individual stripes separate from one another to establish a sense of abstract illusory space by demarcating different positions in that space relative both to one another and to the flat surface of the painting. Remarkably, this does not happen. My best guess as to why is that the individual stripes are too narrow, there are too many of them, and the range of color variation across them is too limited, in such a way that in trying to recall the works, they reappear in my mind as the “green” painting, the “red” painting, the “blue” painting, etc., even though I know very well that there is always something of a spectrum of color in each painting.
Add to this the scale of the work, the key—alongside the particular materiality of the thin plastic and metal support—to these paintings needing to be seen in person, despite ostensibly consisting of digital prints generated by a computer program. For the sense of scale that is achieved by a literally large format in combination with the particular materiality of a printed digital image of a regularized stripe pattern mounted between metal and plastic, is important because a certain sense of scale is necessary to establishing the field condition that generates the particular optical effect of that field as a vibrating, pulsating static haze suspended just off the wall and before the viewer.
In my opinion, even though we are dealing with visual perception, this is a step forward on Richter’s part in the direction of a materialist project because these paintings radically deny the received wisdom that vision is natural and authentic. Of course vision is, like many things, the product of thousands of years of evolution, during which time it has developed in ways that are advantageous for survival, rather than to seamlessly convey “reality,” which, in such a positivist reading is always imagined to be simultaneously shared and singular in its purported universality. We never see things “as they actually are,” and to understand what I mean here about the constructed nature of perception we have only to think of how we experience a white room. The shadows that fall here and there are not physical properties of that room, but are rather ways that our brain makes sense of visual data such that we can navigate that space.
It is not in itself remarkable that a charged perceptual experience is the subject of Richter’s new paintings, as he is far from the first to make the viewer’s physiology the subject of a work, its medium even. There is a long, though much maligned, history of this in modernist art, arising with force in Europe in the 1930s as an offshoot of the international constructivist tradition of geometric painting, and its major early practitioners were Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely, and Auguste Herbin. Additionally, in the 1920s Marcel Duchamp had already anticipated art’s increasingly retinal orientation with his rotoreliefs which—unlike the intuitively worked out paintings of Albers, Vasarely, and Herbin—were explicitly intended to play off the structure of the viewer’s perception, in a manner that Duchamp devised himself, proud to have discovered a technique of optical stimulus not yet published in a scientific journal.
This making over of the viewer into the subject of the work by activating or, perhaps better put, subjecting, his or her perception to the terms of the work makes the rotoreliefs the direct predecessors of the Op-Art explosion of the 1960s when legions of artists, most now forgotten, devised all sort of elaborate devices for the titillation and provocation of the human sensorium, and in the process gave us what Barbara Rose characterized at the time as folk art for the space age. Alongside this populist form of optical art arose a more subtle expression of this desire to activate the senses, paintings by artists like Jo Baer, Walter Darby Bannard, Paul Brach, Robert Irwin, and Kenneth Noland, that have most typically been characterized as either Minimal or Color Field, respectively, but which are in fact concerned with making the viewer aware of the operations of his or her vision, of its constructed nature, via barely detectable pulsations of line, color, and field that occur at the edge of perception.
They have their direct precedent in the subtly glowing, shifting, and temporally unfolding fields of Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings. Reinhardt had himself arrived at this format in the early 1950s by working through the impasses of prewar geometrical abstraction—largely caught, as it had been then, between equally undesirable expressions of optical bombardment, on the one hand, and lifeless recapitulations of structure and form, on the other. The trick, then as now, is striking a balance somewhere in-between, or at least a step back from either of these limit cases wherein the subjectifying effects solicited when these lines are overstepped seems to remove them from the realm of painting—because they are either too much vehicles for optical spectacle, or are too much mute objects.
The desirability, in this case at least, of the work staying within these painterly boundaries is that if the painting can hold itself just before arriving at one or the other of those limit cases then there is the possibility, as in Richter’s new Strip paintings, that a comment can be made on how vision delivers to us experiences of things in the world, rather than itself becoming one of those experiences by exceeding the limits of painting to emerge on the other side as either spectacle or decoration. It is by walking this thin line that the viewer can remain the author of his or her own experience, rather than the passive recipient of the effects dictated by the work—whether that is as either an optical stimulus or as a mute object commanding and determining the space around it.
In a moment where visual culture proposes ever more insidious and seductive reasons for our subjection there is the necessity for art to allow us the possibility, via a radical materialist neutrality, to carve out an imaginative space where we can determine our own subjectivity. The formal terms of Richter’s Strip paintings generate a palpable tension between optical subjection and the excessive open-endedness of decorative neutrality, both of which are strategies, present everywhere around us in the products of the culture industry, that are directed towards numbing and defanging resistance, and are premised on our acceptance of vision’s supposed universal and naturalized primacy. It is my sense that radical abstraction is most necessary at those moments wherein a particular structure of perception and experience has become so overdetermined and exhausted by its appropriation by the culture industry that, in an Althusserian sense, an outside has become as if fully foreclosed.
It is no coincidence that abstraction was born on the eve of World War I, was nourished by the Russian Revolution, and reemerged and was radicalized in the face of the horrors of the Vietnam War, May ’68, and civil rights. At each of those moments it became clear that neither the traditional aesthetic counterstrategies of the avant-garde, nor the play with dominant representational paradigms was enough to truly create resistance. What minimalism proposed in the 1960s, and what Richter’s Strip paintings propose today, is that in a moment where ideology and representation seem to have become one and the same the only answer is to gesture to an alternative space, a heterotopia to speak in Foucaultian terms, where that determination is, even if only for a moment, fictively suspended.
Like the child that crawls into a discarded cardboard box to take imaginative respite in its neutrality from the intense pressures to conform to one cultural demand or another, the best abstract work makes no impositions on, or demands of, the viewer, but instead allows him or her to reflect back on the nature of these demands, and on his or her place within them. This is not a pseudo-New-Age call for the viewer to determine his or her own destiny, or discover an inner true self that is somehow obscured by the dross of society: I am not naïve enough to think that such a state of self-determination can ever be found. But, while there might not ever be an inner authentic subject waiting to be released, there is the necessity that the subject be given the ability to step back somewhat and see laid out before him or her at least some of the various structures and possibilities of identification that bind him or her. In this way certain abstract work like Richter’s is not merely compensatory, because it does not in fact offer to replenish something proposed to be lacking—phenomenological plenitude, for example—but rather suggests to hold, as best it can, all of these terms momentarily in abeyance—that is its radical neutrality.
Richter’s Strip paintings allow for just such a self-reflexive opening up because their static optical haze locates the viewer perpetually at the moment just before spectacle—rendered as the optical bombardment that we expect to ensue, but which the paintings always hold at bay—closes down our subjectivity. Our potential for self-determination is revealed to be that brief moment, metaphorically as thin as Richter’s stripes perhaps, before we are overwhelmed, and in the process it is suggested that it is in that very space that we might discover the potential for resistance. Richter is not naïve enough to think that art can tell us what to do, but rather that it can, at its best and most truly political (and this is a lot), direct us to a subjective positioning where the potential for action might be located. It cannot itself propose what those actions might be—after all that would be too much hubris on the part of the artist—but rather allows us the ability to even think what they might be in the first place.
It must be said that a position such as Richter’s, of radical self-doubt, seems to be only truly available to an artist who has experienced a time when painting’s access to radicality, innovation, and relevance was available, even assumed. Such availability simply does not exist for a young artist coming of age in the past few decades, let alone today, for whom painting has only ever been backed into a corner and embattled. How do you trouble conviction if you are not even aware of what it means to be convinced by a work of art in the first place? Further, is it even possible to have this experience of conviction today, as it was in the 1960s? While I may enjoy looking at painting, am even moved from time to time, I do not think I would use the term “conviction” to describe this experience, and I think that this is a condition of my own particular position within history.
This is not a call for a recentering of painting around old values, since much has been gained—intellectually, if not always aesthetically—in the medium having been tested, deauthorized, and problematized. Nor is it to say that interesting work cannot be done with painting in such a questioning, plural, and interdisciplinary mode—as indicated by the work of Wade Guyton, R.H. Quaytman, and Karen Sander, among others. What I am claiming instead is that this does not solve the issue, which I raised at the start of this essay, of how to push forward rather than endlessly track back and forth over recent history.
This is similarly not meant as a positivist call for a return to “originality,” or to any other traditional values, but is rather an open call made in response to the present historical impasse, which is one where it is quickly becoming a condition of our moment that there is no longer any recent past to problematize and render indeterminate, as there was, say, in the 1980s, when the pious proclamations of Modernism (capital “M”) were recent, and as such susceptible to rearticulation. Today’s recent past consists of nothing but those recycled and rearticulated nuggets of the past, a situation which is, again, not in itself bad, and there is even a sense that appropriation still has something to say about our current social, cultural, and political climate—as in the corporate industrial junk aesthetic of an Isa Genzken.
However, the pressing question seems to me now to be whether we recycle and recontextualize those appropriations to make of them something like a post-post-modernism, which I can’t imagine holding much interest except for the art world initiate—and even then how much interest, really?—or do we instead perhaps think of the present as demanding again the kind of abstract art that intervened in the early 20th century in those difficult moments of war and social revolution? Abstraction, and painting even, may have a renewed role to play in the contemporary moment, or that is the sense I had standing before Richter’s Strip paintings, because they made it clear to me that there is new ground to be broken in terms of engaging with how perception operates in our contemporary moment, and abstract painting has always had the best tools at its disposal to deal with those kinds of perceptual problems. Of course the jury is still out, but in the meantime the fact that Richter’s own working through of his back catalogue, via a tried-and-true methodology of chance and the technologized readymade no less, to get at something new and of the moment suggests that there might be some fresh air on the horizon after all. Though it remains to be seen how a young artist might obtain a level of nuanced historical awareness, the lack of which has become almost a defining characteristic of my generation, approaching the level Richter necessarily had to have had in order to paint these paintings.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.