hans_ulrich_obrist's picture
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now; Co-author (with Rem Koolhas), Project Japan: Metabolism Talks


In art, the title of a work can often be its first explanation. And in this context I am thinking especially of the titles of Gerhard Richter. In 2006, when I visited Richter in his studio in Cologne, he had just finished a group of six corresponding abstract paintings which he gave the title "Cage".

There are many relations between Richter's painting and the compositions of John Cage. In a book about the "Cage" series, Robert Storr has traced them from Richter‘s attendance of a Cage performance at the "Festum Fluxorum Fluxus" in Düsseldorf 1963 to analogies in their artistic processes. Cage has often applied chance procedures in his compositions, notably with the use of the "I Ching". Richter in his abstract paintings also intentionally allows effects of chance. In these paintings, he applies the oil paint on the canvas by means of a large squeegee. He selects the colors on the squeegee, but the factual trace that the paint leaves on the canvas is to a large extend the outcome of chance. The result then forms the basis for Richter's decisions how to continue with the next layer. In such an inclusion of ‘controlled chance' an artistic similarity between Cage and Richter can be found. Additionally to the reference to John Cage, Richter's title "Cage" can also be a visual association, as the six paintings have a very hermetic almost impermeable appearance. The title points to different layers of meaning.

Beyond his Richter's abstract paintings, analogies to Cage can be found also in other of his works. His artist book "Patterns" is my favorite book of the year 2011. It shows Richter's experiment of taking an image of his "Abstract Painting [CR: 724-4]" and dividing it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, up to 4096 strips. This methodology leads to 8190 strips. Throughout the process the strips become thinner and thinner. The experiment then leads to the strips being mirrored and repeated, which leads to a diversity of patterns. The outcomes are 221 patterns that are published on 246 double page images. In "Patterns" Richter set the precise rules, but he didn't manipulate the outcome, so that the pictures are againan interaction of a defined system and chance.

"Patterns" is one of many outstanding artist books Richter has done over the last couple of years, such as "Wald" (2008), or his book "Ice" (1981) which includes a special layout of the artist with his stunning photos of a trip to the Antarctic. The layout of those books is composed of intervals with different arrangements of the photos but also blank spaces–like pauses. Richter told me that his layout has to do with music, Cage and silence.

In 2007 Richter designed a twenty-meter-high arched stained-glass window to fill the south transept of Cologne Cathedral. The "Cologne Cathedral Window" comprises 11,000 hand-blown squares of glass in seventy-two colors derived from the palette of the original Medieval glazing that was destroyed during the Second World War. Half of the squares were allotted by a random generator, the other half then were like a mirror image to them. Control is once more ceded here to some extent, suggesting his interest in Cage's ideas to do with chance and the submission of the individual will to forces beyond one's control. "Coincidences are only useful", Richter has told me, "because they've been worked out—that means either eliminated or allowed or emphasized."

In Halberstadt, Germany, a performance of Cage's piece "ORGAN²/ASLSP" (1987) is taking place at the moment. "ASLSP" stands for "as slow as possible". Cage has not further specified this instruction, so that each performance of the score will be different. The actual performance will take 639 years to be completed. The slowness in Cage's piece is an essential aspect for our time. With globalization and the Internet all processes are accelerated to a speed in which no time for critical reflection remains. The present "Slow movement" thus argues to take time for well-chosen decisions together with a more locally oriented approach. The idea of slowness is one of the many aspects that continue to make Cage mostly relevant for the 21st Century.

Richter‘s concise title "Cage" can be unfolded into an extensive interpretation of these abstract paintings (and of other works)—but, one can say, the short form already contains everything. The title, like an explanation of a phenomenon, unlocks the works, describing their relation to one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century, John Cage, who shares with Richter the great themes of chance and uncertainty.