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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