Memory and Memorialization: Gerhard Richter’s September
by Jaime Schwartz*
Each issue of Interventions will feature a text analyzing an artwork currently on view in New York City.
“Probably September 11 bothered me more than I expected.”
- Gerhard Richter[i]
Memory and Memorialization: Gerhard Richter’s September
This account will begin like every other, with facts; the only pieces of information that are known to be certain. At 8:45 AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 – a bright, cloudless morning – a hijacked commercial airliner hit the North Tower of New York City’s World Trade Center, causing immediate and irreparable destruction on a scale that was to that point unprecedented on American soil. At 9:03, a second plane took down the South Tower. Via a diverse and extensive array of media channels, the magnitude of these events unfolded live and in real time in front of a stunned world. The German painter Gerhard Richter, along with his wife Sabine, was on that morning en route to New York for the opening of a solo exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery. With the airspace over the city immediately shutdown, Richter’s plane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he had no choice but, like everyone else, to wait and to watch. Two days later, on September 13, he returned home to Cologne.
Four years later, in 2005, Richter painted a small canvas depicting a horizontal blur colliding with two vertical thrusts against the backdrop of a clear, sky blue. At approximately 28 x 20 inches, this painting is forgettable in scale. Richter himself attests that he was at first unsatisfied with the outcome and nearly threw the work away. But, readily identifying its innate poignancy, a friend visiting his studio insisted that the artist give the canvas a second look. This is the painting September, that was acquired shortly thereafter by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. Though close inspection in fact reveals the painting to be a depiction of the second plane hitting the South Tower, the abstracted nature of the work makes the reference to 9/11 – as that day has come to be known colloquially – only oblique. Even the title lacks precise detail, positioning the painting as a channel of meditation between the viewer and the experience, rather than simply reportage. From an art historical perspective, this work implicitly questions whether an event that is so undeniably cataclysmic can be depicted from a neutral standpoint. Can the artist act as interpreter and reduce the events of that terrible day to a scale that is intelligible, stripping away the complex cavalcade of emotions that it immediately and inevitably stirs up? And, concomitantly, can a simple act of memory on these grounds function as act of memorialization?
In his book-length essay September: A History Painting, curator Robert Storr attempts to frame an answer the seemingly straightforward question “What is the meaning of a single, small, almost abstract depiction of one of the most consequential occurrences in recent world history?”. Storr begins by situating the work in the context of Richter’s oeuvre: “Physically, September belongs to a fairly sizeable body of work that Richter has created over the last decade or so, pieces that at a distance resemble gray smudges.” This type of work, balanced somewhere between the gestural intimacy of painting and the detached immediacy of photography, is typical of Richter’s overall project as an artist; that is, his decades-long interrogation of pictorial conventions, and an upending of our most basic assumptions therein. Though this painting is smaller than is usual of Richter’s output of this kind, Storr notes that its “scale places it in the range of many of the media images people saw on television at the time of the attack and since, while also countering the tendency in history painting of representing major events in rhetorically big formats with melodramatic effect.” From the outset, Storr presents the painting as deeply connected with memory, yet distinct from traditional aesthetic discourses on that subject.
Richter’s recollection of that day is one that is in fact uniquely suited to the twenty-first century. The attacks of September 11, 2001 have the dubious distinction of being the first (and to date, the only) terrorist attacks to be broadcast live. Moreover, 9/11 stands as the best-documented event of its type, thanks in large part to an overall democratization of media. It is a day remembered as much by cell phone pictures and amateur videos as by the lenses of photojournalists and the news media. Even for those who experienced the atrocities firsthand, it is a day that is largely recalled via these mass-mediated images. In her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag explains, “A catastrophe that is experienced will often seem easily like its representation.” In this sense, photography plays a privileged role in the construction of memory and often goes so far as to substitute for lived experience – which is true of Richter’s experience of 9/11 – as it is of most of the world’s. Sontag elaborates, “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.” Memory, therefore, is conditioned; it is inherently unstable, subject to revisions and corrections. The question for Richter then becomes, given these conditions of reproduction that are specific to the digital era, what can painting offer? After all, what could eclipse the images of bodies falling from buildings and smoke-enveloped neighborhoods that are so indelibly ingrained in the collective conscience?
The source imagery for this painting, however, is anything but abstract. A page from Richter’s Atlas – the scrapbook that he has been keeping since 1962 of found images – reveals an obsessive repetition of a news photograph of a plane hitting one of the towers. Buchloh positions Richter’s Atlas as both didactic and mnemonic project that partakes in an archaeology of memory without making any commentary on it. Instead, he uses the Atlas as a jumping off point and a means for personal reflection: “Richter, as a subject of the postwar period, would now have to rephrase this very question, namely, whether it could even be possible to conceive mnemonic images at the moment of the most violent, collectively enacted repression of history, a repression for which photographic media-culture had become now… the primary agent.”
There is only one other instance in Richter’s five-decade career where he is explicitly dealing with world events and collectively experienced trauma in his painting. This cycle of 15 small photorealist paintings, collectively entitled October 18, 1977 depict the aftermath of the terror enacted by the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, a small but militant left wing terrorist organization that carried out killings and kidnappings throughout the 1970s in Germany. The date in the title refers to the specific day when the bodies of the principal members were found dead in their jail cells under questionable circumstances. These images, which were in actuality painted from police photographs, recall memento mori as the subject matter consists of lifeless bodies, empty jail cells, and funerary scenes. Stylistically, the paintings are executed in black and white and while each image is clearly legible the paintings overall have a blurred quality. This simultaneously recalls both newsprint – the form of dissemination of this information – as well as the haziness of memory.
Benjamin Buchloh sees the elision of the actual acts of terror in favor of the fate of their enactors as an attempt to counteract the representational limitations of painting in regards to the depiction of history. He writes, “The inability of painting to represent contemporary history resulted first of all from the transformation of historical experience into an experience of collective catastrophe. It therefore seemed that only photography, in its putative access to facticity and objectivity, could qualify as an instrument of historical representation.” Instead of mimicking the photographic function of reportage, Richter utilizes photography’s assumed indexicality to a different effect – to depict secondary moments – the results of the terror, rather than the terror itself. This tactic serves to neutralize any judgment or critique on the part of the artist. Buchloh concludes, “Richter’s October 18, 1977 attempts [only] to initiate a reflective commemoration of these individuals.”
The October 18, 1977 paintings were in fact displayed at MoMA in the fall of 2002 as a part of a retrospective survey of Richter’s career, where they caused quite a controversy. In the wake of 9/11 that MoMA would display (and eventually acquire) imagery whose explicit subject was terrorism was an odious idea for many, especially those towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. Though the paintings were intended as neutral depictions, their representational fidelity to their subjects made them implicitly charged.
From this standpoint, it is easy to understand the relationship between the October 18, 1977 cycle and September. Storr writes, “September is a coda to the October cycles, the image of self-immolation in pursuit of self-determination, a totalizing doctrine consummated by death…. But unlike in the October cycle, the haze of September subsumes those who suffered in the attack along with those who perpetrated it.”Unlike the Baader-Meinhoff paintings, Richter does not rely on photorealism here in order to convey information, opting instead for an abstracted representation of the attack. At first glance, it is easy to overlook what exactly the content of this painting is. As Storr describes, “The more time spent with the painting the more fully that terrible knowledge [of what they are actually looking at] dawns on the viewer.” Richter has stripped the image of specificity. Even the painting’s title – September – does not fully reference the event. Here, “The decision to paint what cannot be painted, is the principle means of critique.” Like the October 18, 1977 cycle, the painting acts as a jumping off point for a more sustained reflection, but in this case does so through abstraction, rather than representation. The painting acts, not as a stand-in for memory, but rather as an instigator for reflection and remembrance. While on the one hand, September is a representation of a universally experienced event, on the other it is deeply indicative of the artist’s own thought process. Storr observes, “Like October 18, 1977, [September is] a delayed response to a powerful jolt to his system, an aftershock rather than a direct transcription of the initial shock itself, reminding us that Richter is, at his most emotional, a ruminative artist rather than an impetuous ‘expressionist.’”
Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “A Note on Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977.” October 48, (1989): 88-109.
.“Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”: The Anomic Archive.” October 88, (1999): 117-145.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003.
Storr, Robert. September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter. London: Tate Publishing, 2010.
*Jaime Schwartz is a second year student in the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.