Oriental Art- Master, First Semimonthly of February, 2010, ‘Art History in the Eyes of Artists’ Column
He Created One Kind of Skill -- Zhu Wei Talks About Richter's Paintings
by Zhu Wei
When one artist views another artist, I am pretty sure none of them would regard the others to be eye-pleasing, no matter how old they are or whether they have good luck or bad luck. Well, they are in the same field, do the same things and suffer pretty much the same tortures, and no one is better than the others. Therefore, it largely depends on who starts first. To judge whether the art of an era is good or bad and whether the artists are a batch of excellent creators or a group of shitheads, you have to wait for dozens of years or even for decades and after numerous argumentations of the subsequent art appreciators, experts and theoreticians before things are proved. Artists are just like those sorcerers who would mainly focus on whether you have removed the bad fortune for others or not, whether the humpback and the toothache are cured or whether those in poverty have get rid of poverty, and whether those immoral ones are becoming moral once and for all. Only through years of reputations can you be acknowledged and remembered as an excellent sorcerer.
Contemporary art of China has been staggering all the way till today, when it has entered into its last stage from the original muddleheaded private painting sales to the stage of successively cooperating with oversea galleries pending its entrance into various biennales and expositions, resulting in the entrance into auction, the last stage prematurely, and this batch of artists and their works have basically completed a transmigration.
These artists including me are not taking an easy life, too. China took the road out-and-out of using rural areas to encircle the cities and buying a flat in urban areas. With art mania in recent years, artists are just like kebabs that are roasted on fire with various reasons. For example, more than one media have made auction ranking lists, authority ranking lists, public welfare ranking lists, fashion ranking lists, fortunes ranking lists, annual ranking lists and removal & rebuilding ranking lists etc, any of which can scare the artists to the full but they have nothing to vindicate themselves. Ranking lists are different from artistic creations, which can not stomach the defense of the artists themselves and the artists are embarrassed to do so thus they often allow themselves to be trampled upon.
There might be originators among artists, but for them, no matter how various and colorful their artworks are, they could ultimately be measured by the following three perspectives, namely firstly, innovation; secondly, skill and thirdly, material. That is what we usually address as what to paint, how to paint and what to be used to paint, a breakthrough of any of these three can enable a person to be a master-level artist. Reviewing contemporary art in China, anyone who has some academic common sense and conscience can trace the origin back to the West consciously or unconsciously. Two artists, who have made tremendous influence on Chinese contemporary art, are not Shi Tao or Badashanren, not Ma Yuan or Xia Gui, but Warhol and Richter who came to China from a long distance away, and among whom Richter has the greatest impacts.
Richter had two well-known sayings: ‘For art, the best thing that could possibly happen is to quit partnership from the official side’. ‘From Duchamp onward, all creative things are ‘ready-made products’, even if they are hand painted.’
Richter’s success lies in his breakthrough in painting skill; when photography emerged, the accompanied impact it brought to painting as well as the existence problem of paintings became a jointly tough nut to be solved and faced by artists from all over the world. Many artists have been making different attempts, including cubism of Picasso, abstractionism of Kandinsky, surrealism of Chirico as well as Dadaism of Ernst etc. I feel that cubism of Picasso and the blur soft-abstract painting of Richter can be regarded as successful explorations.
Richter began to adopt photo-painting （Richter used ‘Vermalung’ to refer to his paintings of this kind, which could be understood as un-painting. Note by translator） since 1962, and he would choose some pictures which he feels good to duplicate and magnify. Richter, his painting is not like the so called realism painting, but he parts abstract drawings into small abstractness, soft abstractness and big abstractness while the blur pictures duplicated in his pictures are categorized to be soft abstractness. In this way, his works can avoid facing the current social maladies directly, but rather, he created a grey blur zone in both reality and ideal. He thought that blur pictures are the most perfect pictures which are absolute and do not receive any changes, thus they have autonomy without restriction and style, all expressed ways and contents in the pictures are what in his mind, which are neither right or left. He tried to color his pictures with an abstract and speculative tone like philosophy.
“What” is the most difficult thing because it is the essence; ‘how’ is relatively easy and those starting with ‘how’ are frivolous but legal, thus striving to find measures of ‘how to paint’ and thus using skill becomes a necessary condition which need possibilities of mastering materials and physics. The purpose is: nothing to create, no idea, no composition, no theme and no form, but accept all existing things: composition, theme, form, idea and image. Even when I was young, kind of innocently, I arranged ‘subjects’ (landscape painting, self-portrait) for my artworks before I soon realized that there was no such a problem as having no theme. Of course, I try to adopt themes and express them, but they are, to a large extent, emotional instead of being that true themes, which are intensified, long been used and artificial. The question of ‘what to paint’ showed my helplessness and I often envied and still envy those commonest painters who only focus on themselves and paint tenaciously and ordinarily in their own way,. (Yet I normally despise them for this). In 1962, I set up my first safety hatch: to paint according to photograph pictures which helped me escape from selection and establishment of themes. Of course, I have to choose photos. However, I can avoid any promise for themes by using images of anachronism. I impropriate pictures, not change them or transfer them into replica strategies of modern images (what Warhol and other artists are doing), which symbolizes an avoidance of themes with principles. Except for few exceptions (such as doors, windows, shadows and all other things that I don’t like), this principle is used till today.
Due to blur painting techniques innovated by Richter, he can accomplish tasks with ease and high proficiency when expressing the innovative subjects in order not to result in theme intensification nor being used by right wing or left wing etc. He created representative works including Uncle Rudy in 1965, Eight Students Nurses in 1966 and October, 18th, 1977 series in 1988 by using this technique. He tried to get closer on innovation of paintings to realities which would challenge some stereotyped concepts possessed by people to some extent. Richter and his family fled to West Germany from East Germany after the Second World War, so we can say that he has dual identity, which can enable him to think in a more objective and overall view towards the society. Richter’s father is an amiable member of the former national Social Party and a Nazi, which imposed a heavy burden for Richter and his families, be it in the then socialism camp or in the capitalism camp. It is also because of this that he painted Nazi soldiers in a style that is more true to life instead of castigating and criticizing them superficially. For a long time after the Second World War was ended, both the western camp with representative countries like UK and USA and socialism camp with the Soviet Union as the leading country proceeded with ruthless sanctions on Nazi Germany, and the Literature and art works at that time were no less drastic than that in the overthrowing of Gang of Four when the Cultural Revolution ended, when there also emerged large quantities of literature and art works featuring stylization and lacking of individuality.
Uncle Ruby of Richter appeared in the form of a blurred historical photo, which gives people refreshing new sense and makes people set eyes on descriptions of properly objective personalities that literature and art works should have, this photo caused a sensation at that time. In 2002 when Richter was 70 years old, New York Modern Art Museum ceremoniously introduced paintings of the same type with theme October, 18th, 1977 which attracted interests from peoples all around the world. October, 18th, 1977 series contained 15 paintings which included four groups of images and an independent group with 5 pieces of oil paintings, depicted some moments that members of the biggest terrorism organization namely the German Red Brigade were seized and died after going on a hunger strike. The theme Richter wanted to show is the living and death of four Germany social activity staffs who became terrorists and were disputable and these four peoples are Andres Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Holger Meins and Ulrike Meinhof. The full name of the painting is October, 18th, 1977, which is used to commemorate the day when bodies of Baader and Ensslin were found in the cell of Stadelheim Prison, meanwhile, there comrade-in-arms, the dying Jean Carl Rasp and the wounded Ilmkarde Mohler were also found at the same time. Stadelheim Prison is near Stuttgart, which was used to lock them who were sentenced to be murders and other political criminals. About three years earlier, on October, 2nd, 1974, the jailed radicals appealed and protested conditions of the jail by going on a hunger strike, during the process of which Meins died because of hunger. Not long after Meinhof was sentenced the life-long imprisonment, she hanged herself in her ward in Stadelheim Prison (May, 9th, 1976), and her death was judged as suicide, meanwhile, in the following year, on October, 18th, 1977, deaths of Baader, Ensslin and Rasp were also judged as suicides, though people universally doubted that they four were murdered.
When Richter depicted big conflicts and collisions in real society, he is basically standing from the perspective of an onlooker and can objectively retell this event. In order to manifest his own standpoint, he has been emerging as an independent artist featuring a little bit sense of academism sometimes.
When October, 18th, 1977 was exhibited in Ronan Foundation and the Grey Art Gallery in 1999, the hosting side took out a space especially for these pictures and files to be exhibited and narrated the history of German Red Brigade. The art gallery is defined that paintings are not just pure documentations, and information is essential, so if people want to fully understand paintings, they have to turn to the documentation. With the passing of time and with the growing up of generations upon generations, you can not expect that they would all know things in the past in detail, nor can you expect that people who witnessed the turbulence of that era to memorize them vividly. Richter agreed to arrange some separate spaces to display materials and notes, but he once sighed with emotions in his diary: the only place that is not good lies in that people would spend more time in reading than they do in appreciating the paintings.
Objectively speaking, Richter is not innovative in using of painting materials, and he basically followed all the materials used by oil painters for the last hundreds of years and did not have any undulations and breakthroughs compared with Warhol in terms of creative mentality. Why Richter succeeded lies in the fact he created a brand new approach in painting, which is an important breakthrough in oil painting skill, and thus brought a brand new esthetic approach to people. This can fully prove Richter as an incontrovertible master-level person who is worthy of this name in the contemporary history of art all around the world.