Six beautiful paintings by Gerhard Richter are circulating in the United States as part of a retrospective career exhibition this summer. Richter, 88, is Germany’s foremost living painter. Gerhard Richter: Painting After All opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer building on March 4, 2020, and was viewable until March 13, when the museum closed its buildings because of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in New York. Coronavirus restrictions allowing, the show will go to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in August.
I was stunned when I first found the series of paintings. For many years, they occupied their own room at the Tate Modern, Britain’s national museum of contemporary art. I knew about the affinity between Suzuki and Cage. But Cage and Richter? I soon learned that Richter had been listening to Cage’s music and that a British curator, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, had suggested a name for the six paintings. This answer, though, was unsatisfyingly simple. Was there more to the story?
If Cage had influenced Richter—neither man having ever met the other—what might that transmission look like? How does one artist transmit to another? The exchange seems to have occurred through their work.
In 1950, when D. T. Suzuki settled in New York City, Cage was going through a troubled period. Suzuki had been seeding the dharma across the West for half a century. For Cage, Suzuki’s lectures catalyzed life-altering, rock-hitting-the-bamboo realizations. In a cascade of joyful revelations, Cage embraced chance composition, silence, and other means of releasing himself from the dominion of ego, its likes and dislikes, its tyrannies of taste.
Richter chose a consistent square format for these six canvases. They are a radical departure from the Tate’s Abstract Expressionist rooms. Gone is heroic self-expression and the thematic search for the sublime. Instead, the Richter paintings have the immediacy of a road accident.
To make the Cage series, Richter stepped away from his skills at portraiture, which he had perfected as a young artist in Communist East Germany. (He escaped to the West in 1961.) Richter first covered a canvas with wide swaths of brushed-on paint. Then he pulled a tall squeegee—or some other blade, such as a kitchen knife—across the paint surface, erasing any pigment that hadn’t dried. More paint; then more squeegee scraping. Creating; effacing. It’s the opposite of self-expression. It’s a process of letting go, to see what happens next. Encouraging and embracing accident. Obscuring; revealing; repeating. Wiping away. Erasing.
At a significant moment Robert Storr and Richter both saw Cage perform. Storr, an art critic and Yale professor, is a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; he organized the first fullscale Richter exhibition for MoMA in 2002. As director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, the art world’s summit meeting, Storr exhibited the Cage series for the first time.
Storr tells the story of Richter and Cage in a video posted on Richter’s website. In the early 1960s, Richter, an art student in search of himself, was enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts in West Germany, where the formidable artist Joseph Beuys was teaching. Beuys had masterminded a European Fluxus Festival. Fluxus, a loose confederation of avant-gardists, was largely composed of Cage’s friends and former students at the New School for Social Research in New York.
At the Fluxus Festival, Cage attached a microphone to a pen and hooked the microphone to an amplifier turned to high volume. As Cage wrote with the pen, the audience heard the scratching of the nib across the paper surface. The amplified sound of the pen reverberated like thunder. Whatever Cage was writing was irrelevant. The pen spoke in its own ragged, shivered, jaggedly authentic voice. Storr felt that Cage’s action was “far and away the most compelling” of any artist’s event at the festival. Richter would have felt the intensity of raw sound unadulterated by self-expression.
Searching Cage’s database of works, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust at Bard College, reports that Cage performed at a Fluxus Festival in Amsterdam and the Hague on June 23 and 28, 1963. The date of 1963, she says, is consistent with its being a performance of Cage’s 0‘00”, composed in 1962, the year in which Yoko Ono and her first husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi, invited Cage to Japan.
The work 0‘00”—“zero zero zero”—instructs performers to create a disciplined action that fulfills an obligation to others. It’s dedicated to Yoko Ono and Toshi Ichiyanagi. In one iteration, Cage answered letters that were written to him while he perched on a squeaky chair, punching the keys of an amplified, old-fashioned manual typewriter. In another, Cage, amplified, sat on stage at Lincoln Center and wrote the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he would give at Harvard University in 1988–1989.
Zero is one of D. T. Suzuki’s synonyms for emptiness, silence, shunyata, the “God-head.” In Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third Series, which he worked on while in New York, Suzuki examines two sutras. The Flower Ornament Sutra offers a vision of a stupendously vast cosmos of “somethings” interpenetrating without hindrance throughout space and time. The Heart Sutra reveals that all the somethings are empty of any basis; lacking any lasting imprints from human consciousness; in a condition of zero. The world, the Heart Sutra says, is exactly form-emptiness.
In February 1951, Cage wrote and performed the ecstatic “Lecture on Something” before the artists of the New York School. He followed it, in May 1952, with “Lecture on Nothing,” which begins “I am here and there is nothing to say,” a sentence that vibrates with the paradoxes of the human condition. Fundamentally, what can be said? Nothing. And what is that nothing?
“I have nothing to say and I am saying it,” “Lecture on Nothing” continues. This phrase has become Cage’s most often repeated gift to artists everywhere. It opens up the creativity of the human condition: going nowhere; achieving nothing; yet acting nonetheless. The “nothing” of “Lecture on Nothing” is rooted in profound Buddhist teaching.
Jason Farago, reviewing the exhibition in the New York Times, observed that Gerhard Richter is highly regarded for his tough, rigorous, thoughtful process of “endless criticism and interrogation” of his own work. Farago added a parenthesis: “John Cage’s dictum, ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it,’ could be Mr. Richter’s motto as well.”
Richter lets go of control, releasing the surface of a painting, so that paint is charged with accidental incident. He creates absence by erosion. These six paintings are not the only ones Richter makes in this way, though they are among the most declarative. In East Germany, before he escaped, Richter demonstrated dazzling skill as a realist, and many times he still makes portraits. But then he wipes away the wet paint, so that erasure clouds the image in a streaky film of pending disappearance. Growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, Richter was surrounded by Nazis; one senses the suffering that underlies his methods.
Cage centered his work on chance, self-erasure, Suzuki’s dictum of “no-self,” thus showing the artists gathered around him—Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns first; then innumerable others—a practiced route out of Abstract Expressionism’s expressionistic ego-dramas.
Richter saw Cage perform but didn’t meet him. Much later, Cage was invited to a show of Richter’s art but never met him. Storr says, though, that “there was this charge or current going back and forth” between them. Artists perhaps understand one another best through their work—in which everything is revealed, a wordless transmission, even as everything is unspoken. What can be said? Yet the work, if it’s grounded in zero, communicates what’s needed.
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