Gerhard Richter’s Distorted Fields of Vision and Allen Feldman’s “Photopolitics”

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in December 2019

A collection of Gerhard Richter’s prints are currently being exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City’s Upper East Side. The works include two more recent pieces–Mustangs (2005, fig. 1)[1] and Frau mit Kind (Woman with Child, 2005, fig. 2)–and the infamous Betty (1991). Rather than extensively detail Betty’s theoretical mirth, which has been expounded upon ad infinitum by art theorists and philosophers alike, I would like to take this time to focus on the two prints which often receive considerably less attention, paying attention particularly to the motif of the blur in Mustangs and Frau mit Kind. Richter’s Mustangs and Frau mit Kind demonstrate a significant departure from the characteristic “quotational” photo-realism of Betty, although there is something, formally speaking, retained; for those of us who may not recall, in his early career (particularly during the 1960s) Richter used a projector to cast photographs against a canvas, according to which he would devise his paintings. As an instructor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and an indirect mentor for the Dusseldorf School of Photography’s bastions (e.g. Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Höfer), Richter’s method proved most influential for a generation of artists who, subsequently, inverted photography’s architectural habitation vis-à-vis the illogical whimsy of painting, such that the Dusseldorf School’s photographs were not only tinged by topophilic memory (e.g. Candida Hofer’s Projektion Düsseldorf III 2012, fig. 3) but also the general lapse of strict differentiation between object studies and environmental fields of vision.

There is a greater confluence between the Dusseldorf School of Photography’s amnesiac-object photography and Richter’s Mustangs and Frau mit Kind, which sets them apart from Betty. This is, precisely, because these two pieces rescind the direct static space of portraiture in place of kinematic mediation, creating a public field space of precinematic movement. In Mustangs, for instance, we see seven fighter jets moving across a virescently besmogged sky, green and sickly, as a field of barren land provides for a sullen backdrop. In Frau mit Kind, the space of distinction between the mother’s dynamic arms and her child’s body abscond differentiation, limbs wheeling and orbiting as the over-exposed photograph bleeds into a foreground-cum-background. The mother’s face is, thus, vanished, as her feet sink into the ground; the mother and child, prefigured by their univocal whole, maternalize and materialize into Oneness, a phantasm of encircled limbs, mirrored folds and illuminated drapery all collapse.

According to Guiliana Bruno, kinematic media is that which, irrespective to its medial enjoinder, produces a “multiscreen, luminous architecture of mental projection is mobilized in relational fashion.”[2] Although Richter’s works are not necessarily comprised of “interconnected viewing chambers,” Mustangs and Frau mit Kind can aptly be described as “fugitive” images, as both retain the illusive sensoria of movement, creating a textured condition of representation. For instance, the sun-crested cyan sky is, quite literally, atmospheric and a space of indistinction. As sensibility of transient nature, the fugitive image is that which is utterly anti-didactic, an absconder of logic.

There is, however, something far more mechanically perverse in Mustangs which does not necessarily befit Frau mit Kind—in Mustangs, we are privy to an abstracted and ambiguous moment that precedes the cataclysm of warfare, coloring the dappled planes with a dark haze of bloodshed, for we know exactly where they are heading (towards battlegrounds). Richter is known for the “Aeroplanes” series of photo-paintings, which include various bombers, jet fighters and Phantom Interceptor airplanes. These photo-paintings are generally monochrome, interjected with plashes of light red or airy green. Yet there is also a bridge between these mechanical assemblages and other works, as Richter uses the coating of haze as a means to pose historical possibility: the blurred brushwork renders Richter’s images hazy, interruptedly blurred and blotted. Similarly, Richter’s 1988 series of fifteen paintings, known as the Stammheim Cycle, display the bodies and cells of Red Army Faction (RAF) members Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, and Jan- Carl Raspe at Stammheim Prison, who were variously found dead or dying in the high- security wing.

As anthropologist Allen Feldman notes:

“[o]n October 18th Andreas Baader was discovered shot in the head, Gudrun Ensslin was hanged, and Jan-Carl Rasper suffered a head wound from a bullet and later died in the hospital. The only witness of what government authorities deemed a mass suicide was Irmgard Möller, who survived stab wounds that authorities claimed had been self-inflicted. The imputed precedent for political suicide by the RAF had been established by the discovery of Ulrike Meinhof, found hanged to death in her cell the year before and by the 1974 death of the RAF member Holger Meins from a hunger strike protesting prison conditions. To this day the classification of the deaths of October 18 as suicide has neither been fully accepted nor proven, not the least because the pistol that killed Baader had been smuggled into what was supposed to be a high-security prison.”[3]

Richter’s paintings, which employ a blurring-wash effect, were based on a combination of crime-scene photographs plucked from mass media images, as he was weaving together an extensive “documentary” portfolio during the 1970s and 1980s. As Feldman notes, the RAF works are notable for creating a juxtaposition between fidelity/mimicry (some of these photographs were, in fact, used by governments and courts as evidence) and the blurring brushwork, which not only introduces the realism of optical-visual perspective but also spatio-temporal depth of field (or the interjection of observation). Feldman terms this the “apophantic blur of war,” as the raising of the “ghostly” illuminates the capture of the sliding glance, Richter’s blur evincing both a subjective act and an objective state simultaneously. In the RAF series as well as in Frau mit Kind and Mustangs, Richter’s work dons a phenomenological presence,[4] outpouching impression so as to conceive of observation as a vertigo-state, proffering a means of relating to the object-world by re-anchoring photographic precision and realism to the physiognomy of the blur. Such is the tyranny of scales, the observatory state of reference’s primacy over any conception of objective realism: as such, the blur is photorealism.

Speaking of kinematic media, both Bruno and Feldman evoke the language of pre-cinematic projective space when recalling the filmic-architectural promenade as an imaginative process. On one hand, Bruno underscores the museographic genealogy of pre-cinema, emphasizing precinema’s classificatory logic qua kinesthesis; indeed, it is the classificatory plexus that tied trick films, or the early “cinema of attractions,” to the mechanical occult of theosophy as a circuit of consumption that spanned freak shows, Edison kinescope boxes, and the carnivalesque (notably, early Edison, Lumiére and Melies films were displayed in public carnival settings). Consider the first Lumière reel: a single-shot film, Repas de Bébé (1895) that shows a baby having breakfast at a table in the garden; according to film historian Brian Winson, it was:

“the animated movement of the rustling leaves of the tree behind the baby that most fascinated the first audiences. That was what was new, not the hands moving to feed the child. Audiences were not, however, so overwhelmed by movement as to leap out of the way of the train arriving at La Ciotat station, another single-shot film on the same reel. The train obliquely crosses the screen rather than heading towards the lens, and there is no contemporary evidence that anybody was confused.”[5]

In the early days of cinema and, bearing the trace of pre-cinema there onwards, it is the blurring of boundaries, of wonderment’s becoming-scrutiny, which has characterized the blur as a kinesis. In Richter’s work, it is the photo-realist image that bleeds into the event that it simulates; in Mustangs, specifically, the political action (buzzing warplanes) anticipates the cinematization of history as a constitutive montage. Hereafter, the cinematic flow of documentary war images and, specifically, planes and pilots, will not only color the romantic heroic imaginary of Hollywood idols (e.g. Ronald Regan) and cinema to come but will also make evident what Feldman terms the mediatic condensation that provisions a blurring and sliding, an “aesthetics of the act.”

The brush in Frau mit Kind implies a pre-castrative whole, but, when posited upon a sub-symbolic scaffolding, the painting also serves a pedagogical purpose, demonstrating how images and the real imputedly exchange positions and valences. Thus, Richter’s photo-paintings make evident the porous nature of documentary realism, using distortion to undermine and question how visual frontality consolidates and disrobes facticity, immediacy, and truth claiming. Just as the bodies depicted in the Stammheim paintings are “doubly mortified and petrified by both political death (murder or suicide) and realist precision,” so too are the evidentiary and juridical “photopolitics” of war-imagery similarly disrobed by the spectator’s subjectivity. In the case of Frau mit Kind, the blur is a product of perception’s sun-bleached and bedimmed vantage, a trace of visual subjectivity made ghostly, thus haunting artefaction (the camera). This is what Feldman claims as “dismediation,” a historical-archecinematic process of historical estrangement that, in Richter’s paintings, transpires through the liquefaction of the photo-realist archive. “Truth-content” is drained as the moving optical psycho-geography of the spectator fabricates a kind of perspectival-cultural mapping, ushering in re-exposure and residual hybridity. As suicidal ascription (in the Stammheim paintings) or as militarization and a pre-signifier of the war machine (as in Richter’s 1964 Uncle Rudi, fig. 4),[6] the blur is an ellipsis.

–Ekin Erkan

[1] It is important to note that the 2005 print, Mustangs, is a re-execution of the 1964 Mustang-Staffel (Mustang Squadron).

[2] Guiliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 160-163.

[3] Allen Feldman, Archives of the Insensible (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016), 93-94. The paintings in question details the following: “[t]he monochrome paintings diversely showed Holger Meins surrendering in front of an armored car by an anonymous administration building[…,] Gudrun Ensslin walking to and from her cell […,]and her hanged body […,] Andreas Baader’s book- lined cell and his record player in which the gun that killed him was supposedly hidden […,] Baader’s corpse on the cell floor […,] a photographic studio- style portrait of Ulrike Meinhof (Youth Portrait), Meinhof’s body cut down and laid out on the cell floor (3 paintings titled Dead […]), and the public funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe, attended by several thousand supporters and a thousand heavily armed policemen…” Ibid., 95.

[4] Gertrud Koch, “The Richter- Scale of Blur,” October 62 (Autumn 1992), 136.

[5] Brian Winston, Messages : Free Expression, Media and the West from Gutenberg to Google (London: Routledge, 2005), 244.

[6] Uncle Rudi (1964) is based on a World War II–era family photograph of Richter’s uncle, who, here, is shown in a frontal pose in a Wehrmacht officer’s uniform.  He was later killed on the Russian front. The solider is showm, Feldman writes that, “smiling obliviously as he heads to the deadly Russian front” and proudly donning “the uniform that is already, in retrospect, his shroud. The blur is already fading away this life as archived in this photograph and as remaindered in his smile. His proud political assimilation as human capital to a war machine appears through the blur as a suicidal ascription.” Allen Feldman, Archives of the Insensible, 100.

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