Gerhard Richter: Lines which do not exist

Originally posted in GalleryCrawl

Under Pseudonym: Erin Tireses

Robert Frost said, “in a great rhyme, the reader doesn’t know which word the author thought of first.” This quote applies to the creation of drawings, as well, and it is epitomized by those in the Gerhard Richter‘s show, “Lines which do not exist” at The Drawing Center. Each piece in the show is like a metaphor that cannot be simply digested and set aside. All the drawing in the show are full of ideas that are not easily separated. In none is it clear which line was imagined first, which intersection held the artists attention longest, or which smudge mark was the final touch. Like a fully formed world into which we enter and of which we attempt to decipher the origins, each work appears to have emerged as a whole, organically, so that the viewers can study the relationships between the spaces and lines indefinitely, and constantly realize new truths about how the marks relate to one another.


The first drawing that grabbed my attention on opening night was 22.4.1990, which depicts a single plane with vertical erase marks that slash the plane into seven separate sections. I stared at the piece as intently as I would read a novel, searching for a reason behind the way its patterns unfold. I could not be certain that the erase marks were conceptualized after the larger plane was drawn. The lines that comprise the plane grow dimmer from left to right, as if the artist gently lifted his pencil as he scrawled across the surface of the paper. But the weight and space of the plane seems to grow less dense between each segment than the space created by the erasures would imply, as if there was never a singular plain at all, but the artist created one segment, smudged its edge with his eraser, then started the next section from scratch. The greater plane stands apart from the blank background so boldly that it implies otherwise, but this continuity could have been formed by the smudge marks that are equally dense in each segment, and lend the piece its depth. The eraser marks – the negative space – weigh and occupy more space than the segments of the plane; causing me to feel their importance and question the one assumption I thought of which I thought I could be certain – that something must be created before it can be wiped out.



1990, graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 11/16 inches. Permanent loan from a German private collection, Courtesy Kunsthalle Emden. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.



Detail of 22.4.1990.


Another drawing brings together multiple planes created by horizontal lines but without erasures between each segment. In 21.5.1986, three segments are stitched together where its lines overlap, creating two other segments that are actually denser than those that combine to form them. There are a variety of angles and densities created in the segments where the lines overlap, implying a myriad of ways the spaces could relate to each other. The center could be the foreground. The left could overlap the center while the center overlaps the right. They could all bend into one another, and all the apparent overlap could be an illusion. Or the center segment itself could be an extension of the left and right as they reach for one another. These possibilities are enough to make the viewer realize that there are more ways that lines, planes, spaces and ideas can intersect than anyone can hold in their mind at a single time, but this is not enough for the artist. Richter presents two other sets of lines, slightly fainter, on top of the center segment, which cut a different direction than all the other lines in the drawing. These sets of lines act like a tangent to a central narrative, which opens that narrative to a whole new set of interpretations.


21.5.1986, (4), 1986, graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 11/16 inches. Permanent loan from a German private collection, Courtesy Kunsthalle Emden. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


Detail of 21.5.1986 (4).


21.5.1986, (4) is one of three drawings that share a single ledge upon a wall which, sitting next to each other, display the huge breadth of creation that drawing can encompass, which Gerhardt Richter has executed. Each creates a different type of space, with different strokes, different intentions, and vastly different effects. With thick smudges of graphite, 31.5.1999 creates a landscape, 21.5.1986 creates a plane, and 4.4.1983 uses lines more sparsely, with more space between each and more apparent randomness, to creating subtle spaces from which the viewer can endlessly abstract. Each one is like a murky pool into which the viewers can wade and explore, and the juxtaposition of the three quickens and confuses the exploration, like a verse in terza rimathat keeps its readers thinking about how the rhymes both link together and fall apart as the meter moves them forward.


It is rare for a single artist to evoke such a large range of experiences with such aplomb. I was reminded of Shakespeare’s ability to write pitch-perfect voices for such diametrically opposed characters as Romeo and Iago, and the similarities between the artists do not end there. Richter has been criticized for appropriating all of these styles from artists of the 1950s and not contributing anything new to the art of drawing, not pushing the medium further toward another stage in its evolution. Likewise, Shakespeare never wrote an original story. Instead, both artists perfected their craft, and this in itself is an innovation that furthers every art form and pushes every artist.



31.5.1999, 1999, graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 7/8 inches. Private Collection. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


21.5.1986, (4), 1986,graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 11/16 inches. Permanent loan from a German private collection, Courtesy Kunsthalle Emden. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.



4.4.1983 (2), 1983, graphite on paper, 7 1/8 x 9 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Purchase with lottery funds from the canton of Zurich, 1996. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


17 Seascapes contains seventeen drawings of the ocean, sky, and horizon in a tidy grid. Each scene varies, like a study of time. In one the clouds are thick, in another wispy. In some the seas are calm, in others tumultuous. But in all of them the horizon remains the same, a flat line dividing the ocean and the sky. They look as if the artist drew them with a ruler across all the panels and applied the same weight all the way across.

This would be an obvious element to change if an artist wanted to augment the feeling of each seascape. A shaky horizon easily indicates a storm, and a flat one indicates calm. But Richter conjures these effects while leaving the horizon flat, and the result is engrossing. The horizons give the whole piece a feeling of depth. The flat lines seems to run across the spaces between the panels and the viewers are drawn into them like most of us are occupied while lying on the beach, staring over the waves. As I peered into the drawings and saw the ocean, the truth of Richter’s choice to leave the horizon flat despite the conditions of the sea and sky became clear to me. Beyond the waves there is always a horizon, always a point where the water rolls over the earth, past our view, and creates a constant line.


17 Seestücke/17 Seascapes, 1969, graphite and ballpoint pen on paper, 8 1/2 x 12 inches. Permanent loan from a German private collection, Courtesy Kunsthalle Emden. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


Four drawings stand on the back wall of the gallery, all taller and wider than their viewers. These works inspire awe and intimidate, like a waterfall looming at the back of a cove. But as the viewers approach them, they find that the waterfalls are frozen in time and their sublime details reflect both that natural phenomenon and Gerhard Richter’s smaller paintings. Their nuances can be studied for hours. Drawing III splits the canvas in half with shading. An ominous face lingers in the darker half, like a shadowy figure submerged underwater. The other half is slightly comical, with wispy lines that reflect a cartoonishly long, stocking-ed leg. This extreme juxtaposition is exactly what someone would expect from the details of a waterfall frozen in time: the effluence of water – a random expression of the whole spectrum of life and its most disparate elements standing side by side. Where other drawings in the show emerge from their blank backgrounds with well-defined lines, Richter gives this drawing one distinct edge then intentionally smudges it.


Drawing III, 2005, graphite on paper, 59 1/2 x 40 3/8 inches. Collection of Donna and Howard Stone. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


There appears to be a progression in the drawings as the viewer moves clockwise around the show. The pieces on the left side of the room are more singular studies, the large paintings on the back wall split their canvases between two poles, ominous and comical, as discussed above, while the paintings on the right side of the room seem to split spaces on a smaller scale, and in a more startling way. One such painting, 18.10.1988 has faint lines curling off into one corner of the page. As they draw together, they resemble a wolf baying at the moon. Once I detected this image, its comical reflection began to emerge in the darker lines of the piece – an abstract rendition of Wile E Coyote with his hand on his chin. Intentional or not, the dual usage of the space allows the viewer to find both the most awe-inspiring and most comical interpretations of the same image in a single drawing.



18.10.1988, 1988, graphite on paper, 11 11/16 x 8 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Purchase with lottery funds from the canton of Zurich, 1997. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


Water abounds in this show. From the fluidity with which complex planes emerge from blank backgrounds, to the waterfalls captured in the back of the room, and to the delicate transitions of the last set of drawings like streams combining and separating again, The Drawing Center feels full of that life-creating element. Each painting offers the meditative experience of staring at waves as they roll onto the shore, where the sea-goer sits and  contemplates the simultaneous repetitious yet ever-changing nature of life. No drawing does this more obviously than one of the ocean itself, 1.6.1999. Dark shading creates the surface of water under the moonlight, shiftier lines depict the sky, and one erase mark runs back and forth from the horizon into the sea, creating a beautiful glimpse of light upon the water. Images of the open ocean often conjure a feeling of instability as there is no place for the viewers to plant their feet, but the craft of this drawing instills the viewers with a sense of calm. The erasure depicting the moonlight would be the calmest element of the painting, but there is a violent scribble mark over this blank space, reminding us that there is always danger beneath the surface, even in a work this well composed.


Writers since at least the time of the New Testament have identified the ocean as the ideal metaphor. No one can ever explore all of its depths. No one can touch the bottom of the sea or they will drown. The drawings of Gerhard Richter epitomize this metaphor, offering us dynamic confluences of lines and shadows that intensify our exploration of art and life.


1.6.1999, 1999, graphite on paper, 8 1/4 x 11 11/16 inches. Courtesy of Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Purchase with lottery funds from the canton of Zurich, 2000. Image courtesy The Drawing Center.


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One thought on “Gerhard Richter: Lines which do not exist”

  1. That both drawing and abstraction have enjoyed a recent vogue in New York makes the timing of this show, “Lines Which Do Not Exist,” feel right, though almost any time probably would be appropriate.

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