In early December this modest sized painting by contemporary German artist Gerhard Richter was hanging on the wall opposite the second floor escalator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was donated to the institution by the artist and by collector John Hage.
Richter began to paint it in 2003, became frustrated at his inability to render what he wanted on the canvas, nearly destroyed it, finally found a breakthrough, and finished it in time for an exhibition of his work at the Marion Goodman Gallery on 57th St., Manhattan, in 2005. Two years later it became part of the museum’s extensive holdings of Richter’s work—holdings whose breadth had been confirmed by a 2002 catalog and retrospective curated by Robert Storr:
When I first looked at this painting I was inclined to put it within the context of his most recent work; much of that work has shown a figurative image that has been subsequently smeared over with a topical paint layer. Richter’s purely abstract paintings, on the other hand, portray a rich blending of colors alone, traces of the underlying paint layers appearing as a pentimento bleeding through to the surface. Some critics have likened this style to drawing a squeegee across a wet surface. Here are two paintings similar in technique to “September,” companion months in a suite: “November” and “December.”
A slideshow of these sensuous abstract works recently exhibited at his New York City gallery can be seen here:
Richter often has begun his figurative paintings by projecting photographs culled from newspapers, magazines and found sources, then tracing and painting the image onto the primed canvas, letting it dry, then scraping much of it away. The exposed raw surface allows the texture and unevenness of the linen canvas to be visible through the paint. Here is a description of the technique from a Wikipedia article:
His hallmark "blur"—sometimes a softening by the light touch of a soft brush, sometimes a hard smear by an aggressive pull with his squeegee—has two effects: 1. It offers the image a photographic appearance, and 2. Paradoxically, it testifies the painter's actions, both skilled and coarse, and the plastic nature of the paint itself. In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. The subject is nullified. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes, portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.
Richter has consistently displayed a very eclectic range of techniques and styles, moving freely throughout his career from figurative to abstract works, sometimes interspersed with more formal geometric, color scale works that are reminiscent of the Bauhaus instructor Johannes Itten, or of Piet Mondrian.
This broad scope has made it almost impossible to categorize or even to predict what he may attempt to do next. His Cologne studio and home are organized like a corporate office, his eclectic research carefully catalogued and filed, always ready as source material for any embryonic idea. A 1997 book called Atlas illustrates a small sample of the thousands of images he collects, saves and uses in his work.
There is a review from a 2003 exhibition of work from Atlas at London’s Whitechapel Gallery where after a discussion of this collected ephemera being a window into the artist’s visual musings, the writer seems disappointed that the source material is not of itself artistic enough. I wonder what reaction he would have on seeing Beethoven’s rough sketchbooks. You can see thumbnails of the ever-growing compendium of Atlas on Richter’s website:
But the essay this week is about the single painting, “September." Here it is again:
The fact that I am familiar with Richter’s painting led me to read this work at first as a somewhat bucolic image. When I quickly realized what it truly represented I was so taken aback that I sent an email to about 25 friends asking what their “take” on it was. Here are some of the replies:
1. This is a very soothing image to me, reminding me of the gentle lapping of a deep lake with the sun reflecting and playing with the surface.
2. Architectural, head of a column on a public building. That's not a reading—just a guess about the point of departure for the visual.
3. My first impression is for the down side of Sept; it represents the 'raw' aspect of the month. I do like its back-and-forth sense of movement and the feeling of reflection (actual and figuratively). There is a sweep of wind and chill—maybe a little depression—which may be the reality of the season in his country. It's a 'thumbs up'. What are your other folks saying? Is anyone else saying anything about a hit of 'shark fins'?
4. For me it inspires ideas of the woods and the sea combined. I see trees and the texture of smooth trees, like birch. I also ‘see’ the ocean, and sea life like dolphins, swimming. Do you now think I'm crazy? Just joking. It's lovely and peaceful.
5. My reading of the “painting” is of a young man or woman facing away from a screen door damaged by a storm but is facing the unseen damage inside.
6. Well, at first I thought it was an abstract reflection of a boat on the water. But the longer I looked at it I began to feel something destructive and disturbing and began to imagine the debris exploding from the first impact into the twin tower.
7. I admit that it took me a while to realize that this was not a reflection in water, as I initially thought. The colors seemed so familiar and the patterns looked like ripples on a lake. Soon I realized that I was looking at the first tower collapsing, on 9/11. The foreground "smudges" reminded me of a view from behind a window that is being washed, and we are waiting for the rubber blade to remove the soapy liquid so we can get a crystal-clear view. This is not meant to happen though... We are left with an image which is abstract enough to invite us to project our own memory of those images. Isn't it funny that the more abstract the painting is, the more powerful our projection can be? Is it a smudged window? An obscured window to our soul, still trying to decipher why that happened? A trick to astonish us by how embedded these images are in our minds ?
Perhaps you read right away that the September of the title is, in fact, September 11, 2001 and, yes, the painting is a rendering from a photograph. It is the south tower of the World Trade Center, partly hidden in smoke from the already hit north tower, just as United Flight 175 struck it at 9:03 a.m. At that same moment Gerhard Richter and his wife, Sabine, were over the North Atlantic on Lufthansa flight 408 from Cologne, en route to New York City; he was scheduled to be at the opening of an exhibition of his new paintings at Marian Goodman Gallery two days later. When the FAA closed off air space over the United States, their flight, like dozens of others, landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They returned home the day of the postponed opening. Four years later Richter finally painted “September.”
Earlier this year, Richter’s friend, writer/curator Robert Storr, wrote a small book that took its title from the painting. Its four chapters document the events of that day, and the creation of the painting. In an intimate and deeply felt writing style, Storr moves beyond art criticism in describing his and his family’s shocked witness to the tragedy:
September 11, 2001, was the first day of fall classes for my two daughters. My wife walked them to school at seven forty-five. I remained at home. Twenty minutes later after I finished the New York Times and sat down to write, the windows next to my desk shuddered and I felt a distant concussion.
The part of Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel where his family lived was downwind of the site, and soon debris and paper, falling like snow, covered their neighborhood. He and his wife hurried to their daughters’ school:
When we arrived, a number of students were running hysterically through the hallways. We found our daughters in the school’s lobby. Our nine year-old was distraught because the mother of her best friend was a senior staffer of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority that had built and still operated the WTC. “All there was, was smoke,” the youngest remembered. “People were taking pictures and they were just pictures of smoke.”
The personal family memory of this horrendous day, written by a prestigious critic of Manhattan’s art world, and presented here within the context of an essay of art criticism, resonates deeply for me. Too often, when in museums and galleries we “appreciate” art only in terms of its formal properties, when in fact what often deeply affects us is the way that art can reflect the turmoil and tribulation of the real world, even as it appeals to our aesthetic sense. This of course is readily apparent to us when we are looking at photography, an art that is a more immediate simulacrum of the “real world.” But think, conversely, of Picasso’s “Guernica,” a stylized painting that nonetheless shrieks its very human message of agony:
Later in the day, as smoke and ash cover his neighborhood, Robert Storr seals off the windows in his house; they remain sealed for six months. He walks out to the garden:
The ground was covered with airborne litter. Most of the bits and pieces of paper were from business manuals and spreadsheets. One that I picked up was a page from a history of the Civil War dealing with the Battle of Antietam.
Someone, one of the near 3000 dead across the river, had a scholar’s interest in the Civil War. I wonder if, of all the stories and news reports of that day heard by Richter, if his friend Storr told him about this single piece of paper.
The second chapter of Storr’s book discusses the historical, political and cultural consequences of that day and how alien the concept of terror and jihad is to the American experience. The last chapter of the book places the painting within the context of Richter’s other political work, such as the Baader-Meinhof paintings of the late 80s, which document the putative suicides on 18 October 1977, of three members of this German “Gang”. The Baader-Meinhof site has videos and historical background for anyone not acquainted with the social disruption in Germany at this time:
Storr explains that ever since his childhood the presence of terror was true-life experience for Richter. He was born in Dresden and was witness to the horror show of the Allied bombing of the city near the end of WWII:
The inner city of Dresden was largely destroyed by 800 RAF and USAAF bombers that let loose 650,000 incendiaries and 8,000 lb high explosives and hundreds of 4,000 lb bombs in three waves of attacks—approximately one bomb for every two people. (Wikipedia)
Richter grew up in a postwar, devastated and slowly re-building East Germany, its grim skylines dominated by East-block Stalinist architecture; he escaped to the West only a few weeks before the building of the Berlin Wall. It is no wonder, given the chaos and uncertainty of his early life, that political and terror themes are found in so much of his figurative work. Perhaps, the purely abstract work is a refuge, a balm from the dark realities he found around him. So, even though he is not an American and does not live in New York City, it is easy to understand why he decided to make the painting “September,” and why its final realization four years after the event, was so difficult for him. Much of this history is presented in the final chapter of Storr’s book. This moving and insightful memoir is currently out of print (it was printed in a small run) but has been available directly through the Goodman Gallery.
A few days before the opening of the major MOMA retrospective in February of 2002, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Richter, written by its art critic Michael Kimmelmann. If you are interested in more human insight into this often-enigmatic artist, here is the link:
For an artist who seems both in his person and in his work to be quite private, Richter has been most articulate in print about the role of the artist in the political and social chaos of our times. Many of his writings and interviews have been collected in a 600-page tome titled simply, Gerhard Richter: Writings (1961-2007):
In a 2005 Spiegel magazine interview included in the book, Richter addresses the difficulty of painting “September,” even after having made numerous studies and drawings:
These are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the smoke billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind. Finally, I tried to paint it, but it didn’t lead anywhere. Even while I was painting, this was the wrong approach.
He almost painted over and recycled the canvas as he had done before with work he found unsatisfactory. He did scrape it nearly clean, but found a solution when he painted over it, muting the yellow fireball, then applied a squeegeed layer of paint over the image of the towers. This painting was saved only when collector John Hage convinced Richter to let him buy half interest in it. Richter could not destroy the canvas without Hage’s permission. This anecdote embodies the personal ambivalence that must have stirred within Richter. How could one modest sized work, almost lost in the ongoing rush of this prolific artist’s works, presume to make a statement about so evil an act especially when most “historical” paintings have been larger in scale, grander in concept? Later in this same interview Richter addresses evil in the human psyche:
What fascinates me, and shocks me, of course, is that this ability to imagine, which has so much power, which can unleash such passion, and spur us on and motivate us to accomplish incredible things, can also lead to the most terrible crimes. But there’s one area where this fanaticism can be thoroughly expressed without harming anyone—the world of art.
On Richter’s website there is a nineteen minute video of Robert Storr talking about “September” and how it “fits” in the greater body of “historical” painting, as well as in the scheme of Richter’s work. The interview was made in the offices of Richter’s Manhattan gallery.
I want to end this reflection on one of the darkest moments in American history as rendered in a single painting by one of our most important art chroniclers, by linking to a video from September 11. This amateur video was posted on the event’s fifth anniversary, in 2006, by the couple who recorded it from the windows of their 36th floor apartment, located only 500 yards from the towers. The video is 26 minutes long and except for a few camera stops, it unfolds in real time with none of the editorial juxtapositions, voiceover commentary or music tracks that have turned this horrific event into another media document. It is the lived experience of two people, Bob and Bri, who decided after several years’ difficult consideration to make it public. Richter’s deliberation whether or not to finish and release “September” must pall in comparison to theirs. And the raw footage itself overwhelms any further discussion.