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Painting Negation: Gerhard Richter's Negatives

Author(s): Peter Osborne
Source: October, Vol. 62 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 102-113
Published by: MIT Press
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DAGUERREOTYPE-Will taketheplace
ofpainting.(See Photography.)
PHOTOGRAPHY- Will make painting
(See Daguerreotype.)
-Gustave Flaubert,Dictionary
Of all the issues raised by Richter'spaintings,perhaps the mostintractable
is thatof where to place them withina criticalhistoryof contemporaryart. For
it is a paradox of Richter'swork that while it derives both its force and its
modernityfromthe consistencyof itsaddress to a singleproblem-the problem
of the continuing possiblityof paintingas a historicallysignificantactivity-it
is preciselythis consistencythat threatensto cut it off from the wider history
of which it is a part, to enclose it withinthe horizon of a self-containedwill to
to block offthatveryfuturefor paintingwhich it
paint and thereby,implicitly,
mightotherwisebe thoughtto have opened up. There is somethingexceptional,
exceptional,about Richter'swork that has yet to be fully
clarified.And this is not because it avoids or is in any way displaced fromthe
issues of its time, but rather because of the specific form and, indeed, the
peculiar successof its engagementwiththem. Furthermore,it would seem to be
somethingabout the particulartemporal logic of this engagement-what Stefan Germer has described as its "dialectical mediation of proximity and
An earlier version of a part of this essay was published in Art and Design, "Profile on
ContemporaryPainting,"vol. 7, no. 3/4 (1992).
This essay, and the three essays on Gerhard Richterthat follow,derive from talks given at
the conference "History,Photography,Memory in the Paintingsof Gerhard Richter"at the Tate
Gallery,London, December 7, 1991. The conferencewas organized by Andrew Benjamin and Peter
Osborne in conjunctionwiththe Richterexhibition,curated by Sean Rainbird,that was held there
between October 30, 1991, and January 12, 1992, and it was sponsored by the Tate Gallery and
the Goethe-Institut,London.

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GerhardRichter.Alfa Romeo. 1965.

r als sein Vor'n Stelle er ge.

die Zeichen

bis 1500 ccm


auf 12 Monate

n 1100 D der

England und
Cardinal, MorM) begegnen.
for die NeuFiat hat alien
n ausgereiftes,
>laren zur Zuiufendes Autogenerellen Exorgesehen und



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distance"'-that impartsto Richter'spaintingstheirbroader meaning as sites

for the exploration of the dilemmas intrinsicto painting.Richter'spaintings,
one mightsay,are timelyonlyinsofaras theyare untimely;untimelyonlyinsofar
as theyemerge out of the mostthoroughimmersionin the artisticproblemsof
theirday. Foremostamong these problemsis the continuingchallenge to painting, of whateverkind, presentedby the power of the photographicimage.
In what followsI offera preliminaryattemptat a reconstructionof the
art-historicallogic of Richter'swork as it presentsitselfwithinthe conceptual
space of a double negation: of paintingby photographyand photographyby
painting.In the process I hope to shed some lightupon the ontologicalstatus
of contemporarypaintingand to give an indicationof the contributionthat a
fulleranalysisof Richter'sworkhas to make to the rethinkingof the historyof
Paintingas a MeansforPhotography
The idea thatphotographyis a threatto paintingis as old as photography
itself;as old, in fact,as modernism.Paintingafterphotographyhas been differentfrom paintingbefore. Yet for all that has gone between, the question
persists:how to paint,whyto paint,what to paint,"afterphotography"?Richter's work takes up thisquestion at the beginningof the 1960s at the moment
of its second major historicalreprise,the momentof crisisof the hegemonic
project in postwar American and European painting: the crisisof modernist
abstraction.Richter'sresponse is simple,yetambivalent:to returnto the source
of the crisis(the displacementof paintingfromits naturalisticrepresentational
function)and address painting'shistoricalpositiondirectly,not as a description,
but as a task: painting"after"photographyas painting"in the manner of" the
photograph; paintingas photo-painting.Richter'sresponse to the recurrence
of the crisis of painting was not to search for new artisticmedia, to seek to
expand the extensionof the termart-undoubtedly the dominanttendencyof
the time-although he was involvedin certainnotoriousFluxus happenings in
Diisseldorfin 1963. Rather,it was, and remains,to paint: to seek out new ways
of paintingthatavoid the dual pitfallsof a redundantfigurationand the inflated
subjectivism,idealism,and existentialweightlessnessof variousrelated formsof
abstraction.By the veryfactof continuingto paint,Richterset himselfagainst
the more radical artistic(and anti-artistic)
impulsesof his day.
The use of photographsas the source, basis, or subject of paintingsperformsa numberof differentfunctionsin Richter'searlywork.In the firstplace,
the objectivityor givennessof the photographicimage is used to counter the
Stefan Germer, "Unbidden Memories," in GerhardRichter:18. Oktober1977, trans. Daniel
AnthonyIezzi, Julia Bernard, and Shaun Whiteside (London: Instituteof ContemporaryArt in
associationwithAnthonyd'OffayGallery,1989), p. 7.

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WOO.=u~ 8:YW?]~*:











by taking
perceived subjectivismof paintingat two distinctlevels: extrinsically,
away the responsibilityfor the representationalcontentfromthe paintingand
by therebypredetermining
displacingit onto the photography,and intrinsically,
the compositionalformof the pictureand reducingits representationaltask to
that of the apparent replicationor simple reproductionof the mechanically
produced image, in painterlymimicryof the aspiration to objectivityof the
naturalisticrepresentationalfunctionitself,usurped by photographyfroman
older traditionin painting.At thislevel, such paintingmay be seen to function
as a quasi-photographicreproductionof photography,insofaras photography
has here become the paradigm or model for the "objective"reproductionof an
image. In this respect,the early photo-paintingsmay be seen to partake fully
in the recognitionof the historicalnegationof paintingby photography,while
refusingboth the orthodox modernistresponse of an affirmativewithdrawal
into painterlyautonomythroughabstraction(be it in the name of spiritualor
"pure painterly"values) and the more radical avant-gardistrejectionof painting
GerhardRichter.Cityscape,Madrid. 1968.

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altogether(the readymade). Photo-painting,one mightsay,is an affirmation

It would be a mistake,therefore,to see Richter'sphoto-paintingsas painterly representationsof objects that use photographssimplyas models or mediating formsto secure the objectivityof the image. Rather,theyare paintings
of photographs that produce the inevitableside effectof a doubly distanced
referenceto the object-a secondaryfunctionthe secondarinessthatis initially
signifiedby the occasional inclusionof textwithinthe pictureor by some other
manipulationof the pictureframe.3At the same time,however,this doubling
of the distanceof the paintingfromthe "real" object in the photographshould
not be taken to signifysome primacyof formover content,some purely formalist play with modes of representation,since the "content"here is the photograph itself-both the particularphotographand, throughit,the practiceof
photography,in all the richness,depth, and range of its culturalreference.4
as claimed
This does notmake it an "updating"of the readymadein reactionto itsreification,
ed. Sean Rainbirdand
by Germer. (See Stefan Germer,"RetrospectiveAhead," in GerhardRichter,
JudithSeverne [London: Tate Gallery,19911,pp. 25-26, whichfollowsBenjamin Buchloh," 'Readymade,' photographie et peinture dans la peinturede Gerhard Richter,"in GerhardRichter[Paris,
1977], pp. 11-58.) Reificationis the point of the readymade.The problem it faces over timeis not
reification,but routinization:the dissipationof the negativityof the strategyof pure nomination
over time.Nor should Richter'sphoto-paintingsbe confusedwitheitherphotorealism(the adoption
of a certain photographicopticalityas a visual ideal) or Warhol's silkscreenpaintings,withwhich
they are often compared (although theyare obviouslyrelated). Photo-paintingacknowledgesthe
historicalimportof the readymadeinsofaras the photographsupon whichitis based are readymade
pictures,the images of whichare raised to the power of art,in part,by theirselectionby the artist
as the basis for paintings.But this does not so much "update" the readymade as regressit to the
status of an artisticmaterial. For it is no mere nominationhere that renders the photographic
into a traditionalartisticmedium (painting).If anything,photoimage "art,"but its transformation
painting thus passes an ironic commenton thefailureof the readymade to secure itselfa future
independent of the model from which it derived (photography). For an interpretationof the
readymade as a "delayed action" of photography,see Thierryde Duve, "A propos du readymade,"
Parachute7 (Spring 1977), pp. 19-22. As will be clear from what follows,this piece is greatly
indebted to Germer'sessay forthe stimulationit providedto clarifythe philosophicalissues at stake
in the relationsbetween painting,photography,and the readymade in Richter'swork.
See, for example, FoldingClothesHorse (1962) and Alfa Romeo(1965), both of which were
exhibitedat the recentPop Art Show at the Royal Academyin London (see Pop Art[London: Royal
Academy of Arts, 1991], pp. 191 & 193), where theywere generallytreated by reviewersof the
exhibitionas poor continentalimitationsof a quintessentially
must shoulder some of the blame for such misreadings,having declared himselfa German Pop
artistwhile in Paris in 1963-in part in a spiritof ironic reversal(in tune withthe coining of the
phrase "capitalistrealism"to describethe "LivingwithPop" eventat a furniturestorein Diisseldorf
in October of the same year) and in part,one suspects,as a marketingstrategythatmisfiredonce
he moved away fromthisstyleof photo-painting,since it impeded recognitionof the continuityof
his project. With the increasinglynationalisticmarketingof German art in the internationalart
world in the 1970s and '80s, the inappropriatelabel of "German Pop" was one thatstuck.Richter
would have to wait until the late 1980s for anythngapproaching the internationalreputation
accorded his German peers, by which time his turn to large-scaleabstractionhad introducednew
ambiguitiesinto his work thatenabled it to be read (and misread) withinquite different,and more
It does not seem irrelevant,for example, that many of the early photo-paintingsare of

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The purpose of these paintings,Richterhas maintained,was not to use

photography as a means for painting, but "to use painting as a means for
photography"5--as a means, one mightsay,for the interrogationof the photograph as a cultural form,even perhaps, paradoxically,for its elevation.Photopainting acts to add a moment of cognitivereflection,of historicaland representationalself-consciousness,to the experience of the photographicimage. It
creates a space and a time for reflectionupon that image which is qualitatively
differentfrom that of the photograph itself,haunted as such experience is by
the trace of the object. Every photograph,Barthes has argued, is "a certificate
of presence": the presence of the past withinthe present.6Everyphoto-painting
is also a certificateof presence,but of another kind: thepresenceofthephotograph
in representation.
This is a presence thatcan only be marked beyond the photograph itself,by a differentrepresentationalform.It is thispresence of photography within the paintings that, to return to Germer's phrase quoted above,
establishes them as a "mediation of proximityand distance": proximityand
distance to the photograph (the presence of the past withinthe present),proximityand distance to history(the social power of the photographicimage). It is
this dialectical mediation,in turn,that makes photo-paintingin some way emblematicof the dilemma of contemporarypainting:the dilemma of its relation
to the historyof its negation.
of photographyby painting.Yet it is also,
Photo-paintingis an affirmation
of paintingin the face of photogthereby,
hegemony of photography as a
means of image production,for all theirparticipationin the negation of painting's functionof naturalisticrepresentationby photography,Richter'sphotopaintingsremain,insistently,
paintings.If the use of photographsas the subjects
of the paintings,along with the quasi-photographicaspects of their form,signifiesa recognitionof the historicalnegation of paintingby photography,such
picturesnonethelessenacta painterlynegationofthisnegation,a reappropriation
of photography by painting,that would seem to seek to rescue painting, as
photo-painting,fromits fallen position-however littlethismay have been the
original intentof these pictures.The question thus arises as to the meaning of
women, or thatthese women have oftenbeen the subjectsof violentdeaths. The point is illustrated
by the followingworks:Loversin a Forest(1966), Emma(1966), Helga Matura (1966), Student(1967),
Olympia(1967), EightStudentNurses(1971), Portraitofa YoungWoman(1988), Confrontation
Dead (1988). The idea of an intrinsicconnectionbetween photography,death, and identity,established by the temporality(or extratemporality)
peculiar to the photographicimage, has been central
to much recent work on photography.See in particularRoland Barthes, CameraLucida: Reflections
on Photography
(1980), trans.Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984) and Philippe Dubois, L'acte
(Paris: Nathan and Labor, 1983).
Rolf Schon, "Interview with Gerhard Richter,"in GerhardRichter:36. Biennale di Venezia
(Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1972), p. 23, quoted by Roald Nasgaard, GerhardRichterPaintings
(London: Thames and Hudson, 1988), p. 47.
Barthes, CameraLucida, pp. 87-88.

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thisdouble negation,of paintingby photographyand photographyby painting.

What kindof paintingdoes it begin?
Philosophically,one can distinguishat least threequite differentversions
of the idea of a double negation. First,there is the mathematicalmodel of the
double negative as a returnto the startingpoint, with the second negation a
literalcancellationof the first.Accordingto thismodel, the essentialnature of
painting as an art form would be uneffectedby the mediating role of the
photographic image. This is, however,an ahistoricaland thereforeuntenable
position. Secondly, there is the Hegelian model of double negation as superthe transcendence,preservation,and hence transfiguration
session (Aufhebung):
of the relation establishedby the firstnegation,as it is viewed as an aspect or
momentof a wider process drivenby the successiveproductionand resolution
at a higher conof contradictions.This is double negation as a new beginning
ceptual level.7 In this case, we would be talkingabout a qualitativetransforwhich would begin the
mation in the meaning of painting,a new positivity,
historyof paintinganew.8This is the strongesthistoricalclaim thatcan be made
for Richter'swork: that it begins paintinganew. Yet one should be waryof it.
almost whollyforeign
For it carries the burden of a certain triumphantalism,
to the restlessnessand skepticismof so much of Richter'swork,in which the
riskof experimentationremainsopen, as it must,to the possibility(indeed, the
necessity)of failure; in which,in fact,at one level, success (success in painting)
is at riskof becomingthe greatestfailureat all. More generally,such a position
attributesto paintingthe capacityto overcome,by itself,the contradictionsof
its historicalsituation,to raise itselfabove them and simplypaint them away.
Any such capacitywould obliteratethe tensionin Richter'swork-the historical
tensionthatgivesit itsdeeper meaningand widerculturalresonance-in return
for a merelyaffirmative
notionof a double negationwhichplaces itselfbetween
these two conceptions,in the name of givingdialecticsa materialistturn: Adorno's conceptionof a negativedialecticin whichthe second negation,ratherthan
eitherreturningus to our startingpoint (paintingas it was prior to its relation
the identityof each term(paintingand photo photography)or reconstituting
Sciences(1830), trans.William
Hegel'sLogic:BeingPartOne oftheEncyclopedia
Wallace (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1975), p. 142.
Germer,"RetrospectiveAhead," p. 24.
Herbert Marcuse, "The AffirmativeCharacter of Culture" (1937), in Negations:Essaysin
CriticalTheory(Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), pp. 88-133. To assert such a capacitywould also, of
course, be a betrayalof the totalizingperspectiveof Hegel's thoughtin the name of a schematic
application of his logic to the understandingof a particularcultural sphere. It would be to treat
paintingas a self-sufficient

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tography) from the standpoint of a new, "higher," positivity(the Hegelian

reading), markstime,dwells on the reciprocal negativityof the nonidentityof
the twoterms,and findsthere,withinthe determinacyof theirmutualnegation,
the utopian shadow of the reconciliationit is denied. "What is negated,"Adorno
writes,"is negative,untilit has passed. This is the decisivebreak withHegel.""'
On this reading, Richter's paintings are "negatives": negatives of paintings,
negativesof photographs.It is thispositionthat I want to defend.
Richter's paintings stand to the historyof painting as enactmentsof a
double negation in whichthe second negation(the negationof photographyby
photo-painting)matches and reinforcesthe first(the negation of paintingby
photography)withouteither being superseded. It is a kind of stalematethat
points beyond itselfonly negatively,in the formof a hope: the hope, perhaps,
for a labor beyond the alienationof craft,conception,and technology.Richter
may, like others, paint after the purported end of painting,in the self-con10. Theodor W. Adorno, NegativeDialectics,trans.E. B. Ashton(London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1973), p. 160. See Hegel's claim that"realityitselfis only in so far as it is stillconfrontedby
a being which it has not sublated," in Hegel's Scienceof Logic (1812; 1831), trans. A. V. Miller
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1969), p. 113.
Gerhard Richter.Skull. 1983.

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sciousnessof thatpurportedend, but he does not therebybegin paintinganew

so much as keepit alive in the steady,uncertainstate that it has gotteninto,by
exploring the state withinpaintingitself.In paintingthe negationof painting,
however,Richtercannotbut paint (enact) anothernegationas well: the negation
of that negation by painting. His picturesare thus double negatives,acts of
negation in which,as Hegel puts it, "posited as affirmative,"
determinate." If Richter'spaintingsare philosophicalexplorationsin paint of
the state of contemporarypainting,then theydo not so much transcendthis
state as registerit, immanently,in a series of diverseand innovativeways. It is
from this stance-at least up until the late 1970s, when there is a definite
change in the balance of Richter's work-that the paintings acquire their
strangelydistanced melancholyquality.(Furthermore,the gray paintingsand
constructiveworks,I would suggest,stand in the same relation to other,selfnegating episodes in the historyof painting as the photo-paintingsstand to

Richter'spaintingsmark time,the historicaltimeof theirproduction,the
time of the crisis of painting, and they mark time with paint. Reflectively
exploringthe sourcesand dimensionsof thiscrisisthroughtheiractsof painterly
appropriation,theycannot but contestit, even as theyconfirmit; cannot but
confirmit in the veryact of theircontestation.Yet thisis not to say thatRichter,
throughcunning,merelypostponesa predeterminedend to painting." Rather,
it is the interpretationof negation as an end (finis)that the paintingscontest.
"What is negated is negative until it has passed." What, then, is the statusof
thisnegativepainting,thispaintingthatkeeps paintingalive, markingtime; this
paintingthat,as Germer puts it, howevermuch it may seem to begin painting
anew, "can only take place on an individualbasis and in a purely intellectual
sense"?'3 What is the force of these qualifications?It is at this point that it
becomes necessaryto returnto the question of the readymade.
The effectof the readymadeon the conceptof art cannot be denied. "For
more than thirty-five
years,what has been most significantin modern art has
worked at the interpretationof the readymade'sresonance,sometimesthrough
compulsive repetition,sometimesthrough violent denial, but also sometimes
through a meaningful rethinkingof it, and in any case, always through a
recognition(even if only an implicitone)."'4 It is harder, however,to specify
the precise modalityof this effectin differentplaces at differenttimes,and
12. Germer,"RetrospectiveAhead," p. 24.
Ibid., p. 25.
On MarcelDuchamp'sPassagefromPaintingtotheReady14.
Thierryde Duve, PictorialNominalism:
made(1984), trans.Dana Polan (Minneapolis: Universityof MinnesotaPress, 1991), p. 188.

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especially with regard to painting.As de Duve has brilliantlyshown, the effect

of the readymade on the concept of paintingwas the introductionof a profound
undecidability.In "naming as a possible paintinga thingthat it is impossibleto
name a painting,"the readymade seemed to break the bond thattied the name
of painting to the historyof its craft,rendering it radicallyundecidable.'5 It
would be a mistake, however, to conflate the undecidabilityproduced by a
particularart withina particularhistoricalconjuncturewiththe logicallyconstitutive undecidabilityof the idea of a pure nomination-however closely the
two may be linked in the conjuncture in question. For while the readymade
may "speak of the conditionsforthe survivalof paintingin a societythatrenders
its craft impossible" (namely,that it sever its links with the craftcompletely)
while simultaneouslyregisteringthe impossibility
of any such survival(since the
name paintingwould "no longer designate anythingbut the exhaustion of its
own naming"),16 the undecidabilitythat it therebyintroduces into the name
paintingis not left unaffectedby the act of its introduction.The readymade
workson the conditionsthatit both establishesand articulates.As such, despite
all appearances (indeed, despite its own explicit logic), it does not, in fact,
demonstratethe impossibilityof painting-or even its absolute undecidability
-so much as serve to delimititspossibilities,
by negation. By carryingthe logic
of the painterlyavant-garde(the successiveabandonment of craft-specific
conventions) to its absurd conclusion (the abandonment of all conventions and
hence the establishmentof an absolute conventionality
of pure nomination),"it
grantspainting,whichit names and does not name, an open-ended reprieve."'7
Painting is not impossible. Only the old conception of painting is impossible:
impossibleto justify.Nor is its signifierundecidable, except in the vacuum of a
purely logical space, outside of history.Rather, it is the undecidabilityof the
readymade that establishesthe terrainof the decidabilityof painting by establishing a divide (an ontological divide) between paintingbefore and after the
readymade. Henceforth,all paintingworthyof the name willhave to legitimate
itselfconceptuallyas art over, above, and beyond the continuityof its relation
to the historyof its craftby incorporatinga consciousness of the crisisof that
into its strategicdeploymentof craft.All
historyinto its modes of signification,
postconceptual.It is withinthe termsof this
idea of postconceptualpaintingthat Richter'sstrategyof double negation is to
be understood and judged.
Photo-paintingis one way of paintingafterthe readymade that incorporates a consciousness of the crisisof paintinginto its constitutiveproceduresprocedures which, while they may be tied to the historyof the craftthrough
technique, derive both their extrinsicrationale and intrinsiclogic from their

Ibid., pp. 163, 157.

Ibid., pp. 155, 158.
Ibid., p. 162.

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criticalreflectionon theconcept
of paintingitself.If paintingafterthe readymade
must reestablisha relation to its craft,this is nonethelessonly a condition for
itsstatusas painting,not foritsstatusas art.It is in the dialecticof theseelements
(concept and craft),a dialecticof proximityand distance (to painting),thatthe
conundrum of Richter'sexceptionalismconnectsup to the alleged individuality
and intellectualismof his project. Richter'swork, I suggested,is exceptional,
not because itis displaced fromthe fieldof contemporaryart,but ratherbecause
of the peculiar way in which it seems to distance itselffrom this field by the
verysuccess of its strategyof dealing withit. Yet is this supposed "exceptionalism" reallyanythingdifferentfromthe individualismand intellectualismthat
Germer associates withthe projectof continuingto paint at all?
Both the individualismand the intellectualismof contemporarypainting
carrythe weightof a historicalcondition.If the crisisof paintingis the condition
withinwhichall paintingworththe name mustlocate itself,and fromwhichno





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GerhardRichter.Uran 2 (AbstractPainting).1989.

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painting worth the name can escape (since it is a socially and technologically
based crisisin its collectivecultural function),this not only necessitatesthat all
attemptsto negotiate this crisisbe individual in character,but it also atteststo
the symptomatic
significanceof such individuality.Symptomaticindividualitysurpasses itselfwhen raised to the power of a historicalrepresentation,through
interpretation.Yet what I am calling Richter'sexceptionalismexceeds a merely
symptomaticconceptionof representativeindividualism.For it derives fromthe
success of his particularartisticstrategy(double negation) a success that everywhere courts a certain failure: that point at which the reestablishmentof the
connection to craftwould negate the conceptual tension in whose service it is
enacted--the restorationof beauty.
Richter'sworkis exceptional,historically
exceptional,in thatit is produced
at the point of a contradictionthat it endlessly (and systematically)mediates,
thatitcan never resolve,but which,in the self-consciousness
of thisimpossibility,
it is therebyable to render determinate:a contradictionbetween the end of
paintingas a livingformof collectiverepresentationand itscontinuationwithin
the art institutionon the basis of a serial ingenuitythat, symptomaticin its
carriesthe weightof a historicalcondition.Richteradopts a variety
of strategiesto make paintingout of the self-consciousnessof thiscontradiction,
and he produces a varietyof formsof painting.Yet each derives its meaning
and its importancefromthiscommon condition,and fromthe way in which it
is taken up, replayed, and affirmedwithinthe work, withinthe very act of
painting.Posited as affirmative,
negationbecomes determinate.The doubt that
the latest works (the abstracts)maintain
the tension produced by such a double negativity,the moment of historical
and the extentto whichthisis annihilatedor suppressed in a merely
affirmativecelebrationof the possibilitiesof paint.'8

For the beginnings of a critique of Richter'sabstractsalong these lines, emphasizing their
vulnerabilityto their conditionsof reception,see the finalsection of my "Modernism,Abstraction
and the Return to Painting,"in Thinking
ed. Andrew Benjamin and
Peter Osborne (London: Instituteof ContemporaryArt, 1991), p. 70-76.

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