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Painting Negation: Gerhard Richter's Negatives

Author(s): Peter Osborne

Source: October, Vol. 62 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 102-113
Published by: The MIT Press
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Painting Negation: Gerhard

Richter's Negatives*


DAGUERREOTYPE-Will take the place

of painting. (See Photography.)
PHOTOGRAPHY-Will make painting
obsolete.(See Daguerreotype.)

Flaubert, Dictionaryof
Received Ideas

Of all the issues raised by Richter's paintings, perhaps the most intractable
is that of where to place them within a critical history of contemporary art. For
it is a paradox of Richter's work that while it derives both its force and its
modernity from the consistency of its address to a single problem-the problem
of the continuing possiblity of painting as a historically significant activity-it
is precisely this consistency that threatens to cut it off from the wider history
of which it is a part, to enclose it within the horizon of a self-contained will to
paint and thereby, implicitly, to block off that very future for painting which it
might otherwise be thought to have opened up. There is something exceptional,
something historicallyexceptional, about Richter's work that has yet to be fully
clarified. And this is not because it avoids or is in any way displaced from the
issues of its time, but rather because of the specific form and, indeed, the
peculiar successof its engagement with them. Furthermore, it would seem to be
Stesomething about the particular temporal logic of this engagement-what
fan Germer has described as its "dialectical mediation of proximity and
An earlier version of a part of this essay was published in Art and Design, "Profile on
Contemporary Painting," vol. 7, no. 3/4 (1992).
This essay, and the three essays on Gerhard Richter that follow, derive from talks given at
the conference "History, Photography, Memory in the Paintings of Gerhard Richter" at the Tate
Gallery, London, December 7, 1991. The conference was organized by Andrew Benjamin and Peter
Osborne in conjunction with the Richter exhibition, curated by Sean Rainbird, that was held there
between October 30, 1991, and January 12, 1992, and it was sponsored by the Tate Gallery and
the Goethe-Institut, London.

GerhardRichter.Alfa Romeo. 1965.

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distance"'-that imparts to Richter's paintings their broader meaning as sites

for the exploration of the dilemmas intrinsic to painting. Richter's paintings,
one might say, are timely only insofar as they are untimely; untimely only insofar
as they emerge out of the most thorough immersion in the artistic problems of
their day. Foremost among these problems is the continuing challenge to painting, of whatever kind, presented by the power of the photographic image.
In what follows I offer a preliminary attempt at a reconstruction of the
art-historical logic of Richter's work as it presents itself within the conceptual
space of a double negation: of painting by photography and photography by
painting. In the process I hope to shed some light upon the ontological status
of contemporary painting and to give an indication of the contribution that a
fuller analysis of Richter's work has to make to the rethinking of the history of
Painting as a Means for Photography
The idea that photography is a threat to painting is as old as photography
itself; as old, in fact, as modernism. Painting after photography has been different from painting before. Yet for all that has gone between, the question
persists: how to paint, why to paint, what to paint, "after photography"? Richter's work takes up this question at the beginning of the 1960s at the moment
of its second major historical reprise, the moment of crisis of the hegemonic
project in postwar American and European painting: the crisis of modernist
abstraction. Richter's response is simple, yet ambivalent: to return to the source
of the crisis (the displacement of painting from its naturalistic representational
function) and address painting's historical position directly, not as a description,
but as a task: painting "after" photography as painting "in the manner of" the
photograph; painting as photo-painting. Richter's response to the recurrence
of the crisis of painting was not to search for new artistic media, to seek to
expand the extension of the term art-undoubtedly the dominant tendency of
the time-although he was involved in certain notorious Fluxus happenings in
Disseldorf in 1963. Rather, it was, and remains, to paint: to seek out new ways
of painting that avoid the dual pitfalls of a redundant figuration and the inflated
subjectivism, idealism, and existential weightlessness of various related forms of
abstraction. By the very fact of continuing to paint, Richter set himself against
the more radical artistic (and anti-artistic) impulses of his day.
The use of photographs as the source, basis, or subject of paintings performs a number of different functions in Richter's early work. In the first place,
the objectivity or givenness of the photographic image is used to counter the
Stefan Germer, "Unbidden Memories," in GerhardRichter: 18. Oktober1977, trans. Daniel
Anthony Iezzi, Julia Bernard, and Shaun Whiteside (London: Institute of Contemporary Art in
association with Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1989), p. 7.

perceived subjectivism of painting at two distinct levels: extrinsically, by taking

away the responsibility for the representational content from the painting and
displacing it onto the photography, and intrinsically, by thereby predetermining
the compositional form of the picture and reducing its representational task to
that of the apparent replication or simple reproduction of the mechanically
produced image, in painterly mimicry of the aspiration to objectivity of the
naturalistic representational function itself, usurped by photography from an
older tradition in painting. At this level, such painting may be seen to function
as a quasi-photographic reproduction of photography, insofar as photography
has here become the paradigm or model for the "objective" reproduction of an
image. In this respect, the early photo-paintings may be seen to partake fully
in the recognition of the historical negation of painting by photography, while
refusing both the orthodox modernist response of an affirmative withdrawal
into painterly autonomy through abstraction (be it in the name of spiritual or
"pure painterly" values) and the more radical avant-gardist rejection of painting
GerhardRichter. Cityscape, Madrid. 1968.



altogether (the readymade). Photo-painting, one might say, is an affirmationof

It would be a mistake, therefore, to see Richter's photo-paintings as painterly representations of objects that use photographs simply as models or mediating forms to secure the objectivity of the image. Rather, they are paintings
of photographs that produce the inevitable side effect of a doubly distanced
reference to the object-a secondary function the secondariness that is initially
signified by the occasional inclusion of text within the picture or by some other
manipulation of the picture frame.3 At the same time, however, this doubling
of the distance of the painting from the "real" object in the photograph should
not be taken to signify some primacy of form over content, some purely formalist play with modes of representation, since the "content" here is the photograph itself-both the particular photograph and, through it, the practice of
photography, in all the richness, depth, and range of its cultural reference.4
This does not make it an "updating" of the readymade in reaction to its reification, as claimed
by Germer. (See Stefan Germer, "Retrospective Ahead," in GerhardRichter, ed. Sean Rainbird and
Judith Severne [London: Tate Gallery, 1991], pp. 25-26, which follows Benjamin Buchloh, " 'Readymade,' photographie et peinture dans la peinture de Gerhard Richter," in GerhardRichter [Paris,
1977], pp. 11-58.) Reification is the point of the readymade. The problem it faces over time is not
reification, but routinization: the dissipation of the negativity of the strategy of pure nomination
over time. Nor should Richter's photo-paintings be confused with either photorealism (the adoption
of a certain photographic opticality as a visual ideal) or Warhol's silkscreen paintings, with which
they are often compared (although they are obviously related). Photo-painting acknowledges the
historical import of the readymade insofar as the photographs upon which it is based are readymade
pictures, the images of which are raised to the power of art, in part, by their selection by the artist
as the basis for paintings. But this does not so much "update" the readymade as regress it to the
status of an artistic material. For it is no mere nomination here that renders the photographic
image "art," but its transformation into a traditional artistic medium (painting). If anything, photopainting thus passes an ironic comment on the failure of the readymade to secure itself a future
independent of the model from which it derived (photography). For an interpretation of the
readymade as a "delayed action" of photography, see Thierry de Duve, "A propos du readymade,"
Parachute 7 (Spring 1977), pp. 19-22. As will be clear from what follows, this piece is greatly
indebted to Germer's essay for the stimulation it provided to clarify the philosophical issues at stake
in the relations between painting, photography, and the readymade in Richter's work.
See, for example, Folding ClothesHorse (1962) and Alfa Romeo (1965), both of which were
exhibited at the recent Pop Art Show at the Royal Academy in London (see Pop Art [London: Royal
Academy of Arts, 1991], pp. 191 & 193), where they were generally treated by reviewers of the
exhibition as poor continental imitations of a quintessentially Anglo-American form. Richter himself
must shoulder some of the blame for such misreadings, having declared himself a German Pop
artist while in Paris in 1963-in part in a spirit of ironic reversal (in tune with the coining of the
phrase "capitalist realism" to describe the "Living with Pop" event at a furniture store in Diisseldorf
in October of the same year) and in part, one suspects, as a marketing strategy that misfired once
he moved away from this style of photo-painting, since it impeded recognition of the continuity of
his project. With the increasingly nationalistic marketing of German art in the international art
world in the 1970s and '80s, the inappropriate label of "German Pop" was one that stuck. Richter
would have to wait until the late 1980s for anythng approaching the international reputation
accorded his German peers, by which time his turn to large-scale abstraction had introduced new
ambiguities into his work that enabled it to be read (and misread) within quite different, and more
traditional, terms.
It does not seem irrelevant, for example, that many of the early photo-paintings are of

Painting Negation: GerhardRichter'sNegatives


The purpose of these paintings, Richter has maintained, was not to use
photography as a means for painting, but "to use painting as a means for
photography"5-as a means, one might say, for the interrogation of the photograph as a cultural form, even perhaps, paradoxically, for its elevation. Photopainting acts to add a moment of cognitive reflection, of historical and representational self-consciousness, to the experience of the photographic image. It
creates a space and a time for reflection upon that image which is qualitatively
different from that of the photograph itself, haunted as such experience is by
the trace of the object. Every photograph, Barthes has argued, is "a certificate
of presence": the presence of the past within the present.6 Every photo-painting
is also a certificate of presence, but of another kind: thepresenceof the photograph
in representation.This is a presence that can only be marked beyond the photograph itself, by a different representational form. It is this presence of photography within the paintings that, to return to Germer's phrase quoted above,
establishes them as a "mediation of proximity and distance": proximity and
distance to the photograph (the presence of the past within the present), proximity and distance to history (the social power of the photographic image). It is
this dialectical mediation, in turn, that makes photo-painting in some way emblematic of the dilemma of contemporary painting: the dilemma of its relation
to the history of its negation.
Photo-painting is an affirmation of photography by painting. Yet it is also,
thereby, a form of painting: an affirmation of painting in the face of photography. For all their acknowledgment of the hegemony of photography as a
means of image production, for all their participation in the negation of painting's function of naturalistic representation by photography, Richter's photopaintings remain, insistently, paintings. If the use of photographs as the subjects
of the paintings, along with the quasi-photographic aspects of their form, signifies a recognition of the historical negation of painting by photography, such
pictures nonetheless enact a painterly negation of this negation, a reappropriation
of photography by painting, that would seem to seek to rescue painting, as
photo-painting, from its fallen position-however little this may have been the
original intent of these pictures. The question thus arises as to the meaning of
women, or that these women have often been the subjects of violent deaths. The point is illustrated
by the following works: Lovers in a Forest (1966), Emma (1966), Helga Matura (1966), Student (1967),
Olympia (1967), Eight Student Nurses (1971), Portrait of a Young Woman (1988), Confrontation(1988),
Dead (1988). The idea of an intrinsic connection between photography, death, and identity, established by the temporality (or extratemporality) peculiar to the photographic image, has been central
to much recent work on photography. See in particular Roland Barthes, CameraLucida: Reflections
on Photography(1980), trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984) and Philippe Dubois, L'acte
photographique(Paris: Nathan and Labor, 1983).
Rolf Schon, "Interview with Gerhard Richter," in Gerhard Richter: 36. Biennale di Venezia
(Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1972), p. 23, quoted by Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p. 47.
Barthes, CameraLucida, pp. 87-88.



this double negation, of painting by photography and photography by painting.

What kind of painting does it begin?
Negating the Negation
Philosophically, one can distinguish at least three quite different versions
of the idea of a double negation. First, there is the mathematical model of the
double negative as a return to the starting point, with the second negation a
literal cancellation of the first. According to this model, the essential nature of
painting as an art form would be uneffected by the mediating role of the
photographic image. This is, however, an ahistorical and therefore untenable
position. Secondly, there is the Hegelian model of double negation as supersession (Aufhebung):the transcendence, preservation, and hence transfiguration
of the relation established by the first negation, as it is viewed as an aspect or
moment of a wider process driven by the successive production and resolution
of contradictions. This is double negation as a new beginning at a higher conceptual level.7 In this case, we would be talking about a qualitative transformation in the meaning of painting, a new positivity, which would begin the
history of painting anew.8 This is the strongest historical claim that can be made
for Richter's work: that it begins painting anew. Yet one should be wary of it.
For it carries the burden of a certain triumphantalism, almost wholly foreign
to the restlessness and skepticism of so much of Richter's work, in which the
risk of experimentation remains open, as it must, to the possibility (indeed, the
necessity) of failure; in which, in fact, at one level, success (success in painting)
is at risk of becoming the greatest failure at all. More generally, such a position
attributes to painting the capacity to overcome, by itself, the contradictions of
its historical situation, to raise itself above them and simply paint them away.
Any such capacity would obliterate the tension in Richter's work-the historical
tension that gives it its deeper meaning and wider cultural resonance-in return
for a merely affirmative art.9
Finally, there is that notion of a double negation which places itself between
these two conceptions, in the name of giving dialectics a materialist turn: Adorno's conception of a negative dialectic in which the second negation, rather than
either returning us to our starting point (painting as it was prior to its relation
to photography) or reconstituting the identity of each term (painting and pho7.
Hegel's Logic: Being Part One of theEncyclopediaof thePhilosophicalSciences(1830), trans. William
Wallace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 142.
Germer, "Retrospective Ahead," p. 24.
Herbert Marcuse, "The Affirmative Character of Culture" (1937), in Negations: Essays in
Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 88-133. To assert such a capacity would also, of
course, be a betrayal of the totalizing perspective of Hegel's thought in the name of a schematic
application of his logic to the understanding of a particular cultural sphere. It would be to treat
painting as a self-sufficient form.

tography) from the standpoint of a new, "higher," positivity (the Hegelian

reading), marks time, dwells on the reciprocal negativity of the nonidentity of
the two terms, and finds there, within the determinacy of their mutual negation,
the utopian shadow of the reconciliation it is denied. "What is negated," Adorno
writes, "is negative, until it has passed. This is the decisive break with Hegel.""'
On this reading, Richter's paintings are "negatives": negatives of paintings,
negatives of photographs. It is this position that I want to defend.
Richter's paintings stand to the history of painting as enactments of a
double negation in which the second negation (the negation of photography by
photo-painting) matches and reinforces the first (the negation of painting by
photography) without either being superseded. It is a kind of stalemate that
points beyond itself only negatively, in the form of a hope: the hope, perhaps,
for a labor beyond the alienation of craft, conception, and technology. Richter
may, like others, paint after the purported end of painting, in the self-con10.
Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics,trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1973), p. 160. See Hegel's claim that "reality itself is only in so far as it is still confronted by
a being which it has not sublated," in Hegel's Science of Logic (1812; 1831), trans. A. V. Miller
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 113.
Gerhard Richter. Skull. 1983.



sciousness of that purported end, but he does not thereby begin painting anew
so much as keep it alive in the steady, uncertain state that it has gotten into, by
exploring the state within painting itself. In painting the negation of painting,
however, Richter cannot but paint (enact) another negation as well: the negation
of that negation by painting. His pictures are thus double negatives, acts of
negation in which, as Hegel puts it, "posited as affirmative," negation becomes
determinate." If Richter's paintings are philosophical explorations in paint of
the state of contemporary painting, then they do not so much transcend this
state as register it, immanently, in a series of diverse and innovative ways. It is
from this stance-at least up until the late 1970s, when there is a definite
change in the balance of Richter's work-that the paintings acquire their
strangely distanced melancholy quality. (Furthermore, the gray paintings and
constructive works, I would suggest, stand in the same relation to other, selfnegating episodes in the history of painting as the photo-paintings stand to
Richter's paintings mark time, the historical time of their production, the
time of the crisis of painting, and they mark time with paint. Reflectively
exploring the sources and dimensions of this crisis through their acts of painterly
appropriation, they cannot but contest it, even as they confirm it; cannot but
confirm it in the very act of their contestation. Yet this is not to say that Richter,
through cunning, merely postpones a predetermined end to painting.'2 Rather,
it is the interpretation of negation as an end (finis) that the paintings contest.
"What is negated is negative until it has passed." What, then, is the status of
this negative painting, this painting that keeps painting alive, marking time; this
painting that, as Germer puts it, however much it may seem to begin painting
anew, "can only take place on an individual basis and in a purely intellectual
sense"?'3 What is the force of these qualifications? It is at this point that it
becomes necessary to return to the question of the readymade.
The effect of the readymade on the concept of art cannot be denied. "For
more than thirty-five years, what has been most significant in modern art has
worked at the interpretation of the readymade's resonance, sometimes through
compulsive repetition, sometimes through violent denial, but also sometimes
through a meaningful rethinking of it, and in any case, always through a
recognition (even if only an implicit one)."14 It is harder, however, to specify
the precise modality of this effect in different places at different times, and
Germer, "Retrospective Ahead," p. 24.
Ibid., p. 25.
Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism:On Marcel Duchamp'sPassagefrom Painting to the Readymade (1984), trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 188.

Painting Negation: GerhardRichter'sNegatives


especially with regard to painting. As de Duve has brilliantly shown, the effect
of the readymade on the concept of painting was the introduction of a profound
undecidability. In "naming as a possible painting a thing that it is impossible to
name a painting," the readymade seemed to break the bond that tied the name
of painting to the history of its craft, rendering it radically undecidable.15 It
would be a mistake, however, to conflate the undecidability produced by a
particular art within a particular historical conjuncture with the logically constitutive undecidability of the idea of a pure nomination-however
closely the
two may be linked in the conjuncture in question. For while the readymade
may "speak of the conditions for the survival of painting in a society that renders
its craft impossible" (namely, that it sever its links with the craft completely)
while simultaneously registering the impossibility of any such survival (since the
name painting would "no longer designate anything but the exhaustion of its
own naming"),16 the undecidability that it thereby introduces into the name
painting is not left unaffected by the act of its introduction. The readymade
works on the conditions that it both establishes and articulates. As such, despite
all appearances (indeed, despite its own explicit logic), it does not, in fact,
demonstrate the impossibility of painting-or even its absolute undecidability
-so much as serve to delimit its possibilities,by negation. By carrying the logic
of the painterly avant-garde (the successive abandonment of craft-specific conventions) to its absurd conclusion (the abandonment of all conventions and
hence the establishment of an absolute conventionality of pure nomination), "it
grants painting, which it names and does not name, an open-ended reprieve."'7
Painting is not impossible. Only the old conception of painting is impossible:
impossible to justify. Nor is its signifier undecidable, except in the vacuum of a
purely logical space, outside of history. Rather, it is the undecidability of the
readymade that establishes the terrain of the decidability of painting by establishing a divide (an ontological divide) between painting before and after the
readymade. Henceforth, all painting worthy of the name will have to legitimate
itself conceptually as art over, above, and beyond the continuity of its relation
to the history of its craft by incorporating a consciousness of the crisis of that
history into its modes of signification, into its strategic deployment of craft. All
painting that aspires to art must be postconceptual. It is within the terms of this
idea of postconceptual painting that Richter's strategy of double negation is to
be understood and judged.
Photo-painting is one way of painting after the readymade that incorporates a consciousness of the crisis of painting into its constitutive proceduresprocedures which, while they may be tied to the history of the craft through
technique, derive both their extrinsic rationale and intrinsic logic from their

Ibid., pp. 163, 157.

Ibid., pp. 155, 158.
Ibid., p. 162.



critical reflection on the conceptof painting itself. If painting after the readymade
must reestablish a relation to its craft, this is nonetheless only a condition for
its status as painting, not for its status as art. It is in the dialectic of these elements
(concept and craft), a dialectic of proximity and distance (to painting), that the
conundrum of Richter's exceptionalism connects up to the alleged individuality
and intellectualism of his project. Richter's work, I suggested, is exceptional,
not because it is displaced from the field of contemporary art, but rather because
of the peculiar way in which it seems to distance itself from this field by the
very success of its strategy of dealing with it. Yet is this supposed "exceptionalism" really anything different from the individualism and intellectualism that
Germer associates with the project of continuing to paint at all?
Both the individualism and the intellectualism of contemporary painting
carry the weight of a historical condition. If the crisis of painting is the condition
within which all painting worth the name must locate itself, and from which no

GerhardRichter. Uran 2 (Abstract Painting). 1989.

Painting Negation: GerhardRichter'sNegatives


painting worth the name can escape (since it is a socially and technologically
based crisis in its collective cultural function), this not only necessitates that all
attempts to negotiate this crisis be individual in character, but it also attests to
the symptomaticsignificance of such individuality. Symptomatic individuality surpasses itself when raised to the power of a historical representation, through
interpretation. Yet what I am calling Richter's exceptionalism exceeds a merely
symptomatic conception of representative individualism. For it derives from the
success of his particular artistic strategy (double negation) a success that everywhere courts a certain failure: that point at which the reestablishment of the
connection to craft would negate the conceptual tension in whose service it is
restoration of beauty.
Richter's work is exceptional, historically exceptional, in that it is produced
at the point of a contradiction that it endlessly (and systematically) mediates,
that it can never resolve, but which, in the self-consciousness of this impossibility,
it is thereby able to render determinate: a contradiction between the end of
painting as a living form of collective representation and its continuation within
the art institution on the basis of a serial ingenuity that, symptomatic in its
individuality, carries the weight of a historical condition. Richter adopts a variety
of strategies to make painting out of the self-consciousness of this contradiction,
and he produces a variety of forms of painting. Yet each derives its meaning
and its importance from this common condition, and from the way in which it
is taken up, replayed, and affirmed within the work, within the very act of
painting. Posited as affirmative, negation becomes determinate. The doubt that
lingers concerns the extent to which the latest works (the abstracts) maintain
the tension produced by such a double negativity, the moment of historical
reflexivity, and the extent to which this is annihilated or suppressed in a merely
affirmative celebration of the possibilities of paint.18

For the beginnings of a critique of Richter's abstracts along these lines, emphasizing their
vulnerability to their conditions of reception, see the final section of my "Modernism, Abstraction
and the Return to Painting," in ThinkingArt: Beyond TraditionalAesthetics,ed. Andrew Benjamin and
Peter Osborne (London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1991), p. 70-76.