from Interview with Benjamin Buchloh – Gerhard Richter
On Iconography and Photography
B: Your painting from photos in the early 1960s does have an antiartistic quality; it denies the autographical, the creative, the original. So to a certain degree you do follow Duchamp and Warhol. Moreover, your painting negates the importance of content in that it presents motifs chosen at random.
R: The motifs were never random; I had to make much too much of an effort for that, just to be able to find photos I could use. . . . Perhaps it was good if it seemed as if everything had been accidental and random.
B: What were the criteria for the selection of photos in your iconography?
R: They very definitely were concerned with content. Perhaps I denied that earlier, when I maintained that it had nothing to do with content, that for me it was only a matter of painting a photo and demonstrating indifference.
B: And now some critics are trying to ascribe to you this significance of iconographic content . . . Airplane stands for death; Pyramids and Accident stand for death. It seems to me somewhat forced to construct a continuity of the death motif in your painting.
R: And you think that there I was seeking motifs that were supposed to be just a little bit shocking, while in reality they were completely indifferent for me? [. . . ] Perhaps it’s just a little exaggerated to speak of a death thematic there. But I do think that the pictures have something to do with death and with pain.
B: But this content is not the determining, the motivating power behind the selection.
R: I’m not exactly sure about that; it’s hard for me to reconstruct what my motivation was then. I only know that there are reasons related to content which explain why I selected a particular photo and why I particularly wanted to represent this or that event.
B: In spite of the fact that content can no longer be communicated by iconographic portrayal? There again you’ve got a contradiction. Even though you knew r that a death thematic, for example, could not be communicated by the mere portrayal, you nevertheless tried it, knowing perfectly well that it was actually impossible.
R: Well, in the first place it’s not impossible at all. A picture of a dead dog shows a dead dog. It only becomes difficult when you want to communicate something beyond that, when the content is too complicated to be depicted with a simple portrayal. But that doesn’t mean that representation can’t accomplish anything.
B: Were you aware of the criteria that you used in the selection? How did you go about selecting photos?
R: I looked for photos that showed my actuality, that related to me. And I selected black-and-white photos because I noticed that they depicted that more forcefully than color photos, more directly, with less artistry, and therefore more believably. That’s also the reason why I preferred those amateur family photos, those banal objects and snapshots.
B: And the pictures of the Alps and the City Pictures?
R: They came about when I no longer wanted to do the figurative photo pictures and wanted something different; when I no longer wanted an obvious statement or limited, discernible narrative. So these dead cities and Alps attracted me, rubble heaps in both cases, mute stuff. It was an attempt to communicate a more universal kind of content.
B: But if it had really been this kind of content that mattered to you, how do you explain the fact that at the same time you were introducing nonfigurative pictures in your work? Color Charts, for example, or other abstract pictures which arose in parallel with the figurative ones. This simultaneity confused most of your critics. They saw you as a painter who knew all the tricks and the techniques, who was a master of all the iconographic conventions that he was simultaneously depreciating. It’s that which makes your work particularly attractive to some observers just now. Your work looks as though it were presenting the entire universe of twentieth-century painting in a giant, cynical retrospective.
R: That is certainly a misunderstanding. I see there neither tricks, nor cynicism, nor craftiness. On the contrary, it strikes me as almost amateurish to see how directly I went at everything, to see how easy it is to discern all that I was thinking and trying to do there. So I also don’t know exactly what you mean now by the contradiction between figurative and abstract painting. B: Let me take as an example Table, one of your first pictures. Table contains both elements: a completely abstract, gestural, self-reflexive quality, on the one hand, and, on the other, the representational function. And that is really one of the great dilemmas in the twentieth century, this seeming conflict, or antagonism, between painting’s representational function and its self-reflexion. These two positions are brought very close together indeed in your work. But aren’t they being brought together in order to show the inadequacy and bankruptcy of both?
R: Bankruptcy, no; inadequacy, always.
B: Inadequate by what standard? The expressive function?
R: By the standard of what we demand from painting.
B: Can this demand be formulated?
R: Painting should be accomplishing more.
B: So you would dispute the charge that has so often been made against you, that you have cynically acquiesced to the ineffectuality of painting?
R: Yes. Because I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual. I would only like it to accomplish more.
B: In other words the simultaneity of the opposing strategies of representational function and self-reflexion has nothing to do with a reciprocal transcendence of them? It’s rather an attempt to realize this demand upon painting with different means?
R: Yes, roughly.
B: So you saw yourself at the beginning of the 1960s not as the heir to a historically divided and fragmented situation, in which there was no pictorial strategy that still had real validity . . . ?
R: And I see myself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of painting, and of art in general, which we have lost, but which nevertheless obligates us. In such a situation it’s difficult not to want to restore that culture, or, what would be just as bad, simply to give up, to degenerate.
B: That naturally brings you to the edge of a political discussion, which you perhaps wouldn’t care for. But how would you account for this loss, if not politically, socially, or historically? The way you speak now, it sounds almost like Theodor Adorno’s famous statement, ‘After Auschwitz lyrical poetry is no longer possible.’ Is that a position that would apply to you?
R: No. Lyrical poetry does exist, even after Auschwitz.
B: But when you say that one can no longer paint this way. . . .
R: … then I meant first of all a particular quality which we have lost.
B: Because of what?
R: Well, photography is surely an external factor that has contributed to the fact that we are now unable to paint in a particular manner and that we can no longer produce a certain artistic quality.
B: It is also possible to express that in a simple historical way and argue that pictures have lost their descriptive and representational function, among other reasons because photography does it so perfectly. Hence this task is simply no longer given. The high artistic quality of old pictures, which you mention, is based historically and materially in part upon this descriptive and representational function.
R: But this quality cannot be explained by means of the representational function alone. This perfection of execution, of composition, or whatever, we would have lost it even without photography. Literature and music are bogged down in the same misery. People love Mozart and Glenn Gould because that’s exactly what new composers are no longer able to offer. But music hasn’t been replaced by anything comparable to photography.
B: Well, if this loss has not been caused by the development of the new technology for reproduction; or by the experience of hitherto unsuspected historical catastrophes, as is maintained in Adorno’s remark about Auschwitz; or by the destruction of bourgeois culture; or by any political qualities -you’ve rejected all of these, provisionally at least, as explanations . . . ?
R: No, they have all contributed, naturally. But I’m most inclined to see the fundamental issue as the ‘loss of the center.’
B: In Sedlmayr’s sense? Surely you’re not serious? [Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre, trans. Brian Battershaw, London, 1957.]
R: I am. Because with this term he said something really true. But he drew false conclusions from it. He wanted to restore the lost center. … I don’t want to restore it at all.
B: No, but you must still be able to describe it. It’s still a historical process.
R: All right. But it’s a matter of very definite, new, real facts that have changed our consciousness and our society, have overturned religion, and have thereby also changed the function of the State. There are only a few necessary conventions that still exist, regulate things, keep things practical. Otherwise everything is gone.
B: Is painting one of these conventions?
R: No. The criteria for painting are conventions, and they are harmful because they are determined ideologically. They hinder enlightenment. That’s why I think so highly of psychoanalysis, because it removes prejudices and makes us mature, independent, so that we can act more truly, more humanly, without God, without ideology.
B: It’s also what you would demand for painting?
B: On the one hand, then, you see this process as irreversible and least of all reconstructible by cultural means. . . .
R: … that would only delay it. . . .
B: … and political means seem to you at least problematic or dubious, or not accessible.
R: Nothing can be expected from politics because politics operates more with belief than with enlightenment.
B: Then you see the role of art as more important than merely liquidating a false bourgeois cultural inheritance? Although it is true to say that that is one of its functions, is it not?
R: To liquidate? Yes, that too.
B: But at the same time it has another function, and that’s what leads to the contradiction. What is the other function, if it’s not a political one?
R: Above all, it doesn’t just destroy, it produces something, another picture.
B: Of autonomy?
B: How is the painted picture supposed to provide an example of this autonomy today?
R: A picture is one important possibility, among others, which one can use. In the worst possible case, it’s only an offer to those who are interested in it.
B: But with respect to the demand to liquidate the bourgeois heritage and at the same time to construct a new autonomy, isn’t the limitation to the praxis of painting, which you have imposed on yourself, a handicap? Shouldn’t one assume that there are other, more radical means that would further hasten the liquidation process and contribute more directly to the emancipation process?
R: No, in this respect I’m extremely conservative. That seems to me like saying that language is no longer useful because it’s a bourgeois inheritance, or that now we should print texts on cups or chair legs instead of in books. I’m still bourgeois enough to eat with a knife and fork, and to paint with oil on canvas.
B: So all attempts to use aesthetic means to accelerate one side of this dialectic seem to be unacceptable to you. Would you then also criticize Duchamp retrospectively, since he gave up painting for exactly this reason?
R: I’m not sure that those were the reasons. In any case, you can never derive from them the obligation to give up painting. It’s lamentable to understand Duchamp in this way and instead to engage in politics and criticism.
B: Lamentable in what way? With respect to the liquidation of bourgeois culture or to its emancipatory potential?
R: Because it doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s neither artistic activity nor political activity, it’s dilettantism.
B: Let’s try to make that concrete. Would you see it as a condition of your current painting to find your way further along in the dilemma which you have seen yourself facing from the beginning – that is, on the one hand, to play out the real conditions of mass culture, which you see represented for example in photos, and, on the other, to oppose this to the esoteric and elitist conditions of the high culture which you are a part of as an artist? In this sense you’re working out of this dialectic and exposing yourself constantly to this contradiction; and there is practically no solution which you can accept. Is that still a condition? Or is that a condition that was valid only for the 1960s?
R: Neither then nor now can I see these conditions in this way.
B: But the Cezanne quotation speaks directly to this. When you say, ‘For me some photos are better than the best Cezanne,’ that seems to me to express precisely this contradiction.
R: Yes, but that doesn’t mean that I could immediately change something through painting. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I could do so without painting.
B: Why have you so expressly denied the real political demand in your own art?
R: Because politics just isn’t for me. Because art has an entirely different function. Because I can only paint. Call it conservative if you want.
B: But perhaps precisely in the limitation to the medium of painting there is not only a conservative position, but also a critical dimension, one that calls into question the claim to political immediacy in the work of someone like Beuys, for example.
R: Naturally I would want to see in my limitation to painting a critical stance toward much that displeases me, and which concerns not only painting.
B: So you don’t despair fundamentally of the validity of the demand that art should realize a political critique?
R: Apparently. But the decisive thing is that I have to begin from my possibilities, from the conditions that constitute my basis, my potential.
B: Which you would claim are unchangeable?
R: Largely unchangeable.
On the Monochrome Gray Paintings and Abstract Paintings
B: The claim for pictorial meaning still exists. Then even your Abstract Paintings should convey a content?
B: They’re not the negation of content, not simply the facticity of painting, not an ironic paraphrase of contemporary expressionism?
B: Not a perversion of gestural abstraction? Not ironic?
R: Never! What sorts of things are you asking? How is it that my pictures are supposed to be without content? What content is it that the Abstract Expressionists are supposed to have in contrast to me? [. . . ] the only difference is that different means are used to produce a different effect.
B: Not so. Because . . . ordered relationships just don’t exist anymore, neither in the color system nor in the compositional system.
R: I can’t see it that way; I can’t see that there’s no longer any composition or chromatic relationships. When I put one color form next to another, then it automatically relates to the other.
B: Yes, but these are different forms structured in different ways, and according to different laws of relationship, up to the point of recognition that even absolute negation is a composition. But everything in your Abstract Paintings aims to transcending traditional, relational orders, because an infinite variety of structurally heterogeneous elements is visible as a possibility.
R: Yes, but I still have somehow to bring everything into the right relation. A relation that becomes more and more difficult the further a picture has progressed. At the beginning everything is still easy and indefinite, but gradually relations emerge that register as appropriate ones: that’s the opposite of randomness.
B: Certainly. But that amounts to a different kind of perception, and thus to a different form, possibly precisely the opposite of traditional compositional and chromatic relations.
1042 Ideas of the Postmodern
R: Perhaps. In any case, my method or my expectation which, so to speak, drives me to painting, is opposition.
B: What is it that you expect?
R: Just that something will emerge that is unknown to me, which I could not plan, which is better, cleverer, than I am, something which is also more universal. In fact, I’ve already tried that in a more direct way with the 1000 or 4000 Colors, in the expectation that a picture would emerge there.
B: What kind of picture?
R: One that represents our situation more accurately, more truthfully; that has something anticipatory; something also that can be understood as a proposal, yet more than that; not didactic, not logical, but very free, and effortless in its appearance, despite all the complexity.
B: Your pictures do have all these qualities in the best cases. They seem effortless, yet painted with verve, with indifference and virtuosity at the same time. But to come back again to the question of content, if a picture is made with an obvious emphasis on the way it was produced, how is it possible for you to say that a smeared surface or one treated mechanically with the palette knife doesn’t represent pure process or pure materiality? If these qualities weren’t important for you, then you wouldn’t apply the color that way. To do so is to take away from the picture’s color, composition, and structure every possibility of producing transcendental meaning, beyond the pure materiality of the picture as a picture. I believe that you have introduced a kind of painting that is process-referential as one of its many possibilites, but . . . you no longer insist on it as the only aspect. Rather, it’s one characteristic among others.
R: Then why do I trouble to make it so complicated?
B: Perhaps because it’s important for you to recite all the aspects, like a catalogue; because what really interests you is a rhetoric of painting, and a simultaneous analysis of it.
R: If it were only a demonstration of material, how the jagged yellow surface arises there against the blue-green background, then how is it possible to generate a narrative or to evoke moods?
B: Mood? You think that your painting really evokes emotional experience?
R: Yes, and aesthetic pleasure as well.
B: That’s a different matter. I see aesthetic pleasure too. But mood, not at all.
R: What is mood then?
B: Mood has an explicit emotional, spiritual, psychological quality
R: That’s just what’s there.
B: Only in the weakest parts, fortunately.
R: You don’t really believe that just the dumb showing of brush strokes, of the rhetoric of painting and its elements, could accomplish something, say something, express some kind of yearning?
B: Yearning for what?
R: For lost qualities, for a better world; for the opposite of misery and hopelessness.
B: The yearning to be able to adhere to the notion of culture as a contemplative spectacle and maintain credibility at the same time?
R: I could also say salvation. Or hope. The hope that I can still accomplish something with painting.
B: But that’s again so general: accomplish in what respect? Cognitively, emotionally, psychologically, politically?
R: All at once – how do I know?
B: If you’re going to maintain that, that art can have this function – other artists would deny it entirely – then it’s all the more paradoxical that you insist at the same time that you can do so only through the means of painting. Put differently: do you think that this discrepancy becomes concrete in your pictures?
R: Yes, possibly. B: Do you think that in the end these pictures are conservative, conservative in the sense in which Marcel Broodthaers’ art appears to be conservative?
R: In terms of the means, oil on canvas, even more conservative. I always thought highly of Broodthaers because I knew him personally. But the pictures themselves I never really understood. In terms of my intentions, I’m certainly not conservative. And I know that painting per se does not have to be conservative. That’s why I can go on in the same way, only trying to do better, if possible.
B: The question is how far one can push this contradiction. How long can one keep this dialectic alive before it turns into an empty pose? How long can one go on asserting this contradiction, without attempting to get beyond it?
R: I have no idea what contradiction you’re talking about.
B: It’s the contradiction of knowing full well that with the methods you’re using you can’t achieve what you want, but being unwilling to change your methods.
R: But that’s not a contradiction. That’s just the normal state of things. Call it our normal misery if you want. It certainly couldn’t be changed by choosing different means or methods. B: Because all methods are equivalent?
R: No, because they’re all similarly inadequate. But primarily I have to ask myself, what are my means and what can I accomplish with them.
B: But under certain historical conditions, painting had different functions, and it did have the possibility of affecting historical reality.
R: When I think about contemporary political painting, I prefer Barnett Newman. At least he did some magnificent paintings.
B: So it’s said. Magnificent in what respect?
R: I can’t describe it now, what moved me there. I believe that his paintings are among the most important.
B: Perhaps that too is a mythology which would have to be investigated anew. Precisely because it’s so hard to describe, and because belief is inadequate in the confrontation with contemporary paintings.
R: Belief is inescapable; it’s part of us.
B: Do your pictures demand belief or analysis? What would be more important to you?
R: I would accept both. You they challenge to analysis, others to belief.
B: So it would be perfectly all right if someone fell on his knees in front of one of your pictures and broke out in tears, as Rothko demanded for his paintings? R: Unfortunately, it’s not possible for painting to have such an effect. In that respect music is better off.
On the Rhetoric of Painting
B: What about the objectification of the painting process itself? When you no longer paint the large pictures with a small brush, but rather with a house painter’s brush or another instrument like a rake, doesn’t that introduce anonymity and objectification into the painting process, just as permutation and ‘chance’ objectify the color relations and the compositional order?
R: Not at all.
B: Doesn’t the change in the technical means of pictorial production imply a critical calling into question of the artistic process?
R: It changes the pictures only in one respect: they get louder; they can’t be overlooked so easily.
B: I was talking about the instruments, that is, that the instruments also influence the perception of the picture. Thus the fact that a monochrome picture was painted with paint rollers has a decisive influence upon the perception of the picture. Similarly here, in the large pictures, where the brush strokes suddenly have the character of wide strokes, they take on a different dimension. I would describe it as a quasi-mechanical or anonymous quality.
R: Not really in this case. A brush is still a brush. It doesn’t matter whether it’s five millimeters wide or fifty centimeters wide.
B: So in the case of the two Yellow Brush Strokes, there’s no new dimension because of their being disproportionately large?
R: That’s something else again. These two brush strokes only seem as if they were drawn with a large brush. In reality they were painted using many small brushes.
B: But here in the case of the two large pictures, a new dimension emerges not only because of the size, but also because the techniques and the act of painting have been brought to the limits of the possible. . . .
R: To the physical limits?
B: Yes, but also to the limits for perceiving the act as an act of painting. Practically speaking, a different dimension opens up beyond that, one that can no longer be seen as subjective.
R: They’re just as subjective as the small ones; they’re just more spectacular.
B: There’s no question about their being spectacular, even in a smaller format. . . . the scheme of your Abstract Paintings has a declamatory quality about it . . . they always have a spectacular or a certain rhetorical quality. You show the various possibilities as mere possibilities, but they simply exist alongside one another or opposed to one another, without having another function. R: As if one were giving a meaningless speech? B: Yes. . . .
R: … a speech with pathos, which takes everyone in because it sounds good, which has all the formalities of a speech, but which communicates nothing? B: That description doesn’t sound good. But one could also say that someone is giving a pathetic speech with the intention of presenting analytically the possibilities of speech, of pathos, and of rhetoric. In other words, you are making the spectacle of painting visible in its rhetoric, without practicing it. R: What sense would that have? That would be the last thing I’d want. B: Then you don’t see the Abstract Paintings as a kind of reflection on the history of painting, as I’ve tried to suggest? And yet that’s precisely how they differ from all the other kinds of abstract and gestural painting which we know. They don’t just have a rhetorical quality. They also seem to be a kind of meditation on what once was possible, but which, at precisely that moment, is no longer useful. I can imagine that many observers think you’re still seriously practicing things that once were possible. R: That would be more accurate for the Landscapes and for some of the Photo Paintings. At times I’ve referred to them as cuckoos’ eggs, because people took them for something which they weren’t at all. That was part of the reason for their popular quality, which I fundamentally affirm. But that’s changed entirely; now it’s a genuine appreciation. B: That would also mean that the pictures are parodistic. But that’s what’s so astonishing, because these pictures have no parodistic quality. R: They have a normal seriousness. I can’t put a name on it. I’ve always seen it as something musical. There’s a lot in the construction, in the structure, that reminds me of music. It seems so self-evident to me, but I couldn’t possibly explain it. B: That’s one of the oldest cliches around. People always have resorted to music in order to save the foundations of abstract painting. R: Possibly. But I also mentioned music in order to raise another objection. B: To the idea of a catalogue of the rhetorical possibilities of painting? R: I see no sense in exhibiting painting’s old, lost possibilities. I want to say something. I’m interested in new possibilities. B: But reflection on rhetoric as a highly determined system of expression is indeed an extremely important method, especially in present-day literary criticism. People have started to understand that it’s really much more important to attend to the linguistic conventions and the rhetorical laws that literary statements obey; it used to be only the content of the statement that people were concerned with. R: Is it my private error then, if I always want to do something different from what I’ve just produced? B: That may not be an error so much as a private dilemma, a gap between demand and capacity. But that’s an important element in your work. If you were nothing but a rhetorician, in the sense of an analytic investigation of the rhetoric of painting, your work wouldn’t be so interesting. That’s something others can do. But if you refuse to see it at all as a rhetoric of painting, how would you yourself describe the details of the pictorial elements? When one sees, for example, how spatial, linear, and chromatic elements are placed next to one another in an artificial enumeration, and with this declamatory quality; or how certain techniques of applying color are presented as in a painting manual: some are layered with the knife, some are thickly brushed, some are finely painted, some are softened, some are direct traces, some are nebulous areas – there’s something systematic, carefully considered and prepared, as you yourself just said, in the enumeration, in the contrasts and the combinations.
R: It works emotionally. It occasions moods, both as a whole and in the details.
B: That’s just what is so difficult to decide, whether they do generate emotions at all, and, if so, which. As I said, the pictures are remarkable in that they never occasion associations.
R: They do occasion associations. To a certain extent they recall natural experiences, even rainfall, if you will. Pictures can’t help functioning that way. That’s where they derive their effect, from the fact that they never cease to remind us of nature, from the fact that they are almost naturalistic. They are in a way.
B: But then ‘naturalistic’ would have to be defined. Not naturalistic in relation to nature?
R: Only to nature. We just don’t have anything else.
B: The fact that nature seems to you to be the only analogy or model, the only visible ordered, nonhierarchical structure, the fact that you can’t imagine a Utopian social structure that would correspond to this natural ideal, that’s the Romantic element in your thinking.
R: That’s not Romantic. That’s a matter of division of labor. Some people put forward social models, others pictures; each group does the best it can.
B: That’s not a direct answer to my question. Why is nature for you the only Utopian dimension of experience free from domination? Why is it inconceivable for you to consider or to discuss in social and political terms the idea of an existence free from domination? Why is your only recourse that to the metaphor of nature, like a Romantic?
R: No, like a painter. The reason I don’t argue in ‘socio-political terms’ is that I want to produce a picture and not an ideology. It’s always its factuality, and not its ideology, that makes a picture good.
B: That’s precisely what I see in the fact that color is treated like a material process. Color becomes an object that is presented and altered by these instruments. It remains the same in all these diverse structures. It shows how it was produced, what instruments were used. There’s practically no external reference that would motivate the appearance or the structure of the colors. These phenomena are all self-referential. Does this interpretation still seem too narrow to you?
R: Yes. Because the whole process does not exist for its own sake; it’s only justified when it uses all these beautiful methods and strategies to produce something.
B: What could it produce besides belief in images?
R: A painting, and thus a model. And when I think now of your interpretation of Mondrian, where his pictures can also be understood as models of society, then I can also regard my abstractions as parables, as images of a possible form of social relations. Seen in this way, what I’m attempting in each picture is nothing other than this: to bring together, in a living and viable way, the most different and the most contradictory elements in the greatest possible freedom. Not paradise.
Originally conducted in 1986.