Monday, April 30, 2012

Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea

I don't know if you ever consider where your art is going to wind up. I do. I'm constantly worried that it will wind up, dusty and scratched, with a fluorescent green sticker that says "$25," right here:

I've seen it happen.

Where I would like my work to wind up is one of two places. Here:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Or here:

The Hall of Justice

Most of the time, though, I actually have no thought in mind about where my work will come to rest. I just paint. Recently, however, I had an interesting project: I was painting a painting for a couple expecting their first child this summer. The painting is for the child, not the couple. Although the couple is welcome to look at it, I guess.

But I was making a painting for a baby's wall.

As I was working on it, I began to appreciate what kind of project I was working on. When I was a baby, I had a poster of Noah's ark on my wall. My memory of this poster is one of my earliest visual memories - I've verified that it dates to under a year. I can recall the orange color of sunset light coming in the window startlingly eradicating its blues. I remember the circular black dots of the smiling Noah's eyes.

For me, this poster had always been there. It was a default part of the visual environment. It was only when I was much older that I thought, "Huh! That was a specific thing - it was about a specific thing - and it had its own particular weirdnesses." I'd love to show it to you, but frustratingly, it is perhaps the last graphic on Earth not yet findable on the first two pages of a Google image search.

Anyway, what I was painting here was going to be something with the character of my Noah's ark poster - one of the initial experiences of an infant as his senses of sight and self form, recognized as a particular idiosyncratic image only years later. For him (it's a him, it turns out), it will always have been there.

What a wonderful opportunity! One wants to bring delight and comfort, happiness and safety, whimsy and a touch of peculiarity, and enough visual sophistication to challenge the initial cognition and reward its development.

Not all of these are qualities one might think of when describing my personality as an artist. But I set about doing my best. The solution to the problem, as any raffi in the street could tell you, was a beluga whale. Here's what I came up with:

Beluga, Daniel Maidman, 2012, oil on canvas, 16"x20"

Better things have been made for infants, but not by me. I feel privileged to contribute to the always-been-there of this soon-to-be boy. There's no big moral to this story. I just thought it was kind of an interesting anecdote. And I hope the bean enjoys the beluga as he grows.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Women in the Fields of Gold

So - this particular post is about painter Brad Kunkle. It went up at The Huffington Post a couple days ago, which will go some way toward explaining the more polished demeanor of the writing. Let me add something in the comparative privacy of this blog.

The art world is not that big a world. I'm still working on expanding the range of my interests and tastes, but my default perspective is sympathy with figurative painting. There are only so many figurative painters running around, and I know a lot of them. I know Brad Kunkle. Brad Kunkle is an awfully goddamned nice guy.

also, irritatingly good looking

It gives me the absolute hair-raising heebie jeebies writing about people I know. Two conflicting interests come into play: 1. I feel both professionally and personally constrained to tell only the truth, and 2. How you gonna be mean to your friends?

In the past, while following imperative 1, I have lost friends. There are several artists who used to be friends who don't talk to me anymore on account of critiquing, in some cases solicited, in some cases not.

Now, I went through an art high school. It didn't contribute very much to the kind of art I make today, but it contributed to the kind of artist I am. Which is to say, we were subjected to harsh critique from multiple sources on a regular basis - both formal critique, and nearly ad hominem disparagement. Many artists are soft little marshmallows about critique. I like to think high school toughened me up some.

I am only ever willing to critique other people's work when I have a strong feeling that the artist can actually benefit from anything I have to say - that they have the capacity to improve. Otherwise, what point is there to the trauma of criticism? It's not easy on anyone even when it's productive.

Off-topic: Painter John Wellington is one of the best critiquers I know. He combines a deep understanding of formal and technical issues, and an unbiased insight and sympathy in helping artists become themselves, not little copies of him. If you're studying to be a serious representational artist, you might consider taking his classes. I haven't, but I sat through a critique of this painting one time:

The Maja, Daniel Maidman, oil on canvas, 36"x60", 2009

He tore it to shreds, but in a way that was profoundly useful to me.

Be all that as it may, my experience in losing friends has made me extremely leery of writing about them. One way that I reconcile the two conflicting imperatives is that if I don't have positive things to write, I won't write anything (if any of you reading this are artist friends I haven't written about, there's a much broader eliminator that also applies: if I don't have anything interesting to say beyond "I like this," I can't write about the work either).

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I decided to write about Brad's work. On the one hand, I wanted to support and share some work which I think is really quite good work, and I had positive and (by my lights) interesting things to point out about it. On the other hand - I know the guy, and didn't want to stop being able to hang out with him. Although he seems like he's got his shit together, I've learned that the randomest comments can cause even sane-looking artists to fly off the handle. It's safest to just go to the opening, enthusiastically say, "Nice!" and hurry off to get another plastic cup of white wine.

Considering the problem from another perspective, I may be quickly writing myself into an untenable position. First and foremost, I'm a painter. I only started the blog because the content on my website didn't change very frequently and somebody told me that dynamic content is "sticky." The writing thing turns out to be something I can also swing. I like to explore interesting topics in art by means of the word. But I'm not a critic, and in fact it is cruelly unfair for a practicing artist to be a professional critic as well. The artist should succeed or fail on the basis of the work, not fear of a bad review or hope for a good one. Moreover, many artists I know have ideas about art just as interesting as mine, but don't have my entirely unearned ability to write it all down in a comprehensible way with funny captions. So - my focus as a writer isn't so much art criticism as chasing the interesting idea. I can live with that from an ethical perspective. But if I find that I can't, I'll have to stop.

Anyhoo, all that made its way through my mind as I was drafting this piece of writing. I'm very excited about Brad's current work. I think he's growing as an artist, and there's nothing in art more exciting than somebody who, already good, is getting better. Many congratulations to him on his new show.


The Women in the Fields of Gold: Brad Kunkle at Arcadia
Consider Brad Kunkle. A painter in his mid-thirties, in high demand on the figurative end of the collector spectrum. Gilded Wilderness, his second solo show at Arcadia Gallery in Soho, New York, sold out before the end of its April 21st opening. His oil-painted figures swim in fields of gold and silver leaf.

The Gilded Wilderness, oil with gold and silver leaf, 42"x80"

Kunkle is one of the most adept leafers working today. His leaf is staggeringly gorgeous: applied with such expert skill that it has become, for him, an expressive medium. He has gone far beyond the plodding square-beside-square you may know from your great-aunt's oversized picture frames. His rectilinear chunks of leaf overlap in wild, irregular mosaics. He dabs tiny fragments of leaf to create images of actual leaves. He paints on top of his leaf, varying its reflectivity, rendering everything from landscapes to graphic patterns on his shimmering ground.

This quality is not an unqualified virtue. Rather, it is a steep challenge. Leaf done beautifully aches to dissolve into treacly sweetness. It is beauty as our lizard brains understand beauty: the cheap appeal of shiny things, depthless. Kunkle mastered the application of leaf several years ago, not long after becoming extremely proficient at painting the figure.

These are both powerful tools, the leaf and the figure. For the better part of the 20th century, notable artists developed a personal vision first, and tools later, if ever. Kunkle belongs to a faction of young artists who take craft seriously, and develop tools first. This faction is afflicted with love of its tools; many scoff at the proposition that vision is a separate and prior concept. Kunkle does not. Since 2009, he has rotated his approach, recognizing that gaining a skill is not so much as knowing what to do with it.

When it comes to other people’s work, I’m more of an art appreciator than an art critic. You’ll have to forgive me – you can’t really be an art critic and an artist at the same time. It’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to other artists. So I’m going to go straight to some work in the new show that I really appreciate.

A little backstory: Kunkle’s initial encounter with leaf drew him to Klimt. But without Klimt’s essential erotomania, Kunkle was left with compositions aimlessly overpopulated by gusts of leaves, art nouveau swirls, and skinny chicks. He has abandoned much of that approach, winnowing out the things it turned out were personal to him: a genuinely odd sense of graphic design, the leaf, and the figures. Increasingly, the figures are not ciphers but people. Consider Bird of Paradise:

Bird of Paradise, oil with gold and silver leaf, 30"x40"
This is far removed from Klimt. Generically, there is still a similarity, but the meticulously controlled parade of feather-eyes, and the timbre of the face, belong to Kunkle, not his predecessor. As accomplished as this is, the smallish Her Own Field represents a more complete departure from the Klimtian paradigm:

Her Own Field, oil with gold and silver leaf, 16"x20"
The figure makes the painting. In deference to the figure, the composition is subdued. It partakes of Kunkle's sense of organic shape, evoked in the sumptuous line of golden field against golden sky. But the elements are spare, the detail low, and the eye is drawn to the face and the emotions which play out upon it. Although Kunkle has been good at painting people for a while, he moves here beyond mimesis of the physical and into the ambiguous realm of psychology.

These paintings strike me as being among Kunkle's first mature paintings. They have mass and personal investment. He acknowledges a debt to the past while moving forward on his own. There is some obvious Wyeth to Her Own Field. There is a touch of Diebenkorn. In the two pieces, and in the similarly simplified Untitled Study, there is a feeling of the other great pole of leafed painting: the medieval ikons.

Untitled Study, oil with gold and silver leaf, 8"x8.5"
The ikons had an unadorned sincerity to them, based in the childlike equation of the figures being precious religiously, and the metal being precious monetarily. There are few statements simpler than, "I love you most, so I'll give you the best thing I have." This unblushing devotion illuminates the ikons. Kunkle's new paintings do not look like the ikons, but they share the unblushing devotion, and the metal. Here, Kunkle has made his mastery of metal work for him as an artist. It does not glitter. It glows.

Gilded Wilderness, at Arcadia Gallery, 51 Greene St., New York, NY,
10013, until May 5
Brad Kunkle:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All Hail Jan Van Eyck

When I say "Jan Van Eyck" to you, no doubt you immediately think of the so-called Arnolfini Wedding:

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, 1434

I actually think of the Annunciation, of 1435, mostly because I've had a chance to see it - it's at the National Gallery in Washington:

With all of this discussion of rock and roll painting lately, I think an important point has gotten obscured: I'm not proposing a unified field theory of art. I'm not telling you that rock and roll is the one valid path. Art is multivalent - there are lots of different worthwhile paths. The suppression of paint-as-paint is worthwhile too. To me, it represents a noble effort, even an essential effort. It is a rebellion against matter, the rage of reason against the limitations of our estate. Which is to say, a confabulation of mud one day awakens to itself, and names itself Human, and its analytic faculty produces a model of the world formed not from mud, nor even from color and light, but from concepts and their logical interrelations. This model is so compelling, so powerful in its application, that the Human assumes this model is in fact the true nature of the world. Now here comes the misshapen, bloody world, and the Human remembers that it is composed of matter. The Human rebels - it says, "Absolutely not - I do not accept it - I reject it." This rejection is fundamental to humanity, this ability to distinguish between what is and what not only could be, but what our reason demands must be.

Like all technologies, this idealism is dangerous. On the one hand, it leads to Galileo, but on the other, to Robespierre.

For all that, it is a mighty technology, and our human nature not only compels us to use it, but inspires us to invent it, again and again, each time it is forgotten.

The effort toward the perfect painting, the dematerialized painting, is one manifestation of this recurrent technology. And there is no master of it like Jan Van Eyck. Consider the famous Arnolfini chandelier:

What else is this but an expression of total discipline, of unyielding striving, not toward any tawdry object composed of metal, but toward an Object, a mathematical necessity, made visible in shape and light, but not of them? It does not wish to be the work of some miserable 15th-century Netherlander, but of a blazing seraph.

For me personally, the principle stands out most strongly in the ludicrous wings of the angel in the Annunciation. This is the best image of it I could find on the Web:

Van Eyck here takes nature and perfects it - the wings are meticulously and naturalistically detailed. But they are also geometrized, each feather aligned with a flawless curve, sized in exact proportion with its fellows, and in just the right place. And, moreover, he has declined to participate in the muddy colors of the pigeons of Bruges. He has formed a glittering jewel of a wing from the spectrum itself. There are no stray brushstrokes, no expressive passages. He has ruthlessly suppressed the physicality and the character of the paint and of his own hand. He has come so close as he can to making matter invisible, in the service of the image.

Can this project succeed? Of course not. Consider the insight of Henry Baker (whose comments are ascribed to Robert Hooke in Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle). In 1745, a time of lax attitudes toward copyright, Baker brought out the Micrographia Restaurata, a new edition of Hooke's revolutionary book of microscopic observations. Annotating Hooke's prints, Baker says the following:

...the first Object he [Hooke] lays before us, comes the nearest to a physical Point of any artificial thing we are acquainted with; I mean the Point of a small Needle, made so sharp that the naked Eye is unable to distinguish any of its Parts. This, notwithstanding, appeared before his Microscope as in the Figure at a a, where the very Top of the Needle is shewn above a Quarter of an Inch broad; not round or flat, but irregular and uneven.

How uneven and rough the Surface! How void of Beauty! And how plain a Proof of the Deficiency and Bunglingness of Art, whose Productions when most laboured, if examined with Organs more acute than those by which they were framed, lose all that fancied Perfection our Blindness made us think they had! Whereas, in the Works of Nature, the farther, the deeper our Discoveries reach, the more sensible we become of their Beauties and Excellencies.

...a Needle has the most acute Point Art is capable of making, however rude and clumsy it appears when thus examined. But the Microscope can afford us numberless Instances, in the Hairs, Bristles, and Claws of Insects ; and also in the Thorns, Hooks, and Hairs of Vegetables, of visible Points many Thousands of times sharper, with a Form and Polish that proclaim the Omnipotence of their Maker.

Of course Van Eyck must fail. No perfection of art will ever reach to Perfection. But, possessed in our reasoning humanity of awareness of Perfection, we can never cease trying.

Also, everything I'm saying here goes for Rogier van der Weyden too.

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bridge

Enough theory. Let's get our hands dirty again.

First of all, this painting was painted from a photograph.

Blue Leah #8, oil on canvas, 2012, 24"x24"

Some of you might be doing your detailed, oversized hands paintings from life. For my part, between the amount of microstructure and the inevitable motion of the model, I find it impossible. As a general rule, I don't like to paint from photographs, but when I can't work with the model, like for instance if they moved away or I'm painting a hand, I don't see any harm in working from a photograph. As long as I maintain enough concurrent practice in working from life, I remain able to see the photograph in terms of the informational content of reality, and not the restricted information of a photograph. Tracing backward to reality, I can then trace forward to the painting, et voila.

So, that's not the point. The point is this. My schedule interrupted my work on this painting at this point right here:

It wasn't a short break - something like a month. I did a whole other large painting during the interruption. I snuck in and did the wrists at some point, but then the left-side hand was just sitting there, unpainted. On my first day back from the break, I did the following:

Careful scrutiny of this image will reveal that I totally fucked up the painting. The right-side hand has a warm range of yellows and peaches in it. The left-side hand is a chalky white, with some patches of red. I was painting away, and thinking to myself, "Why aren't these colors matching? I know I'm using the same paints." It didn't occur to me to stop.

I was saved from finishing the painting in this totally fucked-up way by having previously scheduled some time hanging out with Charlotte, which forced me to stop at the breaking point of the shadow across the palm. Overnight, I realized what I did wrong.

Here's the palette I set up for the session where I got the colors wrong:

On the lower half of the left are Windsor & Newton's flesh tone paint, plus soft mixing white, and below that, Gamblin's flesh tone paint, plus soft mixing white. This is a trick I learned from Adam Miller back when I was tearing my hair out trying to mix the same flesh tones over multiple sessions with your usual red/yellow/blue/black/white formulae. His trick was, "Just get three or four manufacturer flesh tones at random, and learn how to modify them. It's much simpler." This trick works pretty well for pale caucasians (and nobody else). I don't think Adam's using it anymore, but I like it a lot. On the right side, bottom, is cadmium red deep hue plus white, and on the top, Sennelier Cool Gray 707 (my favorite paint) plus white.

If you study the palette, you can see that most of the times, when I dipped the brush in the paint to pick some up, I dipped it in the plus-white region of the mixture, and not in the pure color. And therein, my friends, lay the error.

What I remembered overnight was that when I painted the first hand, I forgot about the plus-white premixing. This was how my palette looked for the first session:

I painted the colors into the wet blue undercoat using pure color, then laid the yellowish Gamblin and the white over them. It was a fairly depressing thing to realize that I had thus completely ruined the painting.

Well, you know me: a mix of obsessively compulsive and psychotically happy-go-lucky. So the next day, I went right back into the studio and did what I could to fix the mess. Fortunately, the paint was still wet, allowing me to lay a lot of the yellowish Gamblin into the fingers:

Then I continued down to the palm, using the technique of pure-color-first which I had originally used. So, this is what the palm looked like in its initial state:

Painting this, I remembered why I conveniently forgot my pure-color procedure. It's scary as hell. Before you lay in your darks and your lights, your figure looks like a lollipop. It is less immediately hair-raising to paint with a mix of color and white, but your colors come out too muted. The real benefit of the color-first procedure is irretrievably lost in the fingers: when you paint the lights over the colors, they go over them without mixing, so that the moderation of the surface color allows the deeper saturation to show through, just like blood beneath the skin. Here, let me show you:

This is an enlarged part of the original hand. As you can see, blues, oranges, and reds are visible in the deep weave of the canvas, between the bumps. On the bumps, a gentle brushing of light yellows and whites defines a brighter desaturated surface. This technique produces optical blending without loss of subliminal but distinct differences. And that is precisely the thing I fucked up so totally in the fingers. Here they are post-save: the richer colors lie on the surface, mixed with the whites, not underlying them. That's the best I could do, given the initial error:

So, anyhoo, I worked up the palm using my original, scarier technique:

And then I spent a fairly tedious several hours putting in the blue background:

Now, I like this painting OK. And if I hadn't just confessed at length to my errors, you probably would never have known about the grotesque problem with it. But I would have known, and I will never be able to love this painting as much as I would have if I hadn't goofed up how I was doing it.

This story has a trivial moral and a major one:

The trivial moral is that once you start a painting, don't walk away from it for a month or two and forget what you were doing.

The major moral has to do with the lollipop technique I started using for this painting, and my subconscious avoidance of it when I resumed. The lollipop technique is scary because the initial states don't look like the final painting. In fact, they look terrible. You have to ignore your eyes and have faith that the formula will work out in the end (this is actually true for virtually all layering techniques in painting).

You basically have to put yourself in the same position as our old friend Wile E. Coyote:

tertiary/quaternary consumer and master tactician Wile E. Coyote

I have thought a lot about, and previously quoted, one of the more famous quips of Rabbi Nachman of Braslov. Rabbi Nachman of Braslov said, "All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all." This sounds a lot better in Hebrew.

I have thought a lot about this dictum,  but now I think the Rabbi does not go far enough. I would like to modify it thus: "Step off the cliff, and the bridge will appear."

At the same time, and ever in keeping with my advice that you approach my moralizing with skepticism, please keep in mind what your mother told you about things not to do just because your friends are doing them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Gerhard Richter Order Chaos

I have given some thought to Gerhard Richter lately, after seeing the fascinating documentary Gerhard Richter Painting.

In terms of the formal factors I defined as "rock and roll" previously (much on my mind since reposting the piece at Huffington Post and carefully idiot-checking my reasoning), Richter qualifies as a rock and roll painter. And yet, I get no feeling of rock and roll, at all, from his work. So I think I need to revise the model.

I said that, in rock and roll work, paint-as-paint contends with paint-as-representation. Let me revise that: I think that the paint-as-paint must be the outcome of a conscious process. The process has grappled with the physicality of the paint and transformed it. The paint retains traces of that consciousness, even in its incarnation as pure matter. The paint has been conjoined with gnosis.

By contrast, Richter's paint-as-paint is the outcome of a mechanical process. Specifically, smearing by squeegee.

Once I stopped trying to apply the rock and roll model to Richter, it opened up according to its own nature. Ordinarily, one would be inclined to place his figurative work in one category, and his abstract squeegee paintings in a second category, and say, "These are two distinct bodies of work."

Consider Reader against, to take a random example, Abstract Painting. Obviously, they are two different things. One is a highly-rendered portrait of a woman reading a book, the other some squeegeed paint in the key of red.

not the same thing

Rather than doing that, though, I think it is useful to suppose that the figurative work and the squeegee work represent opposite poles of a continuum which dominates his output. Let's consider five of his paintings in turn:

 sort of the same thing

Again there is the rarified perfection of the 1994 painting Reader:

 It is photographic, even painted from a photograph, but it is not photorealism. This is photorealism:

the pinnacle of contemporary photorealism
Dirk Dzimirsky, Deja-Vu, 2010, pencil on paper, 42 cm x 42 cm (image courtesy of the artist)

Photorealism troubles itself with the details of the things it represents. Richter's painting, much more closely aligned with Vermeerian photographism, subscribes to the concept of the photograph, of the perfected mimesis of some form. The application of the concept involves an enormous amount of missing detail and trimming of shapes, a nearly grecian simplification toward purity. You trip over the refinement, looking at his picture. It is a hypnotic struggle toward a vividly held idea of the perfect.

And yet, this state of enlightenment is unstable for Richter. Consider a second Reader painting, of the same year:

Here, Richter's habit of wiping across his canvas asserts itself. It is nearly a tic with him. Although analysis of his work focuses on the wiping as a component of his life-long commentary on photography, and although I think this is true, I see something simpler in it as well. The fact is, a painting of even moderately accurate draughtsmanship becomes strangely photographic when you partly wipe it off in linear swipes of a cloth. I stumbled on this oddity by accident early in my work with paint. It's just a thing that happens - your shitty detail work goes away, and the variegated planes that remain are filled in by the brain as perfectly realistic.

Richter, optimizing his aesthetic relative to his technical skills, deployed this trick a lot early in his career, and we see it in a third painting, Sailors, from 1966:

The damn thing looks like a blurry photograph, but trust you me, before he wiped most of it off, it was the most crudely sketched-in symphony of amateur technique. You can still see it, if you ignore the special effect and study the awkwardly drawn faces closely.

This is not to denigrate the painting. Technique isn't art. Richter figured out how to make much with the tools he had, all the while improving them with practice. What's important about this painting is that it represents a midpoint in the continuum, between uttermost perfection of form, and the totality of chaos.

In the 2005 painting Forest, we see the cloth replaced by the squeegee, and the almost complete submersion of representation in a mechanically-induced chaotic plane:

This submersion is completed in Abstract Painting, 2008, from the period during which the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting was shot.

This sequence of paintings jumps back and forth over 32 years. It's the kind of timespan over which the pattern of a career emerges. What I'm seeing here is an active struggle between two principles. The principles are not idea and matter, as they are in rock and roll painting, but rather form and chaos.

From one end of this continuum to the other, we see form decaying into chaos, or chaos resolving into form, depending on reading direction. Richter seems animated by an obsessive devotion to form, a devotion so obsessive that he sees true form as an exquisitely fragile manifestation, and deviation from it - chaos - as horrifying; yet he embraces the horror as well. He is fascinated with the universe of chaos, of things that just happen, when matter is left to devolve on its own. (He demonstrates in Gerhard Richter Painting that horror is indeed his approach, directing that a show of the squeegee paintings be installed in a room "under cold bluish light, so that people will want to flee.")

His squeegee paintings are not without intervention - in the documentary, he stands in front of his in-process paintings, measuring whether they "work" and squeegeeing in new fields of paint when they do not. But he does not exert control the way we classically think of it in painting. He can make broad strokes, not define precise details. He has discovered that chaos has an aesthetic, but you cannot impose an aesthetic on chaos - you just keep rolling the dice until you get an outcome you like.

Richter's dice-rolling here is identical with the digital creation of images of turbulent seas in the 2000 film The Perfect Storm:

The wave-modeling software was so sophisticated that particular waves could not be generated for particular shots, without losing their wave-like qualities. So the F/X technicians just kept running the software until they got waves that worked.

The Perfect Storm, actually, helps to illustrate a point I'd like to raise with you. The point is that the choppy seas in The Perfect Storm in no way resemble Gerhard Richter's squeegee paintings. And yet, they are both complex systems which involve chaos. Chaos has a strict definition nowadays, which, woo doggy, we don't want to get into here. Let me elide all that by showing that Richter's squeegee technique, exerting differential drag on viscous paint, converges almost explicitly with a famous example of chaos - Stephen Wolfram's rule 30 for cellular automata:

rule 30 on a computer - rule 30 in nature (Conus textile shell) - rule 30 in art (Grun-Blau-Rot, 1993)
(images courtesy, respectively, of Wikipedia, Wikipedia, and Jerry Saltz)

Comparing the choppy seas, and the Richter paintings, we have forcefully pointed out to us that many things that do not look like each other are chaotic, and yet all these chaotic things share an underlying aesthetic similarity which is recognizable to the mind. Richter could have chosen many forms of chaos to evoke in his abstract work: paint peeling on a wall - the shifting of dunes - the billowing of clouds - the corrosion of iron. But one chaos above all others spoke to him, the uneven distribution of paint by a squeegee. Why?

There is a clue to this affinity in the documentary. Discussing his life, Richter recalls that when he was a teenager, his parents worried that he would starve if he didn't learn how to do a real job. So they apprenticed him to a printer. He was miserable there, and soon quit.

Printers use squeegees to spread ink. Richter's unhappy apprenticeship introduced him to a texture of the real which has haunted him the rest of his life. He struggles against it, and yet he returns to it. On the one hand is his dream of perfection, most frequently expressed in portraits of his daughters. On the other, the nightmare of matter, a nightmare defined in its specifics by a long-ago trauma. Both ends of the pole absorb Richter, and he has given his life over to pushing them so far as they will go.

I am not the biggest Richter fan you ever met, but I find this very moving.


Before I go, I'd like to share with you a thought on bad science. You'll notice that I sketched out a model, of rock and roll painting, with specific properties. Then I found an instance of something, Richter's work, which matched those properties but didn't, at a gut level, match what I meant with the model. So I changed the model. What I learn from this is that the model was an imperfect expression of a more complex phenomenon. But you could also say that I was perfectly willing to throw out consistency of method in favor of making a distinction unsupported by my hypothesis. I have said again and again that you shouldn't just go ahead and trust anything I say, and this case demonstrates what I mean. My thinking is a work in progress, and moreover I am not the most rigorous analyst you ever met. I would love to - I am honored to - contribute to your thinking about your own outlook on art. But I am the farthest thing from a definitive authority, and you should evaluate what I say in terms of your own judgment, just as I try, and often fail, to do.