It snows. Violently. If these tiny snowflakes would be as heavy as they are sharp, we’d have a city in ruin. They whirl themselves through the air and stab with their microscopic daggers at buildings, pavement, cars, trees… Nothing is spared.
I have this image before my eyes – a young Gerhard Richter, with short, gently curly hair and blue eyes, saying that he cannot talk about his paintings. If he could talk about them, they would consequently not be paintings at all but objects wrapped in the mesh of language. Well, no he did not say it like that but that’s what he meant. The words “I don’t know how they happen” or “I don’t know what they mean” come up often in the interview episodes from his youth and later on during the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting. Throughout this film (made in 2011 by Corinna Belz) we can see Richter making paintings (a couple of them in more detail), going to openings, driving his car, meticulously planning exhibitions and dreamily or absent-mindedly watching his grandchildren playing and drawing.
I will pause a little on the couple of paintings we see taking shape before our eyes. One painting on the left side of the screen, the other one on the right. Between them, a door, through which the master makes his entrance. He makes a little bit of small talk. He then picks up his bucket of paint, a fairly broad brush, and slowly but firmly, goes towards the white canvas. He takes two steps up a ladder and starts painting. Thin layers of mild lemony yellow, spreading slowly on the white canvas. Then red. Then blue. How does he know where which color should go?, one would tempted to ask. I guess he does not know. He only does, he only paints and simultaneously he goes into himself and watches over his reactions to what his hands and eyes do. There is no particular path he chose to walk on, there is no aim he’s trying to reach. There is only discovery. A self-assertion that goes hand in hand with, that grows out of his dealings with the color.
I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for him trying to work while being filmed. He actually says so himself. “It is not right. It does not feel right.” After a while he stops and declares “It’s enough for today. We’ll stop here. We need a bit of space. They need to settle.”
Later in the movie he returns, this time equipped with something bigger than a brush and definitely meaner looking. I found the paintings nice enough as they were, as I could see them on the screen, as the camera sensor recorded them. The colors had a certain way of interacting with each other, which was not at all unpleasant. They reminded me of the small watercolors I say a few years ago in the Albertina. Vibrant. Perhaps a tad too vibrant. Nice. Perhaps too easily nice. And then it happened! Armed with his weapon of choice, this huge Plexiglas board, brimming with paint, he walks towards the canvas like an executioner would towards his helpless victim. He sticks this apocalyptic instrument on the innocent body of his creation and starts pulling it from left to right, flooding the world he just brought to light in a monochrome climax. Sometimes this display of absolute power would not be enough and a dagger, beg your pardon!, a spatula would too be put to work. Scraping the excess, digging, giving a hand to the painting underneath the painting. Strong but careful. No radical gestures (à la Lucio Fontana) since there is nothing behind the canvas – only behind layers of paint.
It almost hurt watching. Even if not for very long. Just think about it: minutes ago I just saw something coming into existence, a combination of colors arranged onto a two dimensional space in a particular way, having a certain relationship with the artist and with me, their (temporary) spectator. I was happy, as one tends to be (I should think) when one has the chance to see something being made, when out of a lump of nothingness something beautiful, useful or practical sees the light of day.
But these two paintings simply vanished. One swing of the machine infernale and they were history. Not even history, actually, had it not have been for the ever bothering eye of the camera. Here and there, wherever chance stuck its head (or was it its tail?) one could begin to guess what is underneath. Or what might have been. Hiding the obvious, the new layer opened another world, one of endless possibilities and combinations. Was it real or just a dream? Induced memories, anyone?
This is by no means a new idea but indeed the very idea on which painting as such is based. It does not need to resemble anything in the real world. It only needs to come to terms with the world of the painter. Through his work he would veil and unveil whatever he would think was necessary. Until it would get to a point where an invisible ballance would be reached. That’s where he’d stop. That’s when the painting is done. The result is as good (or bad) as the idea/image animating the painter.
Looking at these paintings (and at paintings in general, actually), we not only see what is before our eyes but we also gain access to another sensibility. In Wollheim’s words, paintings somehow already contain a spectator and we are to see them through his or her eyes. There is a sort of triangulation at work here. Much in the same way Davidson thinks about learning a language. Richter’s paintings do not have anything to say and are not about something because they have nothing to do with language. But they do! Though not with the language as we know it but with anther one, a more richteresque language which we surreptitiously learn by looking at each of these paintings. Do not worry, though! We are not alone in this process. Not even Richter knows his language by heart. He discovers it with each new painting he paints, with each new painting he covers up and unveils for us.
And for himself.