Gerhard Richter (12 October 1986, “Notes”):
What shall I paint? How shall I paint?Richter, in a 1990 interview with Sabine Schütz:
‘What’ is the hardest thing, because it is the essence. ‘How’ is easy by comparison. To start off with the ‘How’ is frivolous, but legitimate. Apply the ‘How’, and thus use the requirements of technique, the material and physical possibilities, in order to realize the intention. The intention: to invent nothing—no idea, no composition, no object, no form—and to receive everything: composition, object, form, idea, picture. Even in my youth, when I somewhat naively had ‘themes’ (landscapes, self-portraits), I very soon became aware of this problem of having no subject. Of course I took motifs and represented them, but this was mostly with the feeling that these were not the real ones, but imposed, dog-eared, artificial ones. The question ‘What shall I paint?’ showed me my own helplessness, and I often envied (still do envy) the most mediocre painters those ‘concerns’ of theirs, which they so tenaciously and mediocrely depict (I fundamentally despise them for it).
In 1962 I found my first escape hatch: by painting from photographs, I was relieved of the need to choose or construct a subject. I had to choose the photographs, of course; but I could do that in a way that avoided any commitment to the subject . . .
My own statements about my lack of style and lack of opinion were largely polemical gestures against contemporary trends that I disliked—or else they were self-protective statements, designed to create a climate in which I could paint what I wanted.And, in a 1986 interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh:
But you have also said that it doesn’t necessarily matter what one paints. And by painting the clothes-drier or the stag or the housewife you show that it really doesn’t.
But then you can also see all of that as a coherent theme; and then it does matter. All these themes—the clothes drier, the family on the sofa, the stag –are also highly selective.
Wasn’t there a touch of irony as well?
I never think that way. If I ever did admit to any irony, I did so for the sake of a quiet life. Because at some point, of course, I did care about the motifs. I didn’t find the clothes-drier ironic; there was something tragic about it, because it represented life in low-cost housing with nowhere to hang the washing. It was my own clothes-drier, which I rediscovered in a newspaper—objectivized, as it were . . .
[Jasper] Johns was holding on to a culture of painting that had to do with Cézanne, and I rejected that. That’s why I painted from photographs, just in order to have nothing to do with the art of ‘peinture’, which makes any kind of contemporary statement impossible—A clumsy way of circumambulating my thinking, imprecise, about “subject,” and “method,” and “irony.” (I am not a systematic thinker. I “dodge” systematic thinking.)
. . .
There are contradictions here that are hard to understand. On the one hand you were attracted by Fluxus and Warhol, but on the other hand you’re saying ‘I couldn’t to that; all I wanted to do and all I could do was paint.’ You align your own painting with this anti-aesthetic impulse, and at the same time you maintain a pro-painting position . . .
So the negation of the productive act in art, as introduced by Duchamp and revived by Warhol, was never acceptable to you?
No, because the artist’s productive act cannot be negated. It’s just that it has nothing to do with the talent of ‘making by hand’, only with the capacity to see and to decide what is to be made visible. How that then gets fabricated has nothing to do with art or with artistic abilities.
I am certain that “seeing” is all, and that “seeing ironically” is nearly, of late, all we do. Is it that before seeing occurs, a sort of interposing scrim must be present? (One scrim is “irony,” another “awe,” another “beauty”? “Scrim” is used to identify period, or fashion.) I keep thinking of Christopher Brayshaw’s photographs, a series called “One Hundred Famous Ghosts.” An unfinished series that begins with some unassuming pictures of the commonest urban dejecta, tossed off plastic shopping bags. Not prettify’d, not ironized, just undeniably made noticeable, “seeable.” One long weekend in New York City, I saw Brayshaw “ghosts” everywhere—detritus made present—all, I think, one asks of art. (All art is able to do.)
Christopher Brayshaw, One Hundred Famous Ghosts (1), 2006
Is any of it “applicable” to writing? Is writing’s aim to make available? I recall a period of drift, writing. For a long period, every poem a love poem. That is the “subject.” A long period of thinking “there is no subject.” (“I have nothing to say.” “How write a poem if I have nothing to say.”) A short period of writing out of the sounds and rhythms that rattle around in my brainpan. Noting a trajectory (direction) amidst the emergent gibbers, pointing my trolley there. (The writing is so banal, I assuage myself with metaphor, gussying it up: “trolley.” “Method” is banal.) A shorter period of writing out of the flotsam and jetsam (dejecta) of the “outside.” (Everything begins “outside.” In the Blue Ridge mountains the metal in my teeth made a radio of my mouth—me, à la recherche du Nashville warblers. I have no metal in my teeth. Invention is “banal.”)
I do think the writing must change. The smugness, the frippery, the abject stances, the frivolous clip. Any “how” becomes a poem whose subject is precisely that “how.” (Every sestina is precisely about “the sestina,” and little more.) (Every “flarfwerke” says the same old same old.) What is needed is (temporary) (provisional) invisible forms—one way to make “subject” (“content”) available (“necessary”) again. Writing in the forms of the majority. (I must repeat myself, I do repeat myself: that A. R. Ammons story, surrounded by hippie detritus, or pirate-punks, Ammons saying: “I’m so fuckin’ crazy I don’t need to wear crazy clothes.”) That’s one “how.”
Lines Found in a Strongbox
That Orpheus that
In one life-
Time had made
Applications to as
Many gods as
There be days
In the year,
(And thence perhaps
It was that
Mexico had so
Many Temples) grew
Wiser by more
Observation, and left
In a Will
That there was
But One. ’Twere
Well if we
Did so too,
Profit by that
Experience, devest our
Selves of all
Our aiery poetick
Dependances betimes, and
Roll our selves
Wholly upon God;
’Twere the only
Probable thriving policy
In the world.