It’s been a long silence I know. I closed up my Sydney studio and stopped painting, and writing about painting, while I focussed on getting some creative writing out into the ebook world. Two down and two to go in the next couple of months, I hope. Visit the Writing Zone for more on that.
Meanwhile I have a new studio space now and although much smaller it is so beautiful I know I am going to be able to work there, both for some small-scale painting and more intensive art writing. It’s definitely time to revive the mountains projects. I thought I would write more about mountains artists (and galleries and shows) at the same time.
So looking forward to the Gerhard Richter at QAGOMA in a few weeks. Was too late to get tickets to the one day seminar. It looks like a great program overall, although some seriously important work is missing. Apparently it was not possible to get the Baader-Meinhof works, and not sure how much of the 60s monochrome will make it either. It is going to be interesting going back to my earlier thoughts on Richter in the light of the exhibition. Every possible thanks and gratitude to the curators at Queensland, may they receive all praise for actually getting this to happen. More on Richter-related matters soon.
Meanwhile, spring has brought the most stunning sights to our gardens. I’ve always been fascinated by flower painting, but cringed sometimes at the way it so easily becomes twee and decorative. The formalism of the Dutch flower painters is fascinating but so close to mortuary in its stillness. What I saw in the gardens this year was vivid activity and movement, bees sweeping in and out of the trees, wind blowing tiny blossoms everywhere so they covered the grey concrete paths. Maybe I should experiment. These are all photographs taken casually in one or other of our gardens in the Blue Mountains, just in the past couple of weeks. Another Mountains project? Colour? Contrast? Form? Very different from the bush monochromes I was beginning to work on.
More thoughts on the Germans. Gerhard Richter is by far the leader in the top ten most expensive living German artists. But even leaving Richter aside, German art, particularly painting, is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popularity among international collectors. Alexander Forbes writing for Artnet News in April 2014 reported that the power of German art in the market has actually increased since the 2008 recession. There is no sign of it slowing down. Richter himself believes the market for art generally, and for his own art in particular, has gone crazy. Richter criticizes the art market.
Forbes suggests that German art’s penchant for “stringent conceptualism and a highly art historical approach likely proves a safe bet for value retention regardless of economic conditions.
I want to hold that idea. It suggests that art which reflects both conceptual thought – a philosophical element – as well as an embedded engagement with history is likely to hold its value best. On this analysis the German art market is likely to continue to ever higher peaks.
Richter’s mysterious Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan) painted in 1968 during the height of his blurred monochrome period sold recently for $37,125,000 at Sotheby’s 2013 contemporary art sale. His paintings hold the first 53 places on the top achieving auction sales of German art, 33 achieving over $10 million.
The range of Richter’s work is astonishing. Probably best known for his “blurred monochromes” of the 1960s, his abstract works have also taken on a special aura of mystery, seeming to move away from figuration and narrative completely. You really need to read Richter’s own writings (which are extensive) to get an idea of what he is thinking in this strand of his work, which seemingly just gets better and better. Cage 5, 2006, (below) is a vastly large oil painting reflecting back on his early vision, yet imbued with endless hints and depths of experience which could be landscape or water-surface or a close-up of a lot of brushstrokes – something he also explored in the 1980s. But he invites us to think of a cage, and that opens up a whole different set of associations.
The sheer scale of Richter’s work is entrancing, but so is the sense of our shared collective history, that mid-twentieth century Europe with its horrors and excesses which he opens up to us from the 1960s on. Neo Rauch, my second favourite German artist, does the same, although it a totally different way. You can read my academic article on Neo Rauch here.Neo Rauch Post Socialist Vision, Collective Memories
It is overwhelming in so many ways to enter the Richterian world. Fortunately it is also easy, as Richter’s own website is an absolute miracle of clarity, order and revelation. You can find (almost) anything he has ever done there, complete with full references, links to written and audio discussions and interviews, the ability to zoom in onto details, and the complete presentation of his Atlas project, which really is no more than a full record of every image he has collected (or photographed) in his life. Explore the miracle of Richter’s work here.
Unbelievably there is almost nothing of Richter’s art in pubic collections in Australia. The AGNSW at least made some effort and holds three items, a painted monochrome sphere from 1989, a photograph from 1967, and his strange version of a nude descending a staircase, titled Ema, from 1992.
The Art Gallery of South Australia holds one of his luminous abstracts (Abstraktes Bild) from 1977 (Catalogue Raisonne: 424). * (Eric Clapton sold another in the Abstraktes Bild series for 21.3 million British pounds in 2013). One of Richter’s finest 1990’s abstracts CR:752-3, 1990, 225 x 200cm) is held in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, purchased with corporate funding assistance from Westpac Bank, and the NGA in 2003 purchased Juno, oil on canvas 300 x 250 (NGA 2004.2).Richter’s 1995 Abstract at the NGV
Gerhard Richter’s work is now so valuable that there will be little or no opportunity to ever acquire it in Australia. Should public collections in Australia be more open to contemporary work from outside Australia? Why German artists, and not those from Romania, Holland, or wherever? Should we just focus on local art and artists and make a kind of nationalist stand? This might be a valid position but when you consider the extent of Australian gallery holdings of recent American and UK artists you just cannot help but conclude that the good old neo-colonial world order underpins every level of public culture, including public art. Sensible use of public assets or parochialism and subservience to a highly limited Anglophone culture sphere?
*Strangely though this rare work hardly features on the Gallery’s site. No image of it is available there. It has been shown only once in public as part of the exhibition “Making Nature: Masters of Early European Landscape Art” (June-September 2009). Why it was included in that collection is a mystery as Richter can hardly be considered “early” and this painting is very far from one of his landscapes. An image of it is available on Richter’s website – just click on the “Abstracts” collection with the CR number 424.
Australia has never had much of a taste for German art. Apart from the epic romances of Austrian born Eugene von Guerard (1811-1901) who towered over all others during his time in Australia from 1852-1992, and produced the most magnificent landscapes unrivalled in scale and grandeur then or maybe ever, German painting has never figured much in Australian galleries or exhibitions. Nor does it feature much on Australian art school curricula although Gerhard Richter turns up here and there.
It is true that Australian art tastes have generally been conservative and provincial anyway, so perhaps it is understandable that the work of contemporary German artists is of little interest. But in America the impact of German art has been powerful over several decades and shows no decline. The Americans however seem to pick up German artists and movements just as they start fading in Germany itself .
In 2014, New York’s MOMA offered a huge retrospective of the work of Sigmar Polke (“Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010”). Polke, a contemporary of Richter, is seen as a pioneer of the formal cleverness and ironic perspective which underlies much of today’s painting. The dark irony of much of his work seems to open up a bitter playground where the gesture sits side by side with dexterous painterliness while poking fun at our aesthetic convictions. Polke was both more and less serious than Richter. Put them together and one illuminates the absences in the other.
Also unlike Richter, Polke played with everything: drawing, painting, sculpture, film, video and sound. Richter was obsessed with the visual image, the photograph in particular, and the peculiar position of painting given the existence of photography. Polke’s work is harder to assess if only because it is so much more various. And influences are far more visible: pop art, American abstraction, psychedielia, a rabid experimentalism which the far more restrained Richter eschews.
All this messing around with materials should make Polke a great favourite among contemporary artists who don’t actually want to paint. Creating abstractions on glass using old lamp soot, flinging about different kinds of paint, and attacks on the picture plane itself all have had a turn. These processes once were shocking although now they do seem fairly routine.
At times Polke seems to hover in Richterian shadows. Frau Herbst und ihre zwei Tochter (Mrs Autumn and Her Two Daughters, 1991) seems redolent of early Richter, with its base in a nineteenth century French engraving on a massive canvas where competing representations alternate across the canvas. Cheap conventional images of German guard posts in the “Watchtower” paintings reference historial trauma, almost mechanically.
No contemporary German artist can challenge the dominance of Richter, but the shame of it is that here in Australia we rarely get the chance to see any of them, let alone Richter, in a full show. My first encounter with a Richter painting in Australia was that wonderfully mysterious painting of Helga Matura with her Fiance. For me, this image is emblematic of everything Richter was trying to achieve in the 1960s. There it was, the sole Richter representative in a rather bedlamatic show, Pop to Popism a the Art Gallery of NSW, in 2014. There was a lot of fun to be had with the usual suspects, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Brett Whitely among them. (What? Brett Whitely as a Pop artist?) It was a good show but the inclusion of Richter as part of a Pop movement seemed very strange and his brooding, magical monochrome painting did not sit comfortably with the other male hysterics around it.
Polke responded constantly to changes in technology and their meaning for the reproduction of the image. In the late 1990s he worked on an endless series of photocopied works which occupied whole rooms of display space.
These days that generation of German artists is still influential, but maybe fading. The Leipzig school, the great Neo Rauch and his pals, also may be on the edge of exhausting their cred among the avant-garde. But if you don’t spend time in Germany and read the German art press there’s almost no way to find out. The Australian art scene is right to focus on our own, with its distinctive history and brilliant grasp of landscape, light and space. But there is a kind of underground urban sensibility which wells up now and then, and could gain a lot from exposure to German painting. I am thinking of it as opening up a counterpoint to the Australian brightness, a protected area where we can hide from all that light and insistent demand that everything be laid across vast landscapes which dwarf and minimize our presence. Australian Gothic is a recognized feature in Australian cinema. Maybe that sensibility is lurking around in painting as well.
For a really detailed discussion of Sigmar Polke, see: