A number of factors have conspired to keep me bumping into the work of German artist Gerhard Richter. Tonight in the art section at Barnes and Noble I happened upon a book of his late large abstracts. The book was more money than I was prepared to shell out on a Thursday night, but when I came home I went online and went back to the pretty terrific web site devoted to his work, which includes a whole section of video interviews with curator Ulrich Wilmes, who has helped Richter stage a number of recent exhibitions. There was one video in particular where Wilmes got talking about Richter's way of working that interested me enough that I went to the trouble of transcribing some of his remarks:
Richter told me that for him the perception of his paintings, or the act of perceiving the painting, is always the same. It doesn’t matter if you have a realistic painting or if you have an abstract painting. The process is the same; the understanding of course is much different, because for a realistic painting we have the language, we can describe what we see, we can name the things that are on the painting; whereas in the abstract works we have no language...
Richter always says it’s pretty easy for him to start a painting. He’s not scared of the vast void of a white canvas. So he puts on a layer of some color, of some forms, that he really doesn’t much care about. And then, the process is that it’s becoming more and more complicated. In a certain way he also mentions that he is a kind of a prisoner of the painting, and the farther he gets the more complicated it becomes. You see that it’s a kind of process where he is reaching some point where he thinks, "Well, this looks pretty good." And then he stays with it for hours, for days, even for weeks, and then it’s finished. And he says, “If I understand it completely, then it becomes boring," and he tries to change it. But the final painting is then when
he has the feeling that the painting is something that’s better than him, that’s beyond his faults and his ideas, and that there’s nothing left for him to do with the painting.
Two thoughts here. I'm interested in the question of what's going on in you in your head when you look at a painting for which you "have no language." I've noticed in the (abstract) painting that I have been doing in the last few months that while I am definitely thinking hard as I work, I am not using words, there's not even an internal dialogue taking place inside my head. There are kinesthetic decisions being made from moment to moment, guided by the eye and to some degree by the hand, but it's thinking that is not like any other thinking that I do. It's actually somewhat disorienting to enter into that mental space and then come back into a world where words - conversation and reading and writing - are there, waiting to take over.
I'm also interested in they way that Richter echoes, by analogy, one notion that the quotes I posted yesterday seemed to be endorsing, which is that at some level the artist and the writer are both trying to "set themselves afloat" in a medium which has the potential to take them someplace beyond themselves, "beyond faults and ideas", and into something more deeply mysterious and satisfying.
This is the opportunity that I fear we as teachers can so easily deny to our students if we encourage them, in our wish to be of help, to rely on formulas and rubrics. There is nothing wrong with those things, in their place. They are useful in laying the foundation and in helping student understand basic moves. But if we do not also create spaces within our course structures for exploration, for play, for the encounter with complications, for the chance to surprise themselves and produce something that goes beyond their expectations, we're confirming in them the sense that too many of them already have that writing is simply a tool for demonstrating mastery of concepts in the context of competency tests, and denying them the chance to discover that its greatest satisfactions lie elsewhere.