PRINT December 2007

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

UNDER PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, it could only be expected that serious professional artists, progressive or conservative, would become increasingly desperate to find alternative institutional and discursive spaces to shelter their work from the violent impact of three forces that have dramatically altered every facet and fraction of artistic practice in the past ten years: digital electronic technology, the globalization of capital, and the monolithic power of an industrialized art market that aspires to a fast and final merger with the music and fashion industries. A market that seems to have turned Joseph Beuys’s prophecy that “everybody will become an artist” into a travesty with calamitous consequences. How is a traditional artistic subject with its latently aristocratic or manifestly bourgeois ego formations to respond to a situation in which locust swarms of international mediocrities claiming the status of “artist” emerge now in greater numbers in a month than the total number of artists recorded in an entire decade up until the 1980s?

Beuys’s prophecy had aimed simultaneously at dismantling the hierarchical forms of experience embedded in culture and reinvesting them with a mythical dimension that an aesthetic of de-skilling had reduced in wave after wave since Duchamp. Warhol, by contrast—certainly since his testament text of 1975, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again—had given us the lucid prognosis that, at the end of the line of de-skilling, art inevitably would become business only.

This historical dialectic of a secularization driven by commodity seduction and an artistic renewal of mythical spirituality had been one of the foundational oppositions of the postwar period’s visual culture until the ’80s. Gerhard Richter had always positioned himself at the very center of that dialectic, literally suspending his work between Beuys’s claims for a renewed authenticity and Warhol’s aesthetic of insincerity. Thus, when Richter presented his first colorchart paintings in 1966, he denied any transcendence to the chromatic order by claiming the ready-made color charts of paint manufacturers as his matrix (ignoring or disavowing that both Ellsworth Kelly and Jim Dine had already deployed the random order of color charts). Even twenty years later, in 1986, Richter explicitly identified his color-chart paintings as a polemical statement against “the false devotion and dishonest celebration of Abstraction, the phony awe and admiration of those merely decorative squares, serving as artisanal church decorations.”1

Some forty years later (or twenty after the statement), his new “color charts” seem to have become just that: church decorations. Yet the inauguration of Richter’s newly produced south transept window of the Cologne Cathedral in late August proved that the “merely decorative” is a rather invested, coded, and embattled field indeed. First of all, once Richter had accepted the honorific commission to design and produce a stained-glass window for Germany’s most revered cathedral, whose architectural history dates as much from the nineteenth century as from its origins in the fourteenth, his first task consisted in convincing officials of the local Catholic diocese of the validity of his design (apparently not an easy task, since these authorities had initially proposed a figurative representation of Catholic martyrs of the twentieth century).

That the artist ultimately did not succeed in convincing every church hierarch was all too evident in the absence of Cardinal Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, from the inauguration ceremony—an absence explained, if only implicitly, several weeks later by the cardinal’s public statement that he intensely disapproved of Richter’s window since it “could just as well have been placed in a mosque or a synagogue [Gebetshaus].”2 And, a week later, Meisner proceeded to add a few enlightening remarks to his already breathtaking first comment, by stating that, “where culture is detached from cultus, from the veneration of God, cult becomes mere ritual and culture becomes degenerate.” At that time the monsignor at least put the historical horizon of his vocabulary on the table and came out as the Catholic crypto that one had reason to suspect behind the first remarks already. The task of separating the Catholic Church (and its ever more horrifying German pope) as the patron of Richter’s new magnum opus from the work itself, and thereby detaching the reading of its aesthetic achievement from the location where it is now housed, thus confronts us with admittedly considerable, if not insurmountable, difficulties.

These conflicts became all the more manifest during the festive Mass inaugurating the cathedral window; at that point it was all but impossible to differentiate the object from the event. Even if we exclude from consideration the local lore of the Cologne Cathedral (according to recent statistics, the Dom, as it is called, is “the favorite building of the Germans”), even if we ignore the currently universal tendency toward retardataire religious revivals, the very fact that Richter accepted and executed this commission from the church gives us ample reason to ponder the project’s ramifications.

For example, does the fact that the work was “blessed” during the initial ceremony, in a primitive ritual with clouds of frankincense billowing through the church’s nave for the assembled guests of the international community of Richter worshippers, have an effect on the meaning of the work? Was the hitherto diffuse colored light’s physical materialization in the wafting clouds of smoke and attendant transformation into chromatic beams traversing the nave—a spectacle that could have been designed by an expert in son et lumière technology—part of the work or only incidental to it? Or should we simply extract Richter’s window, consisting of 11,263 squares of handmade colored glass, from its architectural setting and consider it “a work of art in its own right,” as the assembled community of nonbelievers and art worshippers would undoubtedly have insisted? (Of course, none of the attendant catalogue essays dares to ask even one of these questions.3)

We just might have to recognize that Richter’s project stages a grand finale to his lifelong project of suspending painting in a multiplicity of dialectical relations: In this magisterial gesture, the artist returns to the maternal origins of color in the stained-glass windows of the medieval European cathedral. Their affluence of colored light determined Western notions of embodied spirituality and transcendental experience for centuries. In this sense the project articulates one of the fundamental dimensions of Richter’s work: to gesture backward into the mnemonic spaces of culture (artisanal skills, representation, pictorial genres) while questioning the accessibility and credibility of these traditions in the present. In this instance, however, that gesture reaches a threshold that is dangerously close to a retour à l’origine in religious rituals and sanctity that very few artists would dare to approach. (In spite of his eternally rumored deep devotion to Catholicism, it is difficult to imagine that Warhol would have executed a stained-glass window for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, or that, if commissioned, Ed Ruscha would provide windows for LA’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.) What becomes apparent in this slightly absurd speculation is, of course, the fact that the earnestness and the cultic intensity with which the Rhenish and German art world celebrated the inauguration of Richter’s window as an event of world-historical importance originated at least partially in regional anxieties and German desires for the resuscitation and defense of a (Christian) nation-state culture under duress. And the fact that any such project must appear utterly absurd from the perspective of a fully commodified and industrialized art world whose sole motivational force is now the intensified production of surplus value and signexchange value on a global scale, is not exactly cause for triumphant feelings of the superiority of our Enlightenment culture.

After all, luminous translucent glass is but one of the cultural origins (as opposed to the natural referents) of painterly color—others being the illuminated manuscripts of various cultures within and outside Christianity, and the architectural and sculptural decorations of antiquity, to name but the most obvious ones. Yet the fundamental epistemic shift in western European culture from the spaces and rites where the subject had been submersed in religious cult and in chromatic delusions of transcendence produced by colored-glass chips to the spaces of the subject’s self-determination and manifest situatedness in the optical and cognitive parameters of the material opacity of Renaissance perspective painting, is de facto undone in Richter’s return to the folds of the cathedral and to the luminosity of stained glass.4 Thus one would have to contemplate whether Richter’s window declares, in fact, a decisive end, if not a manifest opposition, to the Enlightenment culture of modernist painting and its historical project of secularization.

It is important, therefore, to connect Richter’s cathedral window to its complement, a painting titled 4900 Farben (4900 Colors), 2007, consisting of 196 square paintings, each comprising 25 squares of sprayed industrial enamel on aluminum Dibond. This mural-size work (roughly 22 x 22 feet) was, not coincidentally, inaugurated across the street from the cathedral, in Cologne’s Museum Ludwig, on the same day as the window itself. If the color in the stained-glass construction rehearses all the chromatic options of color’s archaic links to light and luminosity, to transparency and transcendentality, and to luminous or chromatic projections into space, then the painted complement, in its tightly organized accumulation of color squares in aleatory arrangements and multiple potential permutations, does exactly the opposite, emphasizing deep saturation and opacity, immaculate industrial perfection of production, and the perfect petrifaction of color as an element of a lifeless, denatured culture of administration and design. (Richter’s industrial production in this instance was not accidentally reminiscent of the color applications of the late work of Donald Judd.) The very fact of the permutational structure of this work, the fact that it could be installed as a huge mural-size square displaying all 4,900 color squares at once or could be broken down into a variety of smaller square paintings of as few as 25 squares, performed yet another manifest oppositional operation with respect to the static and hieratic cathedral window in its claim to a definitive transhistorical perpetuity.

If Richter’s cathedral window resuscitated the origins of color in cultic functions, the museum painting signaled the end of color in a variety of secular culs-de-sac that have de facto terminated chromatic promises in the present: industrial design and decoration and the advanced technologies of electronic color production—the suspension of painting’s meaning in random, aleatory organization serving as one of the very few and last strategies by which it can still claim credibility. (Must we remind ourselves that the battle about or against color in the twentieth century was waged in various phases with intense and belligerent polemics, from Duchamp’s Tu m’ of 1918, to the Constructivists’ projects of purification of materials, down to the most recent assaults on color in its ostentatious elimination or allegorization in the work of Conceptual artists?)

Finally, it is almost impossible not to pose questions about the work’s regionally and historically specific determinants: those of a national (European) culture closing in on itself in a gesture of defense against and despair in the face of presumed threats from other belief systems and actual threats from globalized capitalist expansion that annihilate the traditions of nation-state culture.5 Rallying in a moment of crisis of legitimation behind the fortress of a cathedral will undoubtedly become a trend. Already Reims Cathedral in France, carrying a cultural weight equal to if not greater than that of the Cologne Cathedral, has approached Richter with the request to produce a grand new window for the building, which was infamously bombed by Germany in World War I. Other German painters, minor by comparison with Richter, like Markus Lüpertz and Sigmar Polke, have already been recruited for stain jobs in various German sites of religious veneration. Thus, the final question to be posed is whether these turns to tradition are just personal aberrations, opportunistic deliveries, or whether these manifest denials of the Enlightenment project of the artistic critique of color constitute in fact an actual desire for a return to the folds of the spiritual, the religious, and the transcendental as immutable conditions of experience that have to be remobilized in the present with more urgency than at any other time during the past fifty years of art production.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University, was awarded the Golden Lion for contemporary art history and criticism at this year’s Venice Biennale.


1. Gerhard Richter, conversation with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (1986), in Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter, exhib. cat., Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1993, vol. 2, p. 85.

2. The cardinal, however, did not have the authority to veto the artist’s proposal since the cathedral’s architectural and artistic treasures are under the administration of a different authority, the Domkapitel, which approved Richter’s design and asked for its publicly sponsored execution. The work itself was donated by Richter as a gift to the cathedral.

3. In spite of the essay’s refusal to address any of the questions touched on here, Birgit Pelzer’s “Chance as Partner” is a brilliant analysis of the aleatory procedures operating at the heart of Richter’s magnum opus on color and chance distribution. See the catalogue Gerhard Richter: Zufall, the Cologne Cathedral Window, and 4900 Colours (Cologne: Walther König, 2007), 125–43.

4. Richter’s grids of colored-glass squares, 3 3⁄4" each, were inserted into the preexisting window structure of the south transept of the cathedral, replacing a nineteenth-century window that had been destroyed during World War II.

5. It is important to note, for example, that at the time of the cathedral window’s inauguration a war was—and still is—being waged by various political groups in Cologne that want to prevent its Muslim citizens (mostly of Turkish origin) from building a mosque capacious enough to serve their needs of worship.