Gerhard Richter is one of the most famous painters in the world. He refused all requests for film appearances for 15 years, until he agreed to let Corinna Belz document his production of a stained glass window for the Cologne Cathedral. From April through September 2009, Richter again let Belz and a small crew film him, this time in his studio while he worked on a series of abstracts. Belz’s film is beautiful
and important and important, most of all for its quiet documentation of Richter at work as he makes initial gestures with a brush, applies paint with a squeegee, scrapes paint away, waits, judges, destroys, reapplies, and so forth.
Belz says in her press packet interview, “The purpose of the film was not to reflect the art historical discourse. […] The most important thing for me in this film was to show something uniquely visual.” Belz understands the demands of painting and filmmaking. Her judgment is sound because, on the one hand, she knows what is necessary and, on the other, what would be too much. She shares this with Richter, although she admits in the same interview, as the rest of an honest audience would, that there are moments when a painting looks good, finished, yet does not stand in the face of Richter’s scrutiny, withstand his skepticism.
This is the danger of the mythic status of Richter qua artist: if he is a genius, his production is not only good, but also pure, unassailable.
I want to dwell on these moments of judgment. In GRP, there’s a clip of Richter in 1965 saying, “It’s pointless to talk about painting.”
My initial reaction was I want to emphasize to talk, to distinguish it from to discourse (acknowledging that discourse takes many forms, some of them vocal; we might also recuperate pointlessness, but let’s set that aside for now). When one talks about painting, one attempts to superimpose language on a form of extra-linguistic expression. One attempts to clarify something that doesn’t admit of clarification. This is an imposition. Painting does not consist of propositions , as much as the exhibition apparatus might suggest it does. Responsibility to a painting consists not in speaking for it, compensating for its idiocy, but rather in working against it on the terms of its expression.
No, we have to abandon that line. Consider instead another of Richter’s old interview clips, where he answers that, yes, painting is a moral act, and that the kind of morality it participates in is first of all a private morality, originating or contained in the individual, but that is thereby already a social morality, given that the individual is automatically part of society. I want to temper this ontological belief in the automaticity of society with a moral skepticism. If society is merely automatic, we end up all too easily at the Thatcherite dictum “There’s no such thing as society.” But if the social is automatic, we can oppose it to the political, which demands work (and this demand is why American and other national politics are deeply apolitical, perhaps not now more than ever, but definitely in general). The unplanned is the social. The first gesture mars the blank canvas, the open field, and from that point forward, each gesture is a response to the limitations, contradictions, and directions of a history. To bring these decisions off well is to exercise judgment, which Richter associates with truth.
The truth Truth is knowing how to dispense with freedom. Truth is know-how, not know-what.
Gerhard Richter’s lesson: One has to learn how to destroy without being seduced by the possibility of devastation. Destruction is positive: it clears the field; following Nietzsche, “with the smallest and with the greatest happiness there is always one way in which happiness becomes happiness: through the ability to forget or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things unhistorically.” Devastation, on the other hand, is negative: it renounces action altogether; it is a total belief in skepticism. “Here is a hand” is a sound social utterance; “It is impossible to know whether there is a hand here” is a paradoxical nihilistic utterance; “Here is something that can be made a hand” is a good political utterance.
[Remaining topics to cover: frustration and time, markets and desire, fame and impetus.]