Richter 858

MUSIC: Bill Frisell


Hardcover: $250.00
This sumptuous, limited-edition volume combines 61 unparalleled reproductions of Gerhard Richter's painting suite Abstract Picture (858-1 through 858-8) with poems by thirteen American poets, essays by Dave Hickey and Klaus Kertess, and a full-length music CD by Bill Frisell all inspired by the artist's work. Oversized, with brushed-aluminum slipcase and laminated box.
FORMAT: Slipcased in aluminum, 17 x 12.5 in 120 pgs 68 color BW duotone

PICTURES: Gerhard Richter

PERFORMED BY: Bill Frisell (guitar), Hank Roberts (cello), Eyvind Kang (violin) & Jenny Scheinman (violin)

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 Monthly
October 2002

Richter 858 Paintings Inspire Multimedia Book
by Sura Wood

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 Hirsch‹the 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.
Breskin chose writers who, he says, "would have a conversation with Richter's work rather than write a description of it. I told them to use his work as a trigger, that it had to deal with these particular paintings or Richter abstraction or the idea of abstraction in general."

This excerpt is from "Time and Materials," a poem by Robert Hass:

3 To score, to scar, to smear, to streak,
To smudge, to blur, to gouge, to scrape.
'Action painting,' i.e.,
The painter gets to behave like time.
4 The typo would be 'paining'.
(To abrade.)
5 Or to render time and stand outside
the horizontal rush of it, for a moment
To have the sensation of standing outside
the greenish rush of it.
6 Some vertical gesture, then the way that anger
or desire can rip a life apart,
Some wound of color.

"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."