I don’t mistrust reality, of which I know next to nothing, I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses…My own relationship to reality…has a great deal to do with imprecision, uncertainty, transience, incompleteness or whatever.
—Gerhard Richter, 19721
Official projections of national identity are never casual, and for the united Germany they are particularly treacherous. So there is more than aesthetic significance to the fact that visitors to the rebuilt Reichstag—an artifact of the German past reimagined for the future by a British architect of the present—find themselves flanked on entry by two major works of contemporary art: Gerhard Richter’s 21-meter-high column of glass in the colors of the German flag—cool, elegant and enigmatic—and a set of lenticular light boxes by Sigmar Polke, where Till Eulenspiegel, Konrad Adenauer and Germania flicker and cavort in ways irreverent and, again, enigmatic.2 Richter (b. 1932) and Polke (1941–2010) have become in some sense official—or at least emblematic—artists of the new Germany, yet two artists constitutionally less suited to officialdom would be hard to imagine.
Deeply suspicious of both images and power, they spent 50 years prodding art, perception and human behavior. The extraordinary range and persistence of this effort was on full view this past summer in the hundreds of prints, multiples, books, posters and photographs that filled the exhibitions “Sigmar Polke: The Editions” at the me Collectors Room in Berlin and “Gerhard Richter: The Editions” at the Museum Folkwang in Essen.3
Drawn from the holdings of just two people—Thomas Olbricht (Richter) and Axel Ciesielski (Polke)—the shows affirmed the artists’ status as figures of critical importance, and also built a case for the value of old-fashioned, encyclopedic collecting. Editions, as Olbricht notes, offer “a field which, in contrast to individual works such as oil paintings, promised a chance of completeness, at least as a theoretical possibility. Only passionate collectors, who are at the same time systematists, will understand.”4 Unlike the more common vision of collecting as a kind of selfie-by-proxy, such systematic acquisition has the virtue of ceding control to the artist. If Richter or Polke made it and called it an edition, it counts, regardless of Olbricht’s or Ciesielski’s private preferences. By exhibiting all the editions rather than just a curated selection, the organizers extended to the viewing public an invitation to be both bedazzled and befuddled.
Both shows had their fair share of famous faces—the Mod beauties of Polke’s Freundinnen (Girlfriends) (1967) gazed out coyly from their disintegrating dot screen, Richter’s Mao (1968) smiled his spectral smile (four years earlier than Warhol’s and far more unnerving). But viewers drawn to the luminous melancholy of Richter’s orchids might well have been baffled by Bilderverzeichnis (Picture Inventory) (1969), a three-column list of painting titles with all the visual allure of an office directory. Similarly, those who came for Polke’s vibrant raster-dot prints might have struggled with his deliquescing photographs or oddities such as Apparat, mit dem eine Kartoffel eine andere umkreisen kann (Apparatus Whereby One Potato Can Orbit Another) (1969)—a small table with an electrical motor and a curved, hanging rod. (If you put a potato on the floor, poke another potato onto the bottom of the rod and turn on the motor, the titular action unfolds.)
Wisely, neither catalogue attempted to impose a false cogency on this material. The 290 Polke images are allowed largely to speak for themselves, accompanied by a checklist and brief overview essay by exhibition curator Tereza de Arruda. The Richter catalogue takes the inverse approach, including no fewer than 16 short essays spotlighting topics from “Gray” to “the Venice Biennale 1972.” Though modest in scale, both books are valuable additions to the literature on the artists and on contemporary prints more broadly. Meanwhile, Hubertus Butin, consistently among the informative and most insightful writers on Richter, has also now authored a book on the editioned paintings and other unique works in series. (For more detailed information on Richter editions, readers can turn to the exemplary catalogue raisonné (2014) and to the artist’s thorough and informative website.)5
Polke and Richter met as students at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf in 1962, when Richter, a recent arrival from East Germany, was 30 and Polke 21. Though painterly abstraction was still dominant in the West, they were ensnared by the external world and the pictures that litter it; they made paintings of things like advertisements for socks (Polke) and drying racks (Richter) and news photos of Lee Harvey Oswald (both). Drawn to the possibilities of nonprecious art, they also played with low-grade technologies and cheap distribution (one essay in the Essen catalogue is titled “Art for All!”).
The earliest work in the Polke show was a 1963 announcement for an exhibition of prints and paintings by himself, Richter, Manfred Kuttner and Konrad Lueg (aka the art dealer Konrad Fischer). The square offset-lithograph carries a word soup of contemporary art movements wrapped around a collaged magazine snippet. It’s just a show announcement, but insofar as it is ambitious, confusing, pulled from seemingly random bits of the real world, and inexplicably hypnotic, it is pure Polke.
Richter’s first professional prints were screened from old snapshots, but erratically: in Hund (Dog) (1965), the ink was smeared with a brush while wet; in Familie (1966), eccentric inking and misregistrations confound legibility and undercut both the medium’s industrial panache and its potential for autographic expression. Every customary route for deriving meaning from art—gesture, technical mastery, iconography—has been blocked. And yet—as would be true of his work from here on—it is hard to stop looking.
Richter and Polke collaborated only twice: on the catalogue/artists book Polke/Richter (1966), and two years later on the offset lithograph Umwandlung (Transformation). Butin writes of the “self-deprecating, anti-heroic character” of these works, so at odds with the ideal of art as a socially and spiritually redemptive force.6 The book is a kind of paginated, absurdist buddy film (one well-known image shows the two artists together in a bathtub like happy toddlers). The print consists of a set of five grainy photographs above the explanatory caption, “5 Phases of a transformation executed by Polke and Richter. On 26 April 1968, for the duration of two hours, the mountain turned into a sphere.”7 The first of the five photographs does indeed show a snowy Alpine peak, while those that follow get darker and blurrier until all that remains is a fuzzy orb of light.
With its slightly nasty cardstock, indifferent graphic design and 200-strong edition, Transformation seems addressed, in the manner of a spitball, to the legacy of German Romanticism. What is more awe-inspiring than a mountain? More sublime than a sphere? More Romantic than the notion of the artist as magician, turning one into the other? Polke and Richter’s decision to wrap this exercise in the trappings of humorless conceptualism (“for the duration of two hours” is a neatly pompous touch) reveals their awareness that the allure of sublimity did not die with Caspar David Friedrich.
Nonetheless, Friedrich is, Butin notes, the historical painter about whom Richter has spoken most often and, truth be told, Romanticism is never far from view for either Richter or Polke.8 What does Polke’s “apparatus” do, after all, except turn humble vegetables into a model of the cosmos? And the question prompted by Richter’s picture-free list of pictures is not whether art is magic but where does that magic reside? Is it still there if we take away the color? The canvas? The picture?
Looking back, one can see the trajectories of both artists rooted here: Richter’s looping, methodical investigations of pictorial presence; Polke’s mercurial pursuit of double identities and dissolutions that can turn a newspaper clipping into a shining sun and into a spitball.
By the 1970s, they were moving in separate directions. Polke became increasingly involved in photography, filmmaking and psychedelia, then returned to painting on a grand scale; Richter worked through his systematized geometric Farbfelder (Color Fields) and onto the color photographic paintings and abstractions that would make him one of the most celebrated artists on the planet. Each, however, continued to employ systems of replication as both a means of production and a subject.
In an important 1991 essay, John Paoletti enumerated ten tactics the artist deployed to disrupt pictorial cohesion and comprehension.9 Almost all derive from printing. The most famous is the raster dot—large or small, congealing like algae or dispersing like a marching band—that Polke used so consistently it became an impersonal signature. But there were also the many types of layering: photos on texts, drawings on photos, painting on printed fabric, printing on patterned paper. There were the photographic solarizations and multiple exposures that turned snapshots of party girls and street people into something resembling 19th-century spirit photography. There were the voracious borrowings from the history of printed matter—Dürer, Goya, Ernst, treatises on optics and dopey cartoons. In the 1990s, Polke installed a photocopier in his studio, and (mis)used it to produce writhing, elastic transformations, fodder for further layering, rasterizing and recombining.
Printing could be a metonym for communication (he once painted two small diptychs that ostensibly record his telepathic conversations with the printmakers William Blake [1757–1827] and Max Klinger [1857–1920]). But it could also be a metaphor for the inevitable membrane between world and self—the neurological systems, psychological preferences and social structures that dictate what we see before we see it. (Polke’s interest in hallucinogens is of a piece with this idea: appearances are illusory, but you might as well enjoy the ride.)
As a working method, print facilitated his preference for serial variation and serendipitous accident; every solution was just one in a potentially endless series of state changes. The printer and publisher Mike Karstens said that he has never known an artist “so demanding, so reckless, so experimental, so provocative, so full of ideas.”10
Looking at works such as Danneckers Hausgecko (2009), one can only stand in awe of a juggling act that somehow keeps eloquence and chaos, absurdity and beauty, glee and despair all in the air. The bevy of sensorial distractions—raster dots and ink puddles on flocked and lizard-skin embossed paper—resolve into a line of bacchantes, a woman with her head in hand, another gazing upward, a mother and child beneath a veil. Electric colors notwithstanding, these women in their frozen theatrical attitudes suggest an elegy. And with good reason: they come from sketches by the neoclassical sculptor Johann Heinrich von Dannecker (1758–1851), and three relate to his mausoleum for Karl Graf von Zeppelin (1766–1801).11 Danneckers Hausgecko was Polke’s last edition.
For Richter also, editions served as a platform for experiment, but this is experimentalism of a different order. The exhibition in Essen charted a steady process of identifying and isolating variables—color, imagery, materials, gesture. There were prints after photographs, photographs after paintings, prints after paintings. Images and ideas crop up, disappear, then reappear decades later: an edition of steel spheres engraved with the names of Alpine peaks, from 1992, is a kind of post-facto prop for the 1968 Transformation; a 2012 edition, Elbe, reproduces 31 weirdly predictive monoprints Richter made as a student in 1957. As with Polke, there is no such thing as a final state.
The cover of the Folkwang catalogue reproduces Blattecke (Sheet Corner) (1967), a trompe l’oeil offset that shows a piece of paper curling up to reveal a partial signature and date below. Printed in an edition of 739, the offset originally sold for five Deutschmarks (about ten dollars in current money). The setup is witty enough: the curling paper that’s actually flat; the personal signature that’s actually mass-produced. But the game is more complicated: the print reproduces a 1965 painting, Umgeschlagenes Blatt (Turned Sheet), though the painting lacks the semi-hidden signature and date; and the painting is one of 14 canvases all showing a cream-colored page curling up from the lower right. Taking this one step further, the reproduction on the catalogue cover is tipped on, but adhered only at one side, so the image of the lifted corner can itself be lifted, revealing not a hidden signature but a thumbnail reproduction of Richter’s 2008 print, 40,000, a 200 x 200 grid of randomly distributed values of gray, resembling a hyperactive QR code.
The effect of all this repetition and reiteration is to keep in play the question of just what exactly images do for us. In early works like Neun Objekte (Nine Objects) (1969) and Wolke (Cloud) (1971), Richter used retouching and montage to mock the nonfiction status of photography. More recently, he toyed with nanotechnological images of atoms, which look photographic but are made by measuring invisible atomic forces and translating the data into analogous areas of light and dark—as pictures they are simultaneously true and false. In one extended body of work, Richter took close-up black-and-white photographs of one of his colorful abstract paintings and arranged them in various formats—books, editions, a wall piece—that document every visual aspect of the painting except what it looks like to the human eye.
In 1985 Richter said that he was ready to “try out my abstract works in printmaking but in a more conventional manner…etching and all that,” but it did not happen.12 Instead he continued to cycle between mechanical reproduction (with increasingly refined production values) and haptic hand-facture. The squeegee, employed so willfully in Hund and Familie, returned as the defining instrument of his abstract painting, while photography and its digital descendants provided ever more sophisticated means for investigating and extending the paintings.
The visually compelling Strips (2011–2015), for example, were made by taking a digital slice of an earlier abstract painting and dividing it into 4,096 color segments that could be rearranged and stretched horizontally. Though some are categorized by the artist as paintings and some as editions, all are digitally printed. Inversely, Richter has regularly produced abstract paintings in editions, either by painting multiple works with the same conceptual and material parameters (Fuji  is an “edition” of no fewer that 110 distinct paintings), or by dividing a single painting up into parts. Just as the photographic paintings and editions throw open the question of what exactly photography represents, cutting up and serializing paintings poses a challenge to presumptions about abstraction (if the gestures can be repeated without diminution, and the composition can be divided without diminution, what does that say?).
That Richter has an unerring eye for form is beyond question (even the randomly cut-up canvases look great), but what makes his work affecting is its connectedness, the way in which each object acknowledges its dependence on things beyond itself. In Essen, Richter’s famous, plangent paintings of a lit candle were present in the form of offset reproductions defaced by a scrawled signature or smears of squeegeed ink—one era’s icon of immanence screened by another’s. You don’t have to believe in either to be moved by both.
From Joseph Beuys to Anselm Kiefer, many postwar German artists maintained Expressionism’s emphasis on dramatized subjective experience and geopolitics as a site of personal emotional struggle. In Richter’s and Polke’s art, however, subjectivity and geopolitics enter with the inevitability of air, unannounced by Sturm or Drang. References to World War II are not hard to find (see, among many others, Polke’s 1984 Kölner Dom. Skulptur eines unbekannten Meisters (vermutlich englischer Bomber-Pilot) (Cologne Cathedral. Sculpture
by an unknown master (presumably an English bomber pilot)) (1944). But the lasting impact left by their particular historical moment seems less to do with being bombed than being lied to.
The works in the Reichstag, like the myriad editions that preceded and postdated them, are enigmatic not out of perversity, but because enigma is a shield against certainty. Given that Germany is, for the moment at least, a nation still leery of its own power, Polke and Richter may indeed be its apt ambassadors. But elsewhere in the world, certainty and simplicity are on the march again. We could do worse than to look at and learn from these two artists. “Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures,” Richter argues. Good pictures show things “in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”14
- Interview with Rolf Schön, reprinted in Gerhard Richter–Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 60. Originally published in 36. Biennale in Venice: German Pavilion (Essen: Museum Folkwang, 1972).
- Gerhard Richter, Schwarz Rot Gold (1999), glass and colored enamel, 67 x 10 3/4 feet; Sigmar Polke, Vor-Ort-Sein (1998–99), five lenticular light boxes, 70 7/8 x 47 1/4 inches each.
- The Museum Folkwang was, in 1970, the site of Richter’s first solo museum show, which was also an exhibition of his editions.
- Thomas Olbricht, “Foreword,” in Hubertus Butin, Gerhard Richter: Unikate in Serie/Unique Pieces in Series (Cologne: Snoeck Verlagsgesellschaft, 2017), 7.
- Hubertus Butin, Stefan Gronert, Thomas Olbricht, Gerhard Richter: Editions 1965–2013 (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2014), and http://gerhard-richter.com.
- Hubertus Butin, “Gerhard Richter’s Editions and the Discourses of Images,” ibid., 67.
- “5 Phasen einer von Polke und Richter vorgenommenen Umwandlung. Das Massiv wurde am 26. April 68 für die Dauer von 2 Stünden in eine Kugel verwandelt.”
- Butin, “Gerhard Richter’s Editions,” 93.
- John Paoletti, “Higher Beings Command: The Prints of Sigmar Polke,” Print Collector’s Newsletter 22, no. 2 (May–June 1991): 38.
- Mike Karstens, quoted in Tereza de Arruda, Sigmar Polke: The Editions (2017), 71.
- I am indebted to Armin Kunz for this information.
- “Gerhard Richter: An Interview,” Dorothea Dietrich, The Print Collector’s Newsletter 16, no. 4 (Sep–Oct 1985): 130
- Gerhard Richter, Denys Zacharopoulos, “Die Figur des Werks,” in Gerhard Richter, ed. Ulrich Loock and Denys Sacharopoulos (Munich: Silke Schreiber,1985), 50.
- Gerhard Richter–Text, 32–33.