MUSIC COMPOSED BY:
POETRY: W.S. Di Piero, Dean Young, Ann Lauterbach, Richard Howard, Paul Hoover, David Breskin, Connie Deanovich, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Michael Palmer, James McManus, Edward Hirsch, Jorie Graham
TEXTS: Klaus Kertess, Dave Hickey, Gerhard Richter
San Francisco Arts
Richter 858 Paintings
Inspire Multimedia Book
The German painter Gerhard Richter came of age in one of the most politically charged, tumultuous periods in history. Born in the 1930s Germany, he lived through Nazism, Communism and periods of relative freedom, creating works that are not only exquisite aesthetically, but also potent in their subject matter. "To my mind, he's a vivid mirror image of our very culture; its hopes, its doubts and its aspirations," observes Madeleine Grynsztejn, SFMOMA's senior curator of painting and sculpture. "He's one of the great painters of the 20th and 21st centuries."
A prolific artist who defies easy categorization, Richter is best known for paintings based on photography, which he deliberately blurs to make the images more difficult to perceive. (He may be most famous for a controversial series of 15 paintings of Baader-Meinhof, the German terrorist group active in the 1960s.) Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, a major retrospective of his work opening this month at SFMOMA, also shows that Richter, now 70, is a virtuoso of abstraction, which comprises a large percentage of his work.
As a complement to the larger exhibition, a suite of eight paintings by Richter, Abstract Pictures (858), is also on display. These works form the nucleus of a multimedia, interdisciplinary project, Richter 858, that is part artist's book and part glossy catalogue. Richter 858 contains reproductions of the 858 series: small-scale, vibrantly colored, kaleidoscopic, abstract pictures created in 1999 after Richter suffered a stroke. In the book, the paintings are shown at more than half-scale as well as in detail form; they are presented with poetry, a music compact disc, critical essays and Richter's reflections on art and the process of creating.
The book comes in an aluminum slip case that resembles one of the artist's empty canvases; it is the brainchild of David Breskin, a San Francisco journalist, record producer and poet who became intrigued by Richter in the mid-''80s. Aware of the wealth of Richter books already available, Breskin set out to create something unique. "I thought it might be interesting to make a book about one work of art that becomes diverse, multi-layered and polyphonic by having different voices and disciplines brought to bear," says Breskin, who was given carte blanche by the artist. "I wanted to create an alternative way of engaging with pictures."
Soon after encountering this particular group of paintings, which were reproduced in a small catalogue from the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Breskin began a correspondence with the artist. "It's a 19th-century style of relationship," he says. "He sent me stuff... I sent him stuff. I asked him questions. He sent me gifts." Breskin recalls that he was struck by "the explosion of polychrome" in the 858 series, something of a departure for an artist with an enduring passion for the color gray. (He made over 100 gray monochrome paintings in the late '60s and '70s.) In Breskin's view, music and poetry were natural companions for the works. "As a sequence, these hung together and swung in a musical sense, though not every series of Richter's argues aesthetically to be held together," he says. "Music was the first thing on my list. I feel there is a great affinity between music and painting. Music itself is the most abstract art form... it's the only art form we've come up with that we can't see... and poetry has the same kind of freedom in language that Richter has in his abstractions." Breskin called on his long-time friend, guitarist/composer Bill Frisell, to write a score with strings and guitar. The compact disc enclosed in the book has eight pieces of music that correspond with each of the eight paintings. Frisell's compositions reflect the tension between the discipline and spontaneity in the paintings.
"There is this element of improvisation in what [Richter] does," says Frisell. "One of the things I really connected with was that he's always trying to trick himself into being surprised, to keep himself in a state of innocence. As you get older, it's harder to get the same rush of discovery you have when you''re younger. He works to keep himself in that state of uncertainty and that's something I've struggled with for as long as I've been playing music."
"What Bill does is perfectly analogous to the way Richter makes abstract paintings," remarks Breskin. "Richter torques the paint; he scratches, he erases, he puts layer upon layer. Frisell plucks a string and puts it through a series of filters, torques it, warps it, varying the attack in all sorts of ways."
With Frisell on board, Breskin proceeded
to add what he calls "the fourth leg of the table." Through
his connections with other poets, Breskin, who is a member of the literati
himself and whose writing is included in the book, tapped an eclectic
group of 13 poets with radically different styles, including former
poet laureate Robert Hass, Ann Lauterbach, Edward Hirschthe new
head of the Guggenheim Foundation... and Brenda Hillman, among others.
Word of the project soon spread. "Poets know poets," says
Breskin, who also recruited Richard Howard, poetry editor of The Paris
Review, and Paul Hoover, editor of New American Writing, a literary
magazine, to contribute poems.
This excerpt is from "Time and Materials," a poem by Robert Hass:
To score, to scar, to smear, to streak,
"If there was ever an artist where you don't want limitations brought to your reading of the pieces, it's Richter," says Breskin. "I don't want to look at [his work] under a microscope. I want to open up the discussion, to make the field of vision larger."