PRINT February 2012


Variation IV: 8/16 from Gerhard Richter’s artist’s book Patterns (Heni Publishing and Walther König, 2011).

The widely acclaimed Tate Modern traveling retrospective “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” arrives at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin on February 12, three days after the venerable German painter celebrates his eightieth birthday. To mark the occasion, art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh reflects on abstraction, decoration, and the aleatory in relation to Richter’s latest bodies of work.


Even the very first of the supposedly first abstract paintings Gerhard Richter made in 1966, Ten Colors, was not a truly abstract painting, since it still copied a color chart, a swatch similar to those displayed by hardware stores and color merchants for commercial and industrial use. As such, it associated itself with a spectrum of color contestations initiated by Marcel Duchamp in 1918 with Tu m’, a work in which color’s supposed capacities to induce psychic and somatic, musical and spiritual forms of experience were dismantled once and for all—or so it must have seemed at the time.


Color was now declared to be just another industrial readymade, an object like any other item on display in the hardware store, a site that has, since Duchamp, promised an allegorical restitution of use-value in the face of an emerging totalitarian regime of exchange-value. Thus, for Richter, the housepainter’s color chart (already rediscovered by Jim Dine in his Red Devil Color Charts of 1963) pointed back to that lost dimension as much as it distanced itself from all the utopian promises that abstract color had seemed poised to fulfill in the aftermath of World War I, and with which it had been reinvested with vehemence after World War II, when chromatic consolation was urged on spectators by Rothko et al.


The Abstract Expressionists’ aspirations to renew color as psychic and spiritual substance had to be countered by a younger generation of artists in America (Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns) and in Europe (Lucio Fontana, Richard Hamilton, Yves Klein) who manifestly situated chroma in its seemingly inextricable dependence on those regimes that had claimed it for advertising, design, and product propaganda. This industrialization of color in painting since the 1950s acknowledged that consumer culture would now suture every impulse for a psychic space, and every desire for a somatic correlative in the material world, to a commodity.


Advancing this demythification of color as psychic and bodily space, Richter initiated the aleatory dissemination and permutational multiplication of color in noncompositional arrangements in 1966, with 192 Colors, a canvas that effaces any reference to the commercial color chart in favor of a mechanically ordered grid of square color chips. Indeed, the principles subtending this painting would take on increasing importance in the artist’s work, eventually expanding into new registers of noncompositional, aleatory, and eventually digitally programmed distribution, culminating in Richter’s stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral in 2007. In Paris in 1951, unbeknownst to Richter, Ellsworth Kelly had engaged in similar ventures of noncompositional color arrangements determined by the laws of chance.

The persistence of this new painterly paradigm, from Kelly to Richter, and its emphasis on a painting’s structural organization according to chance operations and noncompositionality prove that a historically necessary insight occurred in that period: namely, that the Surrealist aspirations for a psychic automatism of unconscious libidinal liberation could not be credibly secularized or politicized any further but had to be canceled altogether, since the constitution of the subject and its unconscious formations could no longer claim to be exempt from any of the social systems of linguistic and semiotic control.


Chance as ideology, as the musicologist Konrad Boehmer once described the deployment of these principles in the work of John Cage, had entered painting in the 1950s in various ways and would soon pose itself as a challenge to Richter as well. A newly liberated subject, an author, and an art without any intention appeared on the horizon as one of the great radical promises of the 1960s. Yet the “birth of the reader,” the listener, and the aesthetically unencumbered spectator were at best delivered culturally, but never politically. This dialectic would remain at the core of Richter’s pictorial anti-aesthetic, perpetually suspended between the involuntary mastery of chance operations and the volatile materiality of paint.


One of the most bewildering aspects of Richter’s work from 1966 onward has been precisely the apparent incompatibility between the indifferently chosen photographs that had formed the iconic core of his oeuvre until that moment, and the painterly abstraction that would now emerge and henceforth continuously increase in importance. The question posed over and over again (and which has basically remained unanswered) was how these photographic images could be related to the emerging works of abstraction. After all, our traditional historical narratives had constructed the relations of the two painterly modes either in sequence and in displacement (i.e., “This will kill that”) or in a model of returns (i.e., the various rappels à l’ordre, which is to say, the various returns to figuration, as in Picabia and late Pollock). But a model of simultaneity, in which both modes would occur as totally exchangeable equivalents in the oeuvre of an artist, remained for the most part unthinkable and unthought.

Gerhard Richter, 192 Farben (192 Colors), 1966, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 59". CR: 136.


One way of approaching this question of incompatibility might be to recognize that Richter’s deployment of photographs from 1962 to 1965 followed the principles of a universal equalization if not a devalorization of images (in spite of the iconographic subtexts admitted only much later by the artist and formulated even later by his critics). This anti-iconic iconography resulted at least partially from Richter’s enthusiastic encounter with Fluxus in Düsseldorf in 1963, the extent of its impact on his practice remaining underestimated until recently. And if Richter did indeed contemplate the legacies of modernist abstraction from the radical Fluxus perspectives of an aesthetic of chance and an absence of intentionality, we would have to probe more carefully the modality of his responses to those legacies: Would it still be sufficient to argue (as I have in the past) that his abstractions partook of a general anti-aesthetic, merely operating as parodic or citational (as in a catalogue or in a sampling of past forms of abstraction)—in short, deploying two of the principal distancing devices with which the anti-aesthetic had supposedly performed its various critical operations?


What Richter realized early on was that, if the photographic (i.e., the iconic and indexical image) could function in the manner of a readymade, then the purely indexical painterly mark (and its constitutive elements—gesture, facture, pigment, etc.) had to function in the very same way: as neither a purely manual trace of intention nor a purely material trace of process, the manual pressured by industrial production, and the industrial trace subverted by the mnemonics of an artisanal hand.

Abstract painting would have to confront simultaneously both its originary and innate painterly sublimatory intentions (e.g., the embodiment of vision and desire in projections of unencumbered space) and its actual condition in the present of having been reduced to a merely manual residue, an operative of critical self-reflexivity under duress. From now on it would have to signal its condition of having been subjected not only to total mechanization but increasingly and manifestly to new forms of spectacularization. What Walter Benjamin had said about the letter—namely, that it had been erected into the verticality of the advertising facade at the beginning of the twentieth century after having slept for centuries in the bed of the book—would now find its correspondence in pictorial phenomena. In the wake of the 1950s, the spectacularization of chroma, facture, and gesture would take its course, initially with Pollock (and then much more ostentatiously with Fontana, Georges Mathieu, and Klein), becoming an inextricable condition of abstraction that all subsequent painting would have to confront.


Richter harbors a strangely intense predisposition to differentiate himself from two painters in particular—two artists whom one might at first sight have considered to be among his closest allies. They are almost his exact peers agewise, and they emerged as painters at the very moment (or slightly earlier than) he did, in the early 1960s: Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha. A seemingly overt and all too obvious proximity—too close for comfort (painting and the readymade, painting and the photograph)—would offer itself as one quick yet rather simplistic explanation for Richter’s almost compulsory distantiation; but it is deeply dissatisfying as an explanation, since simplicity is inadequate to discussion of any of these artists. Therefore, something else must be at stake, and its comprehension might clarify other facets of Richter’s peculiar distinction within the dialectics of his painterly projects: On the one hand, one aspect that he might loathe in Johns is the extreme cunning and care, what one could almost call Johns’s artisanal fetishism of painterly execution (e.g., the preciousness of the encaustic), not to mention the hermeticism of his iconography. None of that has ever appealed to Richter’s pictorial anti-aesthetic, which might be the reason he has always claimed Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as his primary references from the American repertoire. Ruscha, on the other hand—in Richter’s misreading, at least—represents the utter opposite: a certain lightness of touch, an apparent lack of the tragic dimensions of painterly performance as a substitutional act of compensation for absences and loss, effaced or effected by a simulated, offhanded emulation of the very mechanisms of mass-cultural desublimation that painting supposedly resists.


Robert Ryman, to the contrary, has counted among Richter’s favorite painters since the late 1960s, and this cathexis is as surprising in many ways as Richter’s need to distance himself from Johns. After all, Ryman’s painterly empirio-criticism, the apex of a late-modernist painterly aesthetic, motivates at best only one half of Richter’s own project. While his is driven by a similar demand for self-reflexivity and verifiability with respect to the actual optical and structural, formal and chromatic (or achromatic) information that his paintings supply, Richter’s abstractions—quite unlike Ryman’s—refuse that circumscription as their ultimate norm and confining parameter. Instead they seem to suggest incessantly that painting has to confront more than its proper parameters of production and perception, and that the circumspect vision of painting has to circumscribe and encompass more than the apex of an artist’s extremely differentiated forms of critical self-reflexivity.

Gerhard Richter, Ifrit, 2010, enamel behind glass mounted on Dibond, 13 5/8 x 18 1/8". CR: 915-22.


Richter’s almost uncanny anticipation of the social pressures and ideological demands to which abstraction would from then on be subjected emerges even more clearly when compared with Frank Stella’s painterly production during the late 1960s and ’70s. Gesture, facture, and painterly ductus had been suspended early on by Stella in favor of an impeccable anonymity of execution. Their effacement would signal and seal the disappearance of subjectivity from painterly production, and this erasure would lay the groundwork for Minimalism’s surrender to technological and corporate order. While initially radical in its negations of painterly intention and agency, this erasure of the subject also advanced an entropic position that would cancel out every utopian aspiration to arise from an alliance between avant-garde production and critical forms of knowledge. This endorsement of the subject’s apparently inevitable submersion within the technocratic and corporate organization of perception and experience now generated a new variant of the conventional deception that painting could recover its autonomy in a return to the decorative (as, for example, in Stella’s 1967–69 “Protractor” series).


What Stella’s highly controlled forms of painterly containment would teach us first of all was that abstraction’s initial aspirations, which had aimed for any type of transcendental experience in 1912, could now at best be formulated as an affirmative apparatus of more or less overdetermined geometric design forms. Typically, Stella’s abstractions of the ’70s are no longer noncompositional, in spite of the artist’s initial polemics against relational painting, and their sole purpose seems to have become the tautological affirmation of pictorial planarity and compositional distribution. Further reflection on the differences between Richter’s and Stella’s paintings reveals quite a bit more about the precarious conditions of abstraction in the period of transition from gesture to spectacle, from critical modernist self-reflexivity to a seemingly inescapable terminus in which all of the structural, chromatic, and gestural forms that abstract painting can conceive in the present end up as corporate decoration.

Thus, if the pictorial dialectics of ornament and decoration reappear in Stella’s work for the first time in postwar painting, we have to recognize that these are categories that, despite their claims to trans- historical neutrality, are as deeply dependent on historical and social formations as gesture and chromatic choice, as compositional order or chance operation. The very fact that painting once again acquires the condition of ornament necessitates the instant questioning of those surfaces it will adorn and those structures it will obscure with its decors. In other words: What is the painter’s active or passive participation in the affirmative obscurantism that decoration has traditionally afforded the orders of power, deposited in architecture just as much as in the surfaces embellishing architecture?


And even if we have said that the assimilation of chromatic choices to the regimes of consumption had become an inescapable condition for New York School artists of the second generation, it should be noted that by the late 1960s the deployment of color in painting and sculpture had actually become universally problematized. Artists of the post-Pop and post-Minimalist generation had become fully conscious of precisely these entrapments of the merely decorative potential of geometrically structured color. All serious practices from Robert Morris’s to Richard Serra’s, from Eva Hesse’s to Bruce Nauman’s, initiated new forms of resistance against abstraction’s false redemptions, generating multiple artistic maneuvers in an achromatic post-Minimalism. Their initial articulation foregrounded the molecular details of painterly or sculptural process, the phenomenological inscription of the subject within the apparently infinite inequalities and irregularities of production and materials, and the potential forms of resistance to and subversion of the forms of power inherent in accident and aleatory organization. These strategies were supposedly less easily recuperated by the principles of design and decoration and less easily co-opted to serve the affirmative functions that culture can provide the corporate state.

Variation I: 2/2 from Gerhard Richter’s artist’s book Patterns (Heni Publishing and Walther König, 2011).


Thus, if we have known since Stella that the structures of painterly containment that mimic technological rationality lend themselves perfectly to ornamentation and decoration, we must pose the question with similar acuity when encountering Richter’s recent large-scale abstract paintings, realized with the semi-mechanical device of the squeegee and suspended between an almost trance-inducing chromatic opulence and an intrusively concrete specificity of procedural and processual detail.

Fully documented in Corinna Belz’s new documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting (2011), the squeegee process becomes transparent as an operation at the extreme opposite end from what chance operations in the wake of the Surrealist legacies of automatism had still promised: Starting the production of each canvas with strange rehearsals of various forms of gestural abstraction, as though moving through recitals of its legacies, in the final phases Richter seems literally to execute the painting with a massive device that rakes paint across an apparently carefully planned and painted surface. Crisscrossing the canvas horizontally and vertically with this rather crude tool, the artist accedes to a radical diminishment of tactile control and manual dexterity, suggesting that the erasure of painterly detail is as essential to the work’s production as the inscription of procedural traces. Thus an uncanny and deeply discomforting dialectic between enunciation and erasure occurs at the very core of the pictorial production process itself, opening up the insight that we might be witnessing a chasm of negation and destruction as much as the emergence of enchanting coloristic and structural vistas.

If a critic such as T. J. Clark in his recent, exquisite essay “Grey Panic” (London Review of Books, November 17, 2011) can wonder whether the size, frequency, and multitude of Richter’s large-scale abstractions risks pushing them into the realm of corporate decor, we have been given notice and reason to look perhaps more carefully at the actual structure of these abstractions, probing whether the methods by which they were produced might offer evidence of an innate or constructed resistance against that fate.

After all, there is no longer any guarantee that what had started with the emphasis on removing the hand from the pictorial process in order to have painting compete with the industrial readymade would not inevitably lead to the technocratically ordered assimilation of the body to the rules of a spectacularized technological universe or to painting’s wholesale fusion with the abstracted rationality of the global digital economy.


Confronting two groups of Richter’s very recent works, from 2010 and 2011, we must pose these questions all the more succinctly. The first of these groupings comprises four rather strange series of violently chromatic objects—and they must be considered objects rather than paintings, since they were realized by pouring paint onto glass panes. These works seem to consist of nothing but the performance of the pure painterly process, delivered almost as a calamitous antidote and in manifest dialectical opposition to the extreme rigor of the second major group of Richter’s new work in abstraction, the large-scale digital prints with which the glass pieces were combined when first exhibited in Paris last year.

In the four series of glass paintings—the first having been called “Sinbad,” 2008, followed by the equally Orientalizing titles “Perizade,” “Ifrit,” and “Abdallah” for the subsequent series (all 2010)—Richter seems merely to arrest (rather than to paint) the arbitrary flows of highly liquefied enamel in various, apparently random morphologies and chromatic constellations on rectangular glass sheets. Paint now appears as an emulsion, as though in a technical test or in the manner of a chemical sample applied to a surface. Or it functions like a gel, oscillating between the potential transparency and the actual opacity of chromatic figure and support structure. (The enamel is ultimately sandwiched between the glass and a Dibond support.) Sitting like a chemical film on a surface that refuses to absorb and anchor the wet paint, these puddles shift aimlessly—until they dry, of course—the more or less aleatory consequence of their relative liquidity or elasticity.


Obviously, this deceptively crude denial of all expressive or iconic potentials of seemingly randomly applied paint and pigment shows color in its purest industrial state, so to speak. Operating in tandem with their abject morphologies, these intense chromatic polarities, at times saccharine, at times seductive, at times histrionic, only intensify the sense of the deeply anti-aesthetic skepticism with which Richter endows his new work.

When trying to describe the glass paintings’ nongestural agitation, one might be tempted at first to say that their structures are meandering or undulating, yet neither of these terms adequately describes the works’ distinctly nonornamental patterns, since they are clearly voided of any intentionality, most certainly of the serial repetition that constitutes the traditional definition of the ornament.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting), 1990, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 49 1/2". CR: 724-4.


By contrast, in the second and dialectically opposite new series of digital prints, titled “Strips,” 2011, Richter’s “facture” now has been totally subsumed within the registers of a highly developed technological application of digital printing of rigorously parallel, extremely refined and reduced chromatic striations.

These “Strip” “paintings” emerged from a paradoxical process in which the artist subjected one of his earlier large-scale abstractions (Abstract Painting, 1990 [CR: 724-4]) to a series of programmatically anti-painterly operations—exceeding the violence of the squeegee’s operations on abstraction by far—in order to produce a detailed and voluminous documentation of the digital breakdown of abstraction for the pages of a book, the massive volume Patterns (published by Walther König in Cologne and Heni Publishing in London in 2011).

At first it appears as though one of Richter’s by now “classic” gestural abstractions was merely subjected to a deceivingly simple series of mathematical partitions and multiplications, a progression not uncommon to painterly and sculptural operations since Judd’s and LeWitt’s Minimalism. These procedures of temporal and spatial quantification, radicalized in the work of Hanne Darboven and Mario Merz (one thinks of his focus on the Fibonacci sequence), were deployed to generate visual and textual processes of quantitative and qualitative organization, contesting those compositional operations that had hitherto remained within the mythical privilege of artistic intentionality.

Yet after further inspection, it turns out that the operative principles of Patterns are actually more complex than merely one mathematical progression. An additional dimension results from a second operation being performed after the procedures of division, namely that of doubling. Each of the pictorial fragments resulting from the initial divisionary cuts is now matched with its inverted double, generating increasingly intensifying, even dizzying proliferations: a quantitative one (in terms of the exponentially progressing number of divisionary cuts and of resulting segments) and a qualitative one—effected by the decreasing width of the mirror symmetries of the vertically sliced pictorial fragments, or bands (which rapidly approach invisibility, the smallest one reaching a liminal width of .08 mm).


Moving beyond the purely quantitative Conceptualist procedures mentioned above, Richter initiates a distinctly anti-pictorial confrontation in Patterns by inflicting such performative operations on one of his own abstractions, subjecting painting itself to these processes of cutting, doubling, and symmetrical reversal. And in the process of this dissection, his procedures trigger an extraordinary slippage and a morphological spinning from gestural abstraction through a vast range of ever-multiplying yet proportionally ever-decreasing symmetrical ornamental structures (resulting from the doubling and the mirroring), eventually culminating, or rather, entropically ending, in the unmarked, flattened, and extended patterns of pure linearity. These have left all ornamental design and textures behind to accede to an order of seemingly infinite accumulations of striated chromatic differences.

Once again, Richter’s interventions call up earlier confrontations between the traditional media (of painting and sculpture) and an emerging sense that painterly depiction would eventually have to yield to the actual performative process of not just symbolically but materially altering the objects of perception (their support, their materials, the gestures of their production) by a transitive intervention, as had been most notoriously and hermetically the case with Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages of 1913–14. In this first deconstruction of sculpture, the foregrounding of the dialectics of chance and gravity and the performative linear cut displaced all traditional production procedures (hence the work’s full range of transitive ramifications would remain unrecognized until relatively recently).

Gerhard Richter, Strip (416), 2011, digital print mounted on Dibond, 20 7/8 x 41 3/4" framed. Editions CR: 148.


The chance ornament, then, as we would like to call Richter’s most recent intervention in the legacies of abstraction, operates as a fundamentally irreconcilable set of contradictions within the discursive conventions of painting. Operating under the pressures on painterly abstraction, it recognizes and articulates the very extent to which similar, increasingly irreconcilable contradictions govern the psychic, perceptual, cognitive, and ideological dimensions of everyday life in the present.

The first of these contradictions is, of course, that Richter (unlike Duchamp) will neither cede the mythical preeminence of painting nor vacate the seemingly antiquated, if not obsolete, role of the painter to any other identity among the many currently operative in the cultural sphere. That insistence on a supposedly stable continuity of a professional and authorial identity is already provocative and problematic in itself. Yet paradoxically, when contemplated in light of the presently enacted proto-totalitarian technocratic desublimation of subjectivity, it is ultimately no more dubious than any of the artistic claims to have left all the familiar parameters of painterly or sculptural practice behind in favor of a newly discovered realm of unlimited technological possibility, the kind of digital futurism that increasingly surrounds and overwhelms us.

The second of these contradictions, and one that is at least as provocative in its manifest declaration, is Richter’s semblance of an unmitigated loyalty to an essential, almost ontological bond between color and painting, as though chroma were in fact still and would always be an irreversible condition of painterly production—the implied argument being that color could be sustained at all times and under any circumstances, and that it could be resuscitated against all the forms of contestation that had historically devalorized it (from the advanced aesthetic models that had operated in a rather decisive and compelling manner in Conceptual art in the 1960s, for example, to the most advanced forms created with the assistance of technological devices in the digital age).

Yet again, Richter’s deployment of color—in its almost pseudo-Wagnerian grandeur in the large-scale abstract paintings that bear the all too obvious marks of their semi-mechanical execution with an oversize squeegee, and even more in its programmatically excessive application in the new paintings on glass and in the “Strip” series—is almost compulsively hypertrophic. Since all other forms of the deployment of color have been recruited by a perpetually more refined and cunning system of inscribing even the subject’s minutest desire for the concretization of difference within an immediately suturing sign system—one of many among the infinitely expanding echelons of control—color as a spiritual substance appears now in abusive excess, almost as though its promises to provide access to the somatic and the spiritual, to the spatial and the tactile dimensions of corporeality and desire, could now only be redeemed in a sheer infinity of proliferation.


The paradoxical concoction of the chance ornament, then, marks the actual historical moment at which an infinity of subjective possibilities—totally aleatory and truly random in their applications, and once revolutionary and emancipatory in their subversion of bourgeois subjectivity and authorial control—became the matrix for algorithms of control of even the most minuscule impulses of deviance and contestation. Unlike Siegfried Kracauer’s notion of the mass ornament, to which the concept of “chance ornament” is obviously indebted, the latter formation, in its ostentatious loyalty to the freewheeling and shape-shifting principles of the aleatory and of individual free enterprise, deprives us of the ability to detect the social regulations and coercions that permitted, even necessitated, the homogenization of the patterns of the dismembered forms of what were once aspirations to subjectivity. But Richter’s transposition of these conflicts into the realm of a lost culture of painting that is annihilated by its own means, and by the logical execution of our post- industrial era’s innate principles of abstraction and proliferation, gives us a first sight.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University.