Monday, April 03, 2023

Horizons: Gerhard Richter and David Hockney (on exhibitions in 1998-1999)

[I wrote this essay back in late 1999 and early 2000. This morning, I read this piece on Hockney by Katy Evans-Bush and remembered my essay, which I never got published and never posted here. So here it is.]





I knew that James Whistler was part of the Paris scene

but I was still surprised when I found the painting

of his mother at the Musée d'Orsay

among all the colored dots and mobile brushstrokes 

of the French Impressionists.

-- Billy Collins, "Study in Orange and White"

(Poetry, January 1999)


     The first painting to catch my eye in Gerhard Richter's "Landscapes" exhibition (Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany, October 4, 1998 to January 3, 1999) was an abstraction -- a variation, perhaps, on a theme by Mark Rothko. A clean, sharp line across the middle of the painting, which measures almost three meters by three meters, splits it into two parts. Above the line is a field of lighter blue, shifting from dark to near white from left to right. Below it is a field of darker blue which also shifts in tone from left to right, but its colors are less smooth -- turbulent patterns of white run through the dominant darker blue. The painting lacks the background against which most of Rothko's rectangles hover, so that from afar the parts seem more fixed to the canvas than in a Rothko. Rather than suggesting depth, the two rectangles appear to be all shiny surface, almost projecting out into the room, especially from the brighter, whiter right-hand side of the painting.

     A closer approach revealed my mistake. The line dividing the two parts clicked into place as a horizon, the abstract field of blue became the sky, and the turbulent white on a dark background became waves on a sea. A glance at the title, Seestück, confirmed that this was a painting of a seascape, and the painting no longer seemed out of place in an exhibition of landscapes. (Richter numbers his paintings; this "Seascape" is number 852-2; it was painted in 1998.) My error, however, was a useful one. In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Jorge Luis Borges proposed two productive ways of misreading works of literature (and, by extension, art): "erroneous attribution" (in Borges's case, reading Don Quixote as having been written by Pierre Menard) and "deliberate anachronism" (reading The Odyssey as a rewrite of Ulysses). Seeing Richter's "Seascape" as an example of a Rothko-like abstraction is neither of these; one might call it "erroneous classification." By focusing attention on the features of a work which resist misclassification, such a reading can show what it is that makes a work belong to a particular category -- in Richter's case, what makes "Seascape" a figurative painting, and not an abstraction.

     The horizon, the sky, and the waves on the sea are the three classifying details in Richter's "Seascape" -- of these, the most important is the horizon: it was when I saw the horizon as a horizon that the painting became "what it is," a seascape. This sky has no features which make it clearly figurative; only its color might seem to force a reading of it as sky. Further, when focusing my attention on the "sea" part of the painting, I kept seeing not waves but blue-and-white abstraction. This was true despite the technique used in the painting. No matter how closely one looks at a certain kind of figurative painting, the image is always visible; the brushstrokes have effaced themselves. In this sense, "Seascape" is close to a figurative tradition: a close approach does not reveal the brushstrokes which make up the image. Even though the work is based on a photograph, it is the image itself, and not the technique used to produce it, which is only borderline figurative. Again and again, it was seeing the horizon as a horizon that allowed me to see the painting as figurative. The context and the title were not enough to fix the image in my eye -- it took the single detail, the horizon, to make the seascape always a seascape for me.

     This "erroneous classification" was that of a visitor to the exhibition; the artist, or the curators, however, included several further examples of "erroneous classification" among the paintings which were even more clearly landscapes than "Seascape": five paintings entitled "Abstract Painting" (numbers 551-1, 551-2, 551-4, 551-6, and 641-4). The abstract impression created by "Seascape" was temporary: the context of the exhibition, the title of the painting, and the determining detail combined to resolve the question of its classification. Context, title, and details harmonize. The inclusion of these "Abstract Paintings" created a dissonance in the exhibition, a moment of surprise reminiscent of that felt by Billy Collins at seeing "Whistler's Mother" in the Musée d'Orsay. In his poem, Collins's initial surprise has to do with the context in which he saw the painting, but it expands to include the painting's title, "Arrangement in Gray and Black" -- its true title "instead of what everyone naturally calls it." This "erroneous classification" is the artist's: Whistler gave a figurative painting an abstract, formal title. Richter did not give these particular "Abstract Paintings" a misleading title -- they are very much abstractions. At the same time, though, the context of the exhibition made it possible to see them as landscapes. Four of them (those numbered 551-x) have the same form: as with "Seascape," the paintings are clearly divided into top and bottom halves. The top half is a field of blue, akin to that in "Seascape," though in no case with as wide a range of blues in them. The horizon line is a feature of most of Richter's landscapes, as well as his seascapes, but in these paintings there is no land or sea below it. Rather, the parts of the paintings below the "horizon" are blotted brushstrokes and smears of paint. The fifth "Abstract Painting" (641-4) also has such a division into upper and lower parts, but with a difference: the entire left-hand side of the painting appears to have had its paint scraped off. A vertical strip of red on the right balances the scraped part. In between these two are what would have been the two parts of a very blurred landscape: a white upper half and a green lower half, with a hazy horizon between them. Some of Richter's paintings with representational titles, such as "Venice" (606-3) or "Group of Trees" (628-1), make use of similar techniques to disrupt a figurative image. In these cases, the smeared paint seems to be "in front of" a figure "in the background." In the "Abstract Paintings," the smeared paint gives the impression of having completely effaced whatever may have once been visible under that sky. In fact, the four 551 abstractions come from a sequence which concludes with a formally identical painting called "Arizona" (551-8). The "skyscape" in the latter is suddenly no longer abstract but a particular sky.

     The "Abstract Paintings" become landscapes not because of details of their images but because of the context in which they are hung. Within that context, their blue "backgrounds" and the lines dividing their parts can be seen as sky and horizon. At the same time, their presence in the exhibition disrupted the interplay of title, context, and details which serve to classify a painting. My "erroneous classification" of "Seascape" combined with the presence of these "Abstract Paintings" to focus attention on the single detail which determined these paintings as landscapes: the horizon.




It would be like Botticelli calling "The Birth of Venus"

"Composition in Blue, Ochre, Green, and Pink,"

or the other way around

like Rothko titling one of his sandwiches of color

"Fishing Boats Leaving Falmouth Harbour at Dawn."

-- Billy Collins, "Study in Orange and White"


     A horizon might not be enough to make a painting figurative all by itself. In some of Rothko's late paintings, the backgrounds disappear and the rectangles touch each other, but the lines across the paintings do not thus become horizons. Nevertheless, Rothko's paintings can be seen as figurative: on a flight into Iceland, Arthur Danto claims to have seen "a ready-made Rothko" in the summer sky (The Nation, December 21, 1998). What keeps Rothko's works from being figurative is not their details (the horizons they may contain) but their titles, and the context of Rothko's work as a whole. The simple geometry of a horizon does not fully determine a painting as figurative -- but it is hard to avoid having a painting with two rectangles, one on top of the other, look like it might involve a horizon. The determining power of such simple geometry came back to me a few months after the Richter exhibition, this time at David Hockney's "Espace/Paysage" exhibition (Galérie Sud, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, January 27 to April 26, 1999).

     The title of the Hockney exhibition offered a slightly broader context than the title of Richter's exhibition had. There were certainly many landscapes present, but there were also many "spaces": paintings of the human world (pools, of course, and interiors), as well as several abstractions. Before I saw the landscapes in which horizons play a determining role, in fact, I spent a long time looking at an abstract painting in the form of an installation: "Snails Space with Vari-Lites." The swirling designs and colors of this large painting (over two meters by five meters) spill onto the floor in front of the canvas. The whole work is installed in a black-walled room lit by "Vari-Lites": variously colored lights which fade on and off in a nine-minute cycle. As the colors change, the painting changes radically. Warm and soft one moment, it becomes cold and edgy a few minutes later, then moody and reticent a few minutes after that. As I arrived in the exhibition's last room, then, abstraction and the emotional effect of colors were on my mind. Two landscapes, in vibrant colors taken from the same palette as those in "Snails Space," framed the long hall -- but in this case, I was never in any doubt that what I was looking at was a landscape. In American terms, in fact, you might even say that the paintings were of the landscape: the Grand Canyon.

     "A Bigger Grand Canyon" and the even bigger "A Closer Grand Canyon" both clearly depict what their titles suggest. Their representation of their subject, however, is much less straightforward than might seem at first glance -- they are even much less straightforward than "Seascape." Despite the tenuousness of its hold on representation, Richter's painting uses realistic colors and presents its image almost photographically, in a single piece. The Grand Canyon paintings, in contrast, present their image with almost psychedelic colors; further, in the case of "A Bigger Grand Canyon," the perspective is not horizontal but diagonal: we are looking down into the canyon at an angle. This distorting perspective renders the image stranger than it might otherwise be. But what most disrupts the figurative quality of these two paintings is the grid through which the image is visible: the image is not "in one piece." Closer inspection reveals that the paintings are not on one huge canvas ("A Bigger Grand Canyon" is more than two meters by seven meters, "A Closer Grand Canyon" more than three by seven); rather, they are painted on many smaller canvases which are hung right up against each other. "A Bigger Grand Canyon" is on sixty canvases (5 x 12), "A Closer Grand Canyon" on ninety-six (8 x 12). The grid "over" the image is actually created by the edges of these canvases, a set of lines between the images on each of the smaller canvases.

     The horizon in "Seascape" makes it possible to see the painting's top and bottom both as abstractions and as sky and sea. The canvases in Hockney's "Grand Canyon" paintings can also be seen separately. This reading of them is not as arbitrary as it might seem: Hockney's first Grand Canyon work was not a painting but a collage of photographs he made in 1986. (In the collage, the images in each separate photograph do not blend smoothly into each other, as they do in the paintings.) Once the canvases are taken individually, it is not hard to see many of them as abstractions. In "A Bigger Grand Canyon," for example, the fifth canvas from the left in the second row has no features which make it necessarily figurative. The red of the canyon stone is so exaggerated that the color does not determine the image, and the patterns of the stone itself are in no way necessarily stone. The pattern of orange with some jagged dark red beneath it might even recall one of Richter's unquestionably nonfigurative "Abstract Paintings" (explosions of color which could never be seen as landscapes -- what makes the "erroneous attribution" of seeing this Hockney as a Richter unlikely is the absence of smeared or scraped paint). Many of the other canvases, especially those in the middle of the two paintings, are just as devoid of figurative details.

     But the paintings have horizons. The top row in "A Bigger Grand Canyon" has a narrow band of blue sky. This horizon fixes the images on these twelve canvases. The rim of the canyon is clear, and the otherwise potentially abstract shapes of the stones fall into place. In the lower rows of the painting, where there is not a horizon, some of the canvases still have clear figures: the presence of green patterns which cannot help but be seen as leaves. Not all of them can -- some are too "far away" to have any determining detail in them, but some of the green shapes are clearly bushes, and others are clearly trees. This unmistakable natural imagery, like the horizon, makes the individual canvases necessarily figurative. In addition, "A Closer Grand Canyon" has one other feature which determines the canvases it appears on: its top three rows are all blue sky with white clouds; the clouds make the canvases sky and nothing else. If there were a cloud in the sky in Richter's "Seascape," as there is in a companion painting with the same title (852-1; a much earlier "Seascape," 239-1, has an overcast sky which is also necessarily figurative), then the sky there would also always look like sky. Clouds are popularly seen as Rorschach tests for the representation of something else, but this belies how the shape of a cloud is always clearly a cloud, and nothing else. A cloud is a cloud is a cloud -- and, even more than horizons and leaves, never just an abstract form.

     Horizon, leaves, and clouds: these are the details which are enough to make Hockney's paintings figurative. They make the stone into stone. In the right context, a horizon line can even make Richter's "Abstract Paintings" into landscapes. In the right context, the green of leaves and trees can be as powerfully determining, too, as was shown by the inclusion of another one of Richter's "Abstract Paintings" (611-1) in "The Magic of Trees" exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland (1998-1999; the painting is unfortunately not included in the exhibition catalogue). This painting has at least two apparent "layers." The background consists mostly of a swirl of red, yellow, and orange; it is only visible at the top of the painting and, to a lesser degree, on the left side. The "foreground" is green -- a light green which might be too light to really see as leaves, but in "The Magic of Trees," the blotchy green suddenly appeared to be figurative. Even more strongly than with the horizons in the "Abstract Paintings" in the "Landscapes" exhibition, the context here determined how one could see the painting.

     If they were renamed in the way that Collins renames Botticelli and Rothko, Richter's "Seascape" would become "Composition in Two Shades of Blue," while Hockney's Grand Canyon paintings might be called "60 Canvases" and "96 Canvases." Such a hypothetical discrepancy between image and title can be productive in seeing what makes a painting what it is, as could the discrepancy between Richter's "Abstract Paintings" and their thematic contexts (trees or landscapes). In his discussion of Rothko, Danto argues that "resemblances between a Rothko and the midsummer night sky are neither here nor there," but seeing figurative paintings as abstractions, or vice versa, is a step in understanding the difference between them. Without my initial "erroneous classification" of Richter's "Seascape," I might never have really seen its horizon -- and since then, I see horizons in a different way, as Collins, drinking Pernod in a Paris café, sees himself differently at the end of his poem:

     [A] kind of composition in blue and khaki,

     and, now that I had poured

     some water into the glass, milky-green.


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