On ViewThe Drawing Center
September 11 – November 18, 2010
In 1966, Gerhard Richter affixed a pencil to an electric drill and produced one of the fifty mostly untitled works that comprise Lines which do not exist, a survey of the artist’s drawings from 1966 to 2005. The lines, the only things that do exist in this drawing—wobbling through a series of circles, rushing down margins, and flitting about in the background like shadows—implicate the space outside of the page while referring to nothing in particular. At first glance this ambiguity is the most salient feature of the show. And these decidedly non-referential, often simple drawings are captivating for this very reason. It is difficult, upon entering, not to swoon over the utter pointlessness of it all, the art for art’s sake quality that cannot help but attach itself to the small abstract drawings. At a cultural moment that is overly determined by technical mediation, full of devices meant to yoke every private second to a network, drawings that are absolutely and only drawings of nothing are romantic by default. But it wouldn’t do justice to Richter’s work to dwell on how pretty it all is. Drills, after all, can easily destroy paper and the mechanical is an important, if problematic, component of Richter’s practice.
Most of the drawings on view were done “by hand,” but machines make another appearance in 1968. Unlike a drill, the projector used as the starting point for the drawing “Mountains”(1968), could not actually mark, let alone puncture, the drawing surface. But in spite of ready-made content and traceable lines, “Mountains” extends rather than diverges from the logic of the drill. The conscious reference to a well-established genre such as landscape painting, and the use of a device meant to accurately transcribe images, combine here to offer not a point of reference but an immanent critique: as a drawing it does exactly what it is not supposed to do and in this way it forces the issue of drawing itself.
The lines that comprise “Mountains” are overly prominent, drawing attention to their own misplacement and inaccuracy. Sets of heavy, diagonal parallels fill in the more organically circumscribed spaces, effectively precluding any dimensional realism. The lines have shirked their representational responsibility: they annihilate the mountains to display themselves. If mechanical intervention has a role in Richter’s drawing, it does not serve a clarifying or explanatory function. Richter’s machines don’t work properly. Perhaps because drawing itself doesn’t work properly. “The drawings,” Richter explains, “are always dissimilar to what is represented. They have lines which do not exist.”
Richter’s “disdain for drawing,” notes the exhibition’s curator, Gavin Delahunty, was the product of the artist’s “engagement with the loaded language surrounding drawing.” But it was also a result of “his own impression of not being able to draw” which is another reason why Richter might have wanted to show mechanical aids not working.
And it is in terms of mechanical interference that we might identify a structural link to Richter’s paintings, specifically to the often-discussed blur of his otherwise photographic (mechanical) painted portraits. Already once removed from the reality they depict by the photograph it is based on, the screen of paint positions the portrait’s subject as an interval on a continuum of obfuscation. The mechanical, it seems, is inherently disruptive and the hand of the artist is not far from a machine.
And here we should return to Richter’s apprehension about drawing: viewed as a personal (and possibly professional) deficiency, Richter’s drawing practice consisted of diligently documenting something that didn’t work—namely a hand that couldn’t draw properly. If the act of affixing a pencil to a drill and dragging it across a page was “an attempt to reject the loaded concept of the artist’s touch” (Delahunty), it did so only through a literally heavy-handed reminder of the physical presence of just such a touch. Richter displaces the concept of the artist’s hand with hard evidence of his own, wobbly, failed, and very material appendage. And this is how his hand continued to work. As Delahunty remarks of a later series, the drawings “appear the opposite of any display of manual dexterity or drawing ‘talent.’”
It would be a mistake, however, to treat this collection as so much notebook detritus. While it is a document of personal struggle, Richter consciously made this frustration into a public issue. This “talentless” series was a commission fulfilled in 1999 at the request of Dieter Schwarz, the director of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur and, while never straying from the bleak, disordered grayscale of his earlier work, presents a divergence from the drill drawing and Mountain. Richter stubbornly clings to the positive lack (of style, content, or virtuosity) central to earlier interrogations, but he no longer treats drawing as something to work through, or plaster over. He frequently employs frottage as a ground for his erratic lines. It is in these drawings, as Delahunty points out, that erasure marks begin making a frequent appearance, in a process analogous to pulling paint across a page. And this is actually a very troublesome connection as far as painterly representation is concerned. If drawing is in fact linked to Richter’s painting, if it provides an underlying architecture for the images under the blur, then painting might be just as untrustworthy as its unfaithful counterpart.