JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 monumental color works, 10 smaller color works, and 1 glass/steel sculpture, displayed in the north and south galleries and in the smaller north viewing room. The large scale works are digital prints, unframed and mounted between Aludibond and Perspex (Diasec), made in 2011 and 2012. The works range in size from 63×118 to 79×236, in both square and rectangular formats, and are each unique (edition of 1). The smaller works are also digital prints, but mounted on Aludibond and framed in blond wood and matted. All of these works are sized 20×56 and were made in 2012; they are also unique (edition of 1). The sculpture in the south gallery is made of 6 panes of glass and a steel frame, from 2002-2011. A catalog of the exhibit is available from the gallery for $65. A second book detailing the intermediate steps leading up to the finished works on display (called Patterns) is available for review at the reception desk. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: When we look back on the history of digital art in a decade or two, I think that the works in this show, namely Gerhard Richter’s recent strip paintings, will be seen as a watershed moment. They represent the defining instant when software-driven art making went mainstream, when one of our most important and influential painters made the drastic jump and fully embraced a new kind of artistic thinking. To be sure, plenty of artists have been using all kinds of digital technologies in recent years, but this show really represents a break with the past, and a huge, bold step toward the future. Richter has brought triumphant excitement and extroverted vitality to the digital realm, so it’s no wonder these pictures have been misunderstood by most of the old thinkers; they’re evidence that we’re on our way to somewhere entirely new.
I think it is a fair question to ask why a photography critic like myself is weighing in on works that are being called “paintings”. The fact is that these works reside in the Venn diagram intersection of painting, photography, and software driven art, and their endpoint is a digital photographic print. Richter’s process began with a high resolution scan (AKA a photograph) of one of his densely colored squeegee paintings (Abstract Painting 724-4, from 1990). This digital file was then vertically divided in an exponential progression (2, then 4, then 8, all the way to 4096), creating a multitude of sliver thin strips of color, which were each mirrored and repeated horizontally (by the software), effectively stretching the colors out into extended lines. Output as digital prints and mounted, these files became the “strip paintings”. So let’s be honest. These aren’t even remotely “paintings” as we traditionally define them, even if that is a better term to use when trying to sell them for a big price. There is no hand crafting, no gesture, no mark of the artist whatsoever. They are manipulated photographs.
Let’s also be clear that Richter and his team aren’t a bunch of genius coders. The software required to do this image fracturing, mirroring, and reassembling was likely quite straightforward; plenty of competent software engineers could have cranked it out. But the simplicity of the software isn’t really my point. What’s important here is that Richter has taken his interest in structure and embodied it in something invisible, namely the underlying software. He’s merged many of his previous ideas about abstraction, chance, compositional rigor, and photographic reproduction into a conceptual architecture built in code. Information has been translated into visual output in a modular, iterative, quantified fashion. In one swift move, he has displaced the physicality (the “thing”ness) of painting with pure, unadulterated, rational logic.
It is really impossible to comrehend the presence of these works from gallery installation shots or computer screen reproductions. At every distance, from 20 feet to 6 inches, they shimmer with an optical intensity that seems unprocessable by the human eye. The effect is that they are somehow hard to see and utterly precise at the same time. This isn’t some gimmicky Op Art trickery, intentionally designed to make our eyes blur or swim; no, I think this feeling is entirely a byproduct of the minute resolution of the lines and the nature of the color. Richter has long been interested in color, and these pictures introduce nothing less than a revolution in color. Walk back through the history of painting and you’ll find realistic color, Impressionistic color, painterly color, and more recently industrial color and even commercial color. These works take color somewhere new, call it technological or electronic color, where Richter has moved beyond the mechanistic to the hard edged intellectualism of computerized purity. The way light interacts with this color is altogether original, and can only really be understood when seen close up.
If we talk about Constructivism being rooted in the clarity of underlying geometry, perhaps what Richter is exploring here is a kind of Digital Constructivism, a 21st century version which replaces the idolization of the geometric form with the raw power of smart software. There is an undeniable connection between the shimmering electricity of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and the staggering sensations of these new Richters; we’re just a century further along in our refinement of the organizing principles and the brightness of the possibilities. Similarly, these strips extend far beyond pared down Minimalism, even though they are all horizontal lines; put one of these next to an elegant Agnes Martin and it will shout it down – its vibrating energy is just too great. The mathematical aesthetic has been taken to its logical extreme in these images, and that extreme points toward high density, high complexity innovation.
My guess is that when we stand in the future and look back at these Richters, they may look surprisingly simplistic from that wiser vantage point; in the coming years, artists are going to use software technology to move far beyond what’s on display here. But there is something undeniably exciting about photographs (yes, photographs) that demolish so many barriers, that open up so much thrilling, unexplored white space. The 80 year old Richter has shown us what the bridge to the new world looks like; now we just have to walk across.
Collector’s POV: The monumental scale works in this show were priced starting at 1300000€ and the smaller prints were priced at 20000€. I say “were” in that all of the works were either already sold or on hold when I visited the gallery. Richter’s photographic works (the overpainted photographs as well as other works that might be categorized as photography) are intermittently available in the secondary markets, mostly in Contemporary Art auctions rather that Photography auctions. Recent prices for these works have ranged from roughly $10000 to $200000; Richter’s paintings price at an altogether different and meaningfully higher level.