Saturday, July 25, 2015

Vanished Centre

Gerhard Richter
Seestück (Seascape)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Gerhard Richter has remained the most successful artist in the world for the past couple of decades, honored with more exhibitions at prestigious institutions than any other living practitioner and consistently higher auction prices. Donald Kuspit wrote about Richter's work in a 1993 book from Cambridge University Press called Signs of Psyche in Modern and Postmodern Art. Kuspit's arguments (even though expressed in somewhat murky, psychoanalytic prose) still sound today as valid as they sounded twenty years ago 

                         "If we can say that Richter's use of photography and other supposedly anonymous, objectifying, mechanical methods of art making implicitly confirms the loss of the centre  as well as encourages the abandonment of any impulse to establish a centre  then it seems that we must say that his continued "conservative," or rather conservationist, use of painting implies an unconscious desire to retain a centre. But since he uses photography (an objective means that calls attention to the instrumentation of art as an end in itself) and painting simultaneously  dialectically  then we must say that in his work photography transforms painting and painting transforms photography. What is the result of their convergence, the character of the transformation? It generates that sense of enlightened openness  of mature acceptance of openness  that we spoke of earlier, and that implies a repudiation of nihilism. (Emotional nihilism, the characteristic, initial response to the openness disclosed by the loss of the centre, implies not only experience of the loss as a catastrophe rather than emancipation, but the experience of lostness  a sense of abandonment  in the new openness. It articulates the narcissistic injury  the loss of the sense of one's own self as central  caused by the loss of the centre and the consequent openness. Nihilism exists more in the subject experiencing the loss of the centre than in the objective fact of its absence. In a sense, the loss of the centre simply acknowledges the openness that was all along the case.) Richter views himself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of painting, and of art in general, which we have lost (like the centre, which it reinforced and with which it is identified), but which nonetheless obligates us to be mature (as mature as this past culture of painting is) in the new psychosocial conditions resulting from the loss of the centre."

                         "This is why Richter can say, repudiating Adorno's famous dictum, quoted to him by Buchloch, that "after Auschwitz lyrical poetry is no longer possible": "No. Lyrical poetry does exist, even after Auschwitz." Indeed, it is a sign of maturity, autonomy, and ego strength, to write lyrical poetry after Auschwitz. Richter's painting  from beginning to end, I think, but no doubt especially the quasi-expressionist Abstract Paintings  are his lyrical poetry. Is it a good lyrical poetry  a lyrical poetry that truly articulates the subject, or as I would argue, reconstructs its damaged core? I have no ready answer to this question. It seems to me enough that Richter's lyrical painting, whether authentically lyrical (impulsive) or not  the blur suggests that it is always at least latently lyrical, or has a lyrical tendency  articulates the problem of openness and hope in an age of absolute doubt, that is, in an age when it is impossible to close, to forfeit one's openness. Just as it was traditionally thought that the existence of the centre made it impossible to open the closed cosmos of nature and consciousness, so the modern absence of the centre makes it impossible to organize nature and consciousness around a single belief  to find a privileged, "organic" centre to them – and thus to close them down. It is this that Richter's seemingly dangerous, perverse contradictoriness articulates."

Gerhard Richter
Abstract Painting
Tate Modern

                         "Perhaps it is harder to achieve emotional enlightenment after having gone through the German version of the experience of the loss of the centre than after having gone through the American version, in part because there was more of a transcendental centre in Germany than in America to begin with. Also, America still seems to have the myth of the centre  America itself – while in defeated and neutralized Germany there cannot even be the ghost of a belief in a mythical center. Not even art can function as a restored centre, or as the source of an illusion of the centre, or as an illusion that can restore a sense of centre. It is this illusionlessness about art  this disbelief that it can supply a centre in any way, shape, or form  that Richter's art reflects. Richter's illusionlessness is responsible for his art's apparent lack of pathos, which is exactly why it ultimately seems so full of pathos."