Düsenjäger (Jet Fighter) is a major painting from Gerhard Richter's celebrated series of military aircraft. One of an important group of eight works-- four of which are in museums - it is one of the two largest paintings in this series and one of two to employ color in a captivating departure from the artist's typically grisaille palette of this period. Its format is equally unique and rare among its siblings; featuring a lone fighter jet in monumental close-up, (n)either before-or-after dramatic action, Düsenjäger looms with the unyielding sense of foreboding that blanketed its Cold War context. Indeed, even as one of Richter's earliest Photo-Paintings which lay claim to the "objective" nature of photography through a "random" selection of West German printed media, the present work is clearly-- or rather equally-- rooted in subliminal seeds of contention. Reflecting a pivotal moment in West German history, Düsenjäger brims with the collective anxieties that prevailed during the fragile aftermath of WWII.
Existential angst is palpable in this vast image of a fighter jet cruising over a seeming no-man's land. Speaking to the Cold War's acute and ominous manifestation in Europe-- especially West Germany which was at the heart of this ideological battle-- Düsenjäger possesses a fateful edge that is absent from contemporaneous efforts by American Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose subjects were likewise drawn from the popular media. Indeed, compared to 129 Die and Whaam, which seem distanced in the safe enclave of their American contexts, Düsenjäger emanates an imminent threat of mass annihilation. Emerging from the horrific legacy of Nazi rule, followed by partition from the Communist East and subsequent military, economic and cultural boosts from its newly forged NATO allies, the threat of war was omnipresent in West Germany; in the present work, it resounds.
Of course, Richter denied the controversial nature of such imagery and often claimed that his choice of subjects from this early period of his oeuvre -- though selected with great care and attention towards its aesthetic and pictorial value -- was never chosen with regard to its social or political implications. This distancing was questionable, however, in light of his decision to paint photographs of friends, family and other figures from the Nazi era. Indeed, his contemporaneous renditions of Hitler, his Onkel Rudi (a young soldier killed while serving Hitler's army), his Tante Marianne (a victim of the Nazi euthanasia program) and Herr. Heyde (a Nazi neurologist unmasked and arrested while living under an alias in West Germany) are filled with the difficult awareness of their content. These works, along with his related paintings of fighter planes such as Düsenjäger, suggest that Richter knowingly employed the "impersonal" nature of photographic images as tools to pick at his country's fragile moral fiber.
When, in an interview from 1990, the critic Sabine Schultz suggested to Richter that his paintings of military aircraft like Düsenjäger were in fact anti-war pictures, he keenly refuted the accusation, pointing out the ultimate impotence of such imagery. "Pictures like that don't do anything to combat war," he replied, "They only show one tiny aspect of the subject of war-- maybe my own childish feelings of fear and fascination with war and weapons of that kind" (G. Richter, quoted in "Interview with Sabine Schultz," Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, London, 1995 p. 212). He added that any power, resonance or meaning in works such as Düsenjäger derived solely from its absence of an agenda, and that only such a lack of partisanship and judgment could stir emotions of insidious significance. It was for this reason that Richter painted from found photographs as they were "the only pictures that told the absolute truth," and as a consequence, "usually got believed even when they were technically faulty and their content was barely identifiable..." (Ibid., p. 31-33).
Indeed, the photograph proved an effectively objective medium compared to the necessarily subjective nature of painting. A photograph's indifference, distance, neutrality and above all its supposed adherence to "fact"-- allowed it to act in a manner that painting could not. In works such as the present, Richter mined the overwhelming trust attached to photographs by choosing reproductions from German newspapers, but simultaneously questioned the nature of this "truth." Seemingly banal and ordinary at first, the image of a fighter jet in the political ferment of 1963 unfolds to reveal layers of politically charged questions. Almost by accident, Düsenjäger becomes highly troubling, striking to the core of contemporaneous anxieties and fears in West Germany.
Such provocation was part of both Richter's and his fellow Capitalist Realists' ironic stance towards widespread contemporary fears about the process then known as "Americanization." A subject of particular concern in sixties West Germany, this term conveyed the political, military, economic and cultural changes that were being wrought in an attempt to forge an identity that was distinct from its neighboring German Democratic Republic or "East Germany" as it was commonly known. Participating in the new media saturation that was part of this emerging Western Capitalist ethos, Richter and his colleague Sigmar Polke selected photographs from newspaper extracts that, despite appearing benign, challenged the viewer to reevaluate the factual basis of the contemporary media. Created at a time when West Germany was being used as a NATO air force base and remilitarized to counteract the Warsaw Pact, the present work resides in an ambiguous space between fact and propaganda.
As an opponent of all ideologies and beliefs, having experienced both Nazi and Soviet regimes, Richter used the supposed neutrality of the photographic image as a means of avoiding all ideological precepts in his own work, but also remained supremely aware of the inherent lie in photography's supposed objectivity and its intrinsic capacity for propagating ideologies. This is evident in the signature blurring that he brings to his works from this period. At once dispensing information and deleting it from view, this technique brings the artist's anti-ideological battle to potent evidence in Düsenjäger. His rare infusion of color heightens this tension: appearing against the rosy glow of dawn or dusk, the menace of the fighter jet is somewhat mitigated. Coming in and out of view, melting into painterly abstraction and coalescing into focus, Düsenjäger alternates among neutral abstraction, objective photojournalism and charged political rhetoric. Appearing at auction almost half a century after its creation, its sting is still as sharp as ever, evoking a world at war and entrapped in the binds of an uncertain terror.