This coming week I will introduce my students to theories on Formalism and Abstract Art. In my classes on art theory we go back and forth in history, trying to discover lines and resemblances across time. We have been discussing a lot of different themes and periods from classical art and renaissance to street art and relational aesthetics. But we have yet to talk in depth about what happens when art no longer picture nature or things we have seen before.
One of the artist I will use to help us all figure out more about the differences and similarities between figurative and abstract art, is the German artist Gerhard Richter. In his work he moves between the figurative and the abstract, equally inventive in both fields.
Gerhard Richter, Cage (2) (2006), oil on canvas
(you can find another Cage here)
The Cage Paintings were conceived as a single coherent group, and displayed for the first time at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Their titles, Cage (1)-(6), pay homage to the American avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992). In his ‘Lecture on Nothing’, Cage famously declared “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” Richter is equally suspicious of ideologies and any claim to absolute truth. He shies away from giving psychological interpretations to his paintings, preferring to allow viewers and critics to make up their own minds.
Gerhard Richter, Seascape (1998), oil on canvas
Gerhard Richter’s paintings have been referred to as models of perception. Indeed, his work is as much about the act of looking as any other subject. In his photo-based works, Richter combines various tropes of painting and photography to create a kind of representational problem: how and when does the eye sense the difference between a painted surface and the photographically recorded? In Richter’s seemingly conventional yet large-scale Seestück (Seascape, 1998), the pigment is thinly applied, resulting in a surface that emulates the flatness of a photograph. And, like a snapshot might be, it is blurred. Here, the visual becomes conceptual, as Richter literally obscures the distinction between the photographic and the painted. Seascape, which also recalls the moody, atmospheric landscapes of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
Gerhard Richter, Betty (1988), oil on canvas