why paint?

all contemporary artists owe a lot to the instructors at the kunstakademie düsseldorf —  conceptualists to joseph beuys, photographers to bernd and hilla becher and painters to gerhard richter.

richter, in my opinion, is one of the two the most influential (living) painters in the world.  what’s made richter’s work so influential is that at just the right moment in the history of art (late 1970’s/early 1980’s), he was making paintings about what it means to make art.   the history, purpose, relevance of painting…  that type of self-consciousness characterizes the work of most of the contemporary painters considered “important” at the moment.

as an example, check out this painting by stefan kürten (who studied at the kunstakademie from 1983-9):

it’s a mundane beach scene under a glaring tropical sun.   without a traditional subject matter or the composition of a traditional landscape, it feels almost accidental, like someone took a picture after their subject moved out of the frame.   it’s realistic, except for the palate, which is like a faded color print from the early ’70s.   and then there are the strange spots in the image…   like the over-exposed “hot spots”  you get if you take a photo into the sun.

so kürten is referring to photography in this painting in several ways…  but i think it’s important that the photographic quality of the image isn’t like an “art” photograph.   it’s more like the snap shot an ordinary person might take, perhaps accidentally.  carelessly.   and it wouldn’t be a digital photo.   this would have been shot with ektachrome film which was then taken to a drugstore to be sent away to be developed…   so this is also a work that’s about memory and nostalgia.

in the mid-19th century, paul delaroche, a painter of historic scenes, declared that painting was dead.   he was a reacting to photography and its promising attributes.  it was truthful.  it was quick.  it was available to anyone, regardless of their training or talent.  if you could document so accurately and easily, why would anyone continue with the time-consuming and difficult practice of painting?

and that was but the first time someone claimed painting wasn’t worth doing any more.   the argument has been made over and over by art critics, artists who don’t (can’t?) paint and even painters themselves.    everything, they say, has  been done before.   or images have lost their meaning because we’re saturated.   valid arguments, i’ll agree.

what richter did was make the debate about the relevancy of painting the subject matter of his paintings.

look at this stefan kürten painting again.   here’s a detail:

the “spots,” you’ll see, are a lack of painted image.   “holes” in the image through which you’re aware of the ground that kürten applied to the linen before he started the painting.   no matter how realistic an image is,  kürten reminds us,  it’s a 2-dimensional representation of reality.   a trick.   the creation of a person (with an agenda).    this painting and all painting —  no — all image making —  is about illusion.  not veracity.

i’ve blogged about being in düsseldorf twice this year working on a series of shows.    i’ll explore themes of what it means to make art in a series of exhibitions, lectures and panel discussions.   details about the exhibition and artists as well as dates/times will be posted on the gallery website.  or you can contact the gallery for more information.     hosfeltgallery.com