Daniel Richter: Digging for the Truth
There is an almost intimidating confidence and determination in Daniel Richter’s paintings, so I didn’t expect anything less in a conversation with the renowned German artist. Interestingly, I actually gleaned even more because each gesture, offhand remark, or background noise kindled a spark of analogies and anecdotes that cast a new light and shade on the complex mosaic of his character. Speaking without restraint about his own work, his peers, or the state of the art world, but also world politics or economics, we covered a range of topics that deepened insight into Richter’s marvelous mind. What more can I say? It was an absolute treat to sit barefoot in Amsterdam's warm spring sun, under the buzz of revived air traffic, in the Grimm gallery’s back terrace, dissecting the world.
Sasha Bogojev: You have switched your painting methods quite significantly several times. What compels you to explore so many styles?
Daniel Richter: Let's say you have five issues that you're interested in and then you milk them out. The cow gets out-milked. And you can't paint with milk powder. I originally started in the ’90s with abstraction, or say, non-figurative painting or non-narrative painting. And that was actually quite influenced by just mingling every visual information that is around. You could say a radical version of so-called postmodernism, but with, I don't know, b-boy styles, and graphic elements, smearing with the hands, and just experiments, but also being extremely controlled. And I liked it. It was interesting. It was also kind of trying to deal with the confusion of me and the world and all that, like the decline of communism. For others, it was a reason for laughter, and for me, it was being sentimental. I was then a young communist, now an old cynic.
How did that inform your subject?
Eventually, I shifted towards this whole idea that I liked, about beautiful men in the mountains. It was a mix of, let's say Orientalism and Casper David Friedrich romanticism together, mixed with hippie ideas of Arab orientalist cliches, along with cliches of the West, which is represented by the cowboy. And, when you think about it, the cowboy, the Marlboro man, I mean, he was a homo and heterosexual icon. And it is just not anymore. It's just a man who has cancer. And the same was with the hippies, the whole West romanticized the Arab culture, with racist tones and complete misunderstanding. But it was like this idea of a heroic, beautiful, authentic man fighting for his beliefs no matter what. Then 9/11 came and he just turned into a Nazi with long hair and a long beard.
What intrigued you personally about such imagery and themes?
I was interested in how these sentimental images mix with current ideological decisions but also, that got boring. Then, for two years, I went back to non-narrative painting, to abstraction. Actually, nobody knows because nobody has seen it and it was a hard, depressing time.
Were they a bridge to what you’re making now?
They were a bridge then to the stuff now. But because I had to make a decision, and since I couldn't make an intelligent decision in terms of narration, I just forced myself to do things like having a painting and just painting lines. Starting on the upper left half with a dark blue line and then slowly going down, ending up with a light blue line…
That was the structure?
That was the whole structure. I did that for quite some time, just to calm down and explore. Because it's something I would never do, it's the opposite of how I think and do. It's like forcing yourself to be a minimalist. It's like pretending to be Paul Klee meeting Mark Rothko or something. Extremely controlled and then slowly changing tones. It was also like hitting your head against the wall in slow-motion. But a soft wall.
Did those inform these works and how, if so?
From the straight lines, I was thinking, what's the opposite? And the opposite was if you’re painting with a butter knife and you just put it on and then it looks like some stuff that is smeared. Then overnight it just happened—like fragments of bodies and gay porn, and I used all that. So, when you look at it with peripheral vision, you just reduce them to blurry images of bodies, and they obviously always turn to something that is somewhere between strangling violence and sexuality.
Sounds like they’re constantly evolving?
After two years you always consider them—they could have been better. This show, now it looks great. But in two years, I will think it was a shitty show. It's like when I had the first show with these works—I felt really good. It sounds arrogant, but I felt I was in a place in painting where not so many people are. And I was very happy with that. I still think they are there somewhere, but it's not as satisfying.
So, earlier in your career, did you tend to question your work and practice more?
Yes. I think, also, for a long time, you could see my influences, because in the beginning, I started with referencing. You can see I mix b-boys, or start with the way Max Beckmann outlines a figure, and how I incorporate the way Asger Jorn paints with the fingers. After I did the first 10 years in narrative, paintings were very often just psychedelicized versions that obviously came from Munch, Ensor, and all of them. I was just trying to drag that into a more punk cycle, paranoid version. I knew that, but it was very satisfying. But then it just got unsatisfying. And now I think—yeah, if people reference it to Bacon because there is an abstract construction of the figure, I understand and it doesn't bother me at all.
So, for sure, there are painters that might see something and then they take that as a step or as a tool. And for sure, somebody will say to some painter somewhere, “Oh, this is influenced by Daniel Richter.” And that painter will also, at some point, not be influenced by Danny Richter. But I also still steal from other people. Like I saw the paintings by Albert Oehlen, a friend of mine, and I said, “That's a fucking ugly yellow backdrop! I’ll do the same.”
Because it was ugly?
No, not because they're ugly. He actually had an idea about it, which was not my idea, but the idea of just using a flat backdrop was interesting to me. Now, as you see, the backdrops are minimalist, very bold. So red and green, or blue and just mixing colors. It looks like Imi Knoebel in the beginning, or Pallium or something. Like this minimalist astigmatism, which I don't give a flying fuck about. But it forces you to think more like it's a poster.
Did those help define the current works and if so, how?
From the straight lines, I was thinking, what's the opposite? And the opposite was if you’re painting with a butter knife and you just put it on and then it looks like some stuff that is smeared. Then overnight it just happened—like fragments of bodies and gay porn, and I used all that. So, when you look with peripheral vision, you just reduce them to blurry images of bodies, and they obviously always turn into something that is somewhere between strangling violence and sexuality.
Which part of the practice is your favorite?
Interesting question. I never thought about it. I don't know. Leaving the studio, shipping them out. ’Cause I wouldn't even say that I like doing them. I mean, I wouldn't pretend that I suffer from doing them either. It's a thing you do—it's more like solving a problem that nobody else has, and it's nice to solve the problem. But if you can't really define the problem, you cannot really define the solution.
I really like that metaphor. So how do you set up your problem?
In this group and the stuff that I did last year, I changed one thing. Just the change of the backdrop forces you to think differently about what's going on.
So you went from gradients to solid backgrounds?
Yeah, they used to have these layers. They were more spacey, can I say that? And now they're just flat in the background. It's just flat colors. Another thing is that, for the first time, I focused on just one image. And it's a revelation to me because I never did this, I never used one image. It's a classic thing that people have an image and they work with that image.
What was the image?
I used the drawings of a postcard from the first world war. Because in the first world war, there was already propaganda. I have a whole collection of postcards of men next to a destroyed village. They’re like, “Dear Mama, Dear Papa, it's your Wilhelm. We just destroyed this village. It looks really shitty now. Yours, Wilhelm.” So these postcards show the misery of war.
The one that I'm talking about is a postcard from Sweden of two German soldiers that are prisoners of war, and they lost their legs, so they are on crutches.The photo is very shitty, it's a small postcard in black and white, and these two guys form one shape. They look like an insect because they are two guys, but they only have two legs. So the crutches look like a symbol of failing, drama and sadness. It's not really dramatic as a photo, but all the work of the last year is based on that one photo.
So, how did you use that photo in your process?
I know what is in the back of my head, but I try to make images that have not so much to do with it. I think in some, when you know it, you see it; but some have absolutely nothing to do with it. I just transform it into something that is about the dynamics of shifting and pushing and pulling. And, let's say a conflict between areas that are defined and areas that are undefined. So there's, I wouldn't say violence, but there's a certain aspect of maybe dominating elements, or elements trying to dominate other elements.
Some of the lines feel very precisely done, almost referencing Keith Haring. Are they still freehand?
They're all freehand. But it's a pleasure to do this mix because you establish a certain elegance that I think is unavoidable. I find pleasure in having elegant elements next to elements that are super shabby. Also, you could say, I was thinking about how our own history as men, but also as a society, is constantly erasing and establishing new lines of narration. I would say that's what it is about. It's about how elements get squeezed to the side, how they mingle, and how some elements seem very clear to us, while others are really foggy, maybe violent, but it's also kind of beautiful, or the other way around. Maybe they are also just vulgar?
Visit ropac.net to see more of Daniel Richter’s works.