Monday, May 27, 2013

How to talk about Grey? Gerhard Richter's Cage I-VI. Again

After a lazy afternoon overlooking the Thames, discussing everything from Michael Haneke’s films through the dire state of the academic institution in Britain, to life and love, my dear friend James and I ventured inside the Tate Modern to spend some time together with six of my favorite paintings: Cage I-VI. I have seen these six paintings many times, and I have written about them more than once. Similarly, James and I had seen them together on the occasion of the Panorama retrospective in October 2011. We went back, because I wanted to be with them, experience them together once again with him. I wanted to see what came out of the three-way conversation, a conversation between James, myself and Cage I-VI. And James was keen to see them again having lived with a poster reproduction of Cage V for some months: how would the colours compare?

Mark Rothko, The Seagram Murals, 1958
The first thing we discussed was the exhibition of the Richter paintings and Rothko’s The Seagram Murals. While other works in the current hanging of the permanent collection are thematized: apparently to reflect abstract connections such as “Poetry and Dream,” “Energy and Process” and the like, Cage I-VI and The Seagram Murals have their own rooms. I couldn’t help comparing the display of the two series. The dimmed lighting, the single entrance, the placement of a bench in the middle of the room, all of it creates, or rather, imposes a temple-like environment for Rothko's paintings. Richter’s Cage paintings however, are filled with light coming in from above, from the entrances on either side of the room, and because there is no seat in the middle, our own motion around the room. The openness and volume of the canvases asks us to look upwards and outwards as we move to see them from different perspectives, together, singularly, up close and at a distance. In distinction from the demand of The Seagram Murals that we look inwards and remain silent and static, Cage I-VI fill us with energy and motion.

Philip Guston, Head I, 1965
As we arrived at Level 3, "Transformed Visions," James asked me, “so what is grey”? A question I should be able to answer by now. But all I could do was agree with his reflection that "I have never really known what grey is, and I have never known how to spell it." In Room 2, we stopped before Philip Guston's Head I, 1965. The plate accompanying the painting quotes Guston: “I use white pigment and black pigment. The white pigment is used to erase the black I don’t want and so becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion — elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with colour.” What’s so striking about all of the grey paintings in this room, and later with the Richters, is that grey is about so much more than Guston claims. Similarly, it is about so much more than we would expect. For Guston in Head I, grey is about light and energy, it's about illusion and reality, especially as it gives depth to the head in the title. Grey is also about uncertainty and whether the grey is in relief or perhaps it is receding, leaving the black in the foreground? The freedom of the grey brushstrokes — that are, it is worth mentioning, mixed in with red and blue — warm, generous, and they create a painted surface in flux, glowing.

With all these contradictions left hanging through the presence of grey on the canvas, James had of course, announced the central problem addressed by my forthcoming book, “The Truth is Always Grey” when he said, "I have never really known what grey is, and I have never known how to spell it". This, of course, is my attraction to grey.

So what is grey doing in Cage I-VI? We discussed together that grey is everywhere and nowhere in these paintings. James noticed that grey was impossible to comprehend. While other colours, yellow, red, blue, green, are quantifiable, or rather, can be qualified, seen, understood in their verticality, in their horizontality, in their definitiveness. Grey is more difficult. Yellow is yellow, red is red, blue is blue, but grey is a whole spectrum of ever shifting tones, temperatures, densities. Is it the background or the foreground? Is it horizontal or vertical? Does it erase, or is it erased?

And then as we contemplated these questions, we recognized that the opposite is also true. The vivacity of this contradiction is what makes Richter great and grey indispensible to his greatness. Because grey is the one thing, the one colour that remains the same. While blue becomes yellow which takes over from green, grey, at least within each painting is consistent. It exists. Up close, each of the six Cage paintings changes, shifts from what it was at a distance. Red becomes magenta, it becomes orange, and then in places, it is pink and even purple. Red is anything but stable in these paintings.

It is this ambiguity, this uncertainty and continuing contradiction that makes grey the most exciting of all colours for Richter. Grey is lush, it is playful, filled with light, with air, with possibility and infinity. Grey on the canvases of Cage I-VI is what opens them upwards and outwards, lifting the viewer to a belief in the possibility of painting. 

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