A German Artist
A conversation with the art theoretician Benjamin Buchloh about working together with Gerhard Richter on Eight Grey.
Mr. Buchloh, youíve not only been friends with Gerhard Richter for decades, but have been connected to him through your artistic involvement as a critic. What was the attraction for you to work on the exhibition Eight Grey in the Deutsche Guggenheim?
Benjamin Buchloh: At first, in an entirely pragmatic sense, Gerhard Richter proposed that I work together with him on a project again. The last time we worked together, we set up the large retrospective for Paris and Bonn together with Kasper KŲnig. On the other hand, Iím currently completing a monograph on Gerhard Richter that Iíve been working on for a number of years. And so the exhibition provided a good opportunity to approach the complex problem of monochromy in his work from an entirely different perspective, apparently expanded now to the present work. Ultimately, Eight Grey is both a large new work and a renewed approach to an old theme thatís been occupying Richter since 1965 and that heís continued developing in new variations, such as in 4 Sheets of Glass, for instance, which he presented for the first time in 1967. In many respects, they were a precursor to Eight Grey: the reduction of the pictorial object to an experiment thatís solely about perception.
And then again thereís the aspect of permutation. 4 Sheets of Glass already had no fixed form of presentation. The sheets were adjustable, and every possible position within the constellation was legitimate. This apparently so tautological work, which consisted of nothing more than a frame and a transparent surface of glass, was able to take on an entirely new dimension purely through the permutation of the four elements, one that went far beyond the self-reflection of the modernist object. In this new work, as well, each of the eight planes can be moved and can assume a different position. Tilting them is technically prescribed, creating an additional atmosphere for the overall installation that oscillates back and forth between a house of mirrors and a sacral chamber.
The work was measured and conceived especially for this space. Isnít this kind of architectural precision unusual for an artist who comes from painting?
Benjamin Buchloh: Thatís a very important observation. For Richter, itís quite untypical to develop a so-called site-specific work. This is an aesthetic that arose in the sixties and seventies in the USA and brought forth a tremendous number of important projects. But contemporary artists stopped dealing with these issues at a certain point. All the more astonishing that Richter suddenly became involved with this very aesthetic of site-specificity late in his career and made a work that clearly intervenes in a given architecture.
That was never the case before in his work, and itís an entirely untypical way of working for a painter like Richter, if heís a painter, that is. He told me how difficult it was for him to conceive a work for this space, that heíd often arrived at the point where he wanted to call off the whole project until he finally succeeded in transforming the given exhibition architecture, making the windows to the street transparent and removing the exhibition walls. As a result, a direct interaction with the street becomes incorporated into the work, with all the sounds, movements, and reflections of light from inside and outside. This brings a peculiar dynamic into the passive quietude of the monochrome ďMirror Pictures,Ē as he calls them. No, the street situation becomes just as much an object of reflection as the viewer in the museumís interior. This goes far beyond the monochrome history in Richterís work.
Now, grey evokes certain associations in the context of modernist architecture. Passersby will presumably perceive the pressure and the weight of the color. Nonetheless, Richterís often worked with bright colors, as well. Wonít chance passersby be disappointed by the grey?
Benjamin Buchloh: Thatís a question that goes back to the beginning of his work. Grey isnít merely monochrome; it also carries special significance for Richter. The first painting that he made after his resettlement from East Germany, in 1961, was grey; later, the grey photo paintings followed until 1964, and it was only afterwards that he painted his first colorful paintings. His first monochrome paintings of 1966 were grey, this is something heís spoken about at length: for Richter, grey is the non-color par excellence, the sum of all colors in which various positions come to expression. Grey is the color of negation, of resistance, of an inability to unify, to reconcile. Thatís a spectrum from the very beginning that Richter has to be credited for.
Itís not a color that implies all that much optimism. On the other hand, there are immediate contradictions, for instance, the glass pane installation he made in DŁsseldorfís banking house Lohmann, which was painted in bright primary colors that are even penetrating, including a canary yellow. All further readings were left up to the viewer.
Do you know George Simmelís theory of money? He speaks about the all-encompassing principle of exchange value that appeared when money was introduced and that creates an experience of horror. But I wouldnít want to pin myself down there.
On the other hand, the architectonic dimension is unequivocal and even monumental. It addresses a culture of public commemoration, particularly in reference to Berlin. This is what constitutes the site-specificity Ė Berlin as a new reality, as an urban and historical reality. In Berlin, the question arises as to the nature of the political commemoration one is striving for with monuments. That the color grey resists pathos, resists the heroic seems fairly irrefutable. In this sense, Richterís work assumes a very complicated and skeptical position when it comes to phenomena Iíd like to call ďprescribed memory.Ē Public monuments have an alibi function for the collective memory. Commemoration, however, occurs within each individual, and thatís a very important dimension of this work of Richterís.
And so inexpressibility is at the core?
Benjamin Buchloh: Thatís always been one of Richterís essential strategies; in a more general sense, a radical reduction of perception and meaning took place in the art of the sixties. The responsibility for self-articulation and self-reflection became the task of the viewer. Thatís typical for this generation of artists. This empty and expressionless structure makes the art hard and difficult, hermetic, and sometimes inaccessible. Thatís how it was for me, as well: the work was difficult to view at first; after all, itís nothing more than eight large panes of glass. Their size doesnít change their emptiness one bit.
In the catalogue, you take a photograph of Paul Strandís as your point of departure, one he made in 1915 of a building on Wall Street. The structure seems loaded, a powerful gesture people look very small standing in front of. How does this lead up to Richterís position?
Benjamin Buchloh: He didnít know the photograph; that was my own strange idea. I showed it to him after my essay was already finished, and luckily enough he was impressed by it. For me, the reference was primarily formal, even if the depicted location of Wall Street fit into my concept like a lucky accident. What interested me most about the photo was the degree to which Strand was able to represent architecture as early as 1915 in such a way that its authoritarian dimension couldnít be overlooked. After 1915, artists became involved with this tendency again and again. What fascinates me is how one can arrive at the plastic sculptural model that Richter developed with Eight Grey, starting out with this photographic model. Richter doesnít, of course, mimetically repeat the authoritarian structures.
As a critic and art historian, youíve been following Gerhard Richterís work for decades, and you know his multiplicity of styles well. Doesnít this abundance of variation make it very difficult to write about him, because you can only grasp parts of the person at one time?
Benjamin Buchloh: Yes, one of the reasons Iíve been working on the book about Richter for so long and still havenít finished certainly lies in the large number of techniques and positions. There are a few artists of the 20th century whose work has developed into a labyrinth of interpretation which critics and historians in turn have fallen victim to. In the Duchampian labyrinth, for instance, art historians have been wandering around utterly lost for twenty years already. I hope this wonít apply to me. But Richter does indeed demonstrate such a degree of multiplicity and mutability of the paradigms that dictate what art is currently supposed to be or could be, and so one has to start at the beginning again and again.
In a certain sense, thatís wonderful and sets him apart from the American Minimal artists who have been producing the same thing in variations unerringly for forty years. Ultimately, how this plurality of positions should be understood is something Iím still not entirely clear about. Thereís no single sentence that explains Richterís multiplicity. It isnít a pluralism, it isnít an opportunism, itís not a position that seeks to withdraw from being pinpointed. The motivation is far more complex, and it only becomes understandable when you think about how an artist who came out of this particular nation and history was able to create a position of this kind in contemporary art.
Apropos history: Gerhard Richter is represented in Berlinís Reichstag with a work that quotes the German national flag. Yet he also produced the RAF series on Baader-Meinhof and involved himself with the Nazi past. Is he a German artist?
Benjamin Buchloh: Yes, definitely, and even essentially. Heís a German artist who approached the specific difficulties and the precarious question of what art in post-war Germany could be with just as much radicalism and yet with far more credibility than Joseph Beuys. Beuys answered these questions in a simpler way, but thatís an entirely different, long discussion.
The interview was conducted by Harald Fricke.
Translation: Andrea Scrima