Creating Towards The Unknowable

My favorite scenes in Gerhard Richter Painting capture him in his studio. He'll stand back to survey an enormous canvas, and then drag enormous paint-covered squeegee across its surface.


The end result is abstract work that's difficult for me to judge. Without context my response to the paintings would probably just be "huh". But watching him create the work I got the sense that the paintings were attempting to capture his instinct.

What better way to attempt to express the subconscious than with work lacking a clearly defined beginning or end. Where do you start? How do you decide what to add? Do you add anything? When do you paint over something? When are you done?

"When I first approach a canvas, theoretically and practically I can smear anything I want on it. Then there is a condition I must react to by changing it or destroying it. There's no concept. It's not like a figurative painting with a template. Something happens spontaneously. Not by itself, but without plan or reason."


Later an interviewer digs deeper into this open-ended aspect of his abstract work.

Q: "So the question is: you paint without a plan but you know exactly when it's right. So what's the correlation between planlessness and making the judgment: 'Now it's a painting'?"

A: "Each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free until I conclude there's nothing left to do. When, according to my standard, nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop. Then it's good."

Q: "And what's right and wrong? The wrong consciousness, material, or process?"

A: "It just doesn't look good. Then it's wrong."

Q: "Can we dig deeper than looking at good or bad?"

A: "It's extremely difficult."

Q: "It is"

A: "We're all completely equal here. The producer and consumer, artist and observer, both must have one quality: to be able to see if it's good or not. To make that judgement."

Q: "Is 'good' related to 'truth'?"

A: "Yes, of course."

Q: "So there's a component of truth that a picture must express to be good?"

A: "Yes."

It reads as very wishy washy, because in his mind it has to be. The goal of his painting is to approach something that can only be expressed through painting. Using his instinct to approach something unreachable.

"To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. That includes the typical question: 'what were you thinking of?' You can't think of anything; painting is another form of thinking. What interests me in general, and this also applies to painting, are things I don't understand. It's like that with every picture: I don't like the ones I understand."

Instead of showing or explaining something, how can you offer a peephole pointing towards something infinite and unknowable?