why is style violent?

I’m not gen­er­al­ly one for quotes and mot­toes.  But I’ll make an excep­tion for my favorite painter, Ger­hard Richter:

I like every­thing that has no style: dic­tio­nar­ies, pho­tographs, nature, myself and my paint­ings (because style is vio­lence and I am not vio­lent).

[Notes, 1964–65]

It was 2002, a year of trans­for­ma­tions.  A very preg­nant Adri­enne and I were in the MoMA, and we were tak­ing in what remains eas­i­ly the best art exhi­bi­tion I’ve ever seen.  It was a ret­ro­spec­tive called Ger­hard Richter: Forty Years of Paint­ing.  You can buy the cat­a­log here.  We had no idea who Richter was, but his pro­lif­ic vir­tu­os­i­ty and flex­i­bil­i­ty of expres­sion made him seem more like a colony of artists than like a sin­gle man.  In one room, giant grids of pan­tone col­ors.  In anoth­er, paint built up in rich lay­ers of impas­to, then scraped with a palette knife.  In anoth­er, organ­ic forms that twist, branch and drape like rain­forests.  Then, ghost­ly images of Gudrun Ensslin, of the Baad­er-Mein­hof gang, paint­ed from blurred black-and-white pho­tos tak­en of her in prison.  And then, shock­ing­ly lush por­traits in which gold­en light fil­ters through stray strands of a girl’s hair, like a 20th cen­tu­ry Ver­meer.  There was a haunt­ing image of two can­dles, which took a moment to place—Sonic Youth used it for the cov­er art of Day­dream Nation.  And much more.

      

     

After all that, I read the quote, sud­den­ly every­thing shift­ed, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  As sim­ply as that, he expressed some­thing I believe to my core—maybe the only thing I believe to my core.

Richter has resist­ed attempts to use biog­ra­phy to prise “mean­ing” from his work.  Yet it is clear his expe­ri­ences grow­ing up under two total­i­tar­i­an regimes helped shape the com­mit­ment to “con­tin­u­al uncer­tain­ty” that char­ac­teris­es his aes­thet­ics.

The Guardian, April 2009

As pol­i­tics, as ethics, as aes­thet­ics, as a foun­da­tion for rea­soned thought, as a basis for good sci­ence, as an engi­neer­ing prin­ci­ple, and as a guide in the pur­suit of design: a con­tin­u­al, rig­or­ous com­mit­ment to uncer­tain­ty.  Sow the seeds of doubt.  Laugh when they ger­mi­nate.  Trea­sure those moments when some­thing shakes loose.

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