Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History
David Farrell Krell once commented that when Martin Heidegger published his lectures on Friedrich Nietzsche, the design of the book’s spine playfully allowed the reader to misconstrue it instead as a tome authored by Nietzsche concerning the work of Heidegger.1 A similar reading is permitted by the simple arrangement of the names of Gerhard Richter (b.1932) and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh on the spine of Buchloh’s long-awaited volume on the German artist. No doubt Buchloh and Richter – both of whom are committed to the writings of Theodor Adorno, who loathed Heidegger’s ideas concerning language and ontology – would find the Heideggerian comparison mortifying, however it is still instructive in this instance.2 Just as Heidegger was at pains to stipulate that his ‘decisive confrontation’ with Nietzsche amounted not to a straight interpretation of the philosopher’s writings, but instead to a ‘reading with, through, and against Nietzsche’, it can likewise be claimed that Buchloh’s own far-reaching engagement with Richter takes on a corresponding structure.3 Indeed, in the book’s introduction, Buchloh stresses that his interpretations do not always accord with Richter’s stated intentions.
At the heart of Buchloh’s book is not only the question of how German artists in the post-war context can work through the National Socialist past in the face of state-sanctioned and personal instances of collective ‘amnesia’, but also how that ‘working through’ can occur when manifold avant-garde strategies seem exhausted and confronted by a burgeoning culture of commercial imagery. Much of the material collated in this book might be familiar to readers already as many of the chapters have been published elsewhere over the past two decades. Although Buchloh has made minor revisions, some of the essays betoken the circumstances of their original publication. For example, in the sixth chapter, which examines Richter’s large-scale collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and sketches, Atlas (1962–2013) FIG.1 FIG.2, originally published in 1999, Buchloh refers to a ‘recent’ essay by Kurt Forster on Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas and, in the footnotes, to an ‘unpublished manuscript’ on Warburg and Walter Benjamin by ‘Matthew Rampling’ (a misattribution for Matthew Rampley). However, Forster’s text dates back to 1991 and Rampley’s manuscript was extended and published in 2000 as The Remembrance of Things Past.4 Although these errors are somewhat negligible, and could have been simply fixed in the editing process, they cast light upon the relative paucity of scholarly references to sources on Richter during the 2000s, which, admittedly, have become veritably mountainous and compel herculean effort to address.
The time-capsule quality of each chapter might strike some readers as unfortunate, as the current result – it is accurate to say ‘current’ rather than ‘final’ as Buchloh’s dealings with Richter are far from over – is more suitably regarded as a collection of essays rather a great monographic volume comprising the fruits of Buchloh’s protracted research into, and his longstanding intimacy with, Richter. Yet it is also worth imagining that Buchloh, as a committed reader of Adorno, envisaged the book as an exploration of the ‘essay as form’.5 This helps to make sense of some of the editorial decisions, most particularly those that resisted curtailing repetition and substantially updating the research or discussion. We might even consider Richter’s extraordinarily diverse output as analogous to the provisionality and fragmentation that Adorno ascribes to the essay. As Adorno argues, the essay reflects but, crucially, also critically discloses the fragmentation of social existence under advanced capitalism; Buchloh’s own essayistic approach, then, makes an ideal companion to Richter’s works.
Amassed together, the essays invite questions regarding their shared methodological premises. Buchloh repeatedly speaks of painting in terms of ‘epistemology’, but the actual import of this term, its function within his particular system of art-critical and art-historical evaluations, would benefit from more clarification. At stake here appears to be less a question of ‘knowledge’ and more one of what we might call transient and historical conditions of painting’s (im)possibility. This becomes clearer when Buchloh forges links to Michel Foucault’s archaeological writings of the 1960s. For Buchloh, there are distinct epistemes of painting and, correspondingly, epistemological breaks in which certain procedures that had hitherto possessed aesthetic validity are problematised by emergent practices. That is, there can be no return to traditional modes of representation once they are ruptured by certain developments or works of art, such as Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863).
Modelling historical change, Buchloh’s dialectics of epistemology broadly harmonises with the way in which many art historians narrate the development of art. Yet there is also a certain synoptic perspective to the author’s historiography that is projected back onto various art practices during the twentieth century. Historians, of course, assume their position after the events that they analyse, permitting them a sharper, more differentiated focus. But Buchloh’s demarcation of painting into clear-cut epistemes often seems to suggest that the artists themselves should somehow recognise that they belonged to a specific episteme and that they would, in turn, comprehend other painters hailing from different generations or conjunctures as participating in other epistemes. With such recognitions, presumably, there would also be clarity regarding the possibilities and impossibilities of painting at a given moment; painting’s epistemological dispositif would always be readily available to painters.
For example, in his 1981 essay ‘Figures of authority, ciphers of regression’, Buchloh lambasts such painters as Georg Baselitz (b.1938) and Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), who seemingly set out to revive early twentieth-century Expressionism.6 Such efforts struck Buchloh as doomed from the outset, demonstrating a failure to understand that the historical movement was embedded in a specific context, and that it has subsequently been thoroughly contested by developments in abstract painting, such as the grid and monochrome. Neo-Expressionism also failed to perceive the possibilities of painting in its own time, as shown by Richter and Robert Ryman (1930–2019). All in all, Buchloh suggests, if Neo-Expressionist painters paid attention to the relevant art-historical and art-critical discourses available to them, they would have known that repeating Expressionism was impossible and therefore embarked upon a different artistic path.
Buchloh, perhaps, simultaneously does and does not believe in the absoluteness of this framework. On the one hand, dates such as 1863 (Manet’s Olympia), 1912 (the arrival of Pablo Picasso’s and Georges Braque’s papier collés), 1913 (Marcel Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel) and 1915 (Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square) are dispensed as moments of epistemological rupture that reconfigure possibilities so thoroughly that artists blind or resistant to the consequences can only be judged as conservative. Little scope is assigned by Buchloh here for weak understanding, outright ignorance or strong misreading. On the other hand, however, Buchloh does not always hold to the punctuality and irreversibility of such ruptures: the understanding of an episteme can be lost by a subsequent generation, and efforts to recuperate or reconstruct it can produce new mediations. Although Buchloh does build his analysis around them, these periods of epistemological uncertainty could be acknowledged more forcibly by him to destabilise the image of Richter as the Hegel of art history, who bravely cuts through all its dialectical conundrums. After all, ambivalence is often characteristic of Richter’s work and pronouncements, as emblematised by his oft-cited note:
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting […] But if one lacks passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.7
Buchloh does attend to this in deeply intriguing ways. However, by the same token, he has less time for irony, even if it also derives from ambivalence, and this leads him to – perhaps rather unfairly – disparage such artists as Yves Klein (1928–62) and deny their practice any critical function within a given episteme.8
Given the apparent solidity underscoring Buchloh’s judgments, then, those instances where the discussion is freighted with indecision and puzzlement spotlight the reflexivity in his writing. His discussion of Richter’s family paintings, proceeding from Ema (Nude on a Staircase) FIG.3, is especially marked by uncertainty: does Ema reprise the problematic genre of the nude, along with its patriarchal and heterosexist foundations, thereby reversing the crucial devalorisation of that genre undertaken by Manet and Duchamp? Are Richter’s family pictures questionable attempts to reskill artistic production in a manner analogous to the so-called ‘return to order’ art movement following the First World War? If so, what does it mean for Richter’s own return to order to be aligned with the portrayal of, and seeming reinvestment in, the traditional bourgeois family, which often manifests itself through intimate depictions of the wife in the role of nude subject FIG.4 and mother FIG.5? Is all this tantamount to a strictly conservative strain within Richter’s work, one that threatens to upend its radicality as a whole?
Buchloh’s art-historical knowledge and critical acumen means that he can, at the very least, instigate convincingly affirmative responses to such questions. Returning to the beginning of this review, in which the interchangeability between the subject and its erstwhile object was mentioned, one might propose that Richter’s works of art are not merely placed under the art historian’s microscope and enjoined to respond to his hermeneutic dispositions. On the contrary, the art historian and the interpretations they figure are put to the test by the work of art. Indeed, art historians can fail the works they take to be their ‘object’. Also crucial here is the thought that interpretation functions as an activity in which both interpreter and interpretant are utterly transformed in the process of interpretation. The status of this book as a subtly fragmented series of essays rather than monograph, then, begins to acquire methodological plausibility. For in this way, he registers the extent to which his reflection continuously changes in response to the challenge posed by Richter’s practice – a challenge that is itself incessant.