'No still-life motif has been such an object of fascination for
Richter as the subject of the candle' (H. Butin, Gerhard Richter Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p. 67).
'[As] candles had always been an important symbol for the GDR, as a silent protest against the regime... it was a strange feeling to see that a small picture of candles was turning into something completely different, something that I had never intended. Because, as I was painting it, it neither had this unequivocal meaning nor was it intended to be anything like a street picture. It sort of ran away from me and became something over which I no longer had control...When I painted the candles I wasnt thinking of February the 13th but I did experience feelings to do with contemplation, remembering, silence and death' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elgar and H.U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter - TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007, London 2009, pp. 320 and 354).
'I was fascinated by these motifs, and that [fascination] is also nicely distanced. I felt protected because the motifs are so art-historically charged, and I no longer needed to say that I painted them for myself. The motifs were covered by this styled composition, out-of-focus quality, and perfection. So beautifully painted, they take away the fear' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 262).
Shining with a mesmerising and brilliant light, Kerze is an icon of Gerhard Richter's painterly practice. With its sublime composition and momentary flicker captured for eternity within the thickened texture of the painted image, this work confounds its origins as a photograph of light. Painted in 1982, it is one of the finest examples from the artist's series of candle paintings realised between 1982-1983. These works can be found in major international art collections including The Art Institute of Chicago, Collection Rhône-Alpes, Institut d'art Contemporain, Lyon, Museum Frieder Burda, Baaden Baaden and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Kerze was originally part of the RSM Collection, a pioneering corporate grouping established in the 1980s by then Cincinnati based Robert Orton. The painting was one of a number of contemporary works including those by Sol LeWitt, On Kawara and Donald Judd to be exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1986. RSM generously bequeathed a number of these Minimalist works to the museum, retaining Kerze within the corporate Collection.
Both profoundly romantic in their presentation, intellectually conceived in their concept and rigorously abstract in their composition the candle paintings have come to define Richter's complex pursuit of the nature of style in painting. In Kerze, Richter has created a serene and transcendental image, the slim candlestick burning like a beacon in the dusky twilight. Through some remarkable incantation, he has managed to translate onto canvas a momentary split-second of combustion captured by his camera's lens. Indeed a beautiful synergy exists between the notion of this candle, the ancient bearer of light and the artist's camera; its aperture exposure and shutter speed capturing the precise light conditions of a certain moment in time. The profound serenity of the quietly flickering flame is matched by the exceptional dexterity of the work's painterly execution. The rendition of technique here is intensely captivating through the countless tonal adjustments that constantly manipulate the spectator's focus. This awesome methodological mastery of pigment suspension and the subtlest chromatic variation is truly sublime.
Looking at the painting, the eye is immediately drawn to the incandescent laminar flame at the heart of the composition, its flickering light towering ever higher. A warm, glowing halo surrounds the flaming wick, as heat radiates to the outside from within. Elegant in its formal simplicity, the work is sublime in its perfect, photo-realist execution. It marks the height of the radical technique that Richter himself pioneered in the 1960s with its characteristically blurred effect. In Kerze, the rich application of paint and traces of the artist's hand lend texture to the surface, carrying the image to a perfect and almost tangible simulation of reality. The subtle chromatic shifts of pigment compound this effect, with the red, molten core, giving way to cooler, opaque candle-wax. The room is shadowy, faint daylight appearing from a window lying beyond the picture plane. As we move around the painting, the colours of this subtly blurred background seductively transform from blue-grey to a rich, rich camouflage, Richter masterfully blurring the vertical lines that make up the composition. Always constant however, is the ethereal white of the dazzling flame, its taper dancing in the air.
In Kerze, we marvel at Richter's technical accomplishment arrived at through twenty years of experimentation with his preferred medium, paint. Through his remarkable composition, Richter achieves a unique balance of figurative subject and abstract colour field, each of the pictorial elements oscillating between the two positions. The candle itself with its erect, vertical form, recalls the effects of Barnett Newman's 'zips' of the 1950s and 1960s, appearing like a bright stripe through the centre of the painting. The vertical geometry of the background complements this burning emblem, forming dark, shaded bands to counterbalance the subject on either side. This effect is most frequently referred to as repoussoir where the figure or object in the extreme foreground is framed on either side, creating a dramatic illusion of depth. Traditionally a device employed by Mannerist and Baroque painters, in Kerze Richter exploits it to beautiful effect.
Richter first began his photo-realist project in 1962 when, dissatisfied with the illustrative art he had been compelled to make in East Germany and the Informel he had produced since coming to the West, he decided to experiment with the photograph. In doing so, Richter was looking for a new means of painting 'free from "literary effect', historical bias and the decorum of traditional composition' (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 49). Appearing initially as a European response to the American Pop Art movement, the artist began by mining images from newspapers, books and other published materials, rendering them in cool, painted monochrome. Richter surmised that working from a photo in this way was the perfect means of escape: 'a photograph - unless the art photographers have 'fashioned' it is simply the best picture I can imagine... it is a perfect; it does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous and unconditional... This is something that just has to be incorporated into painting' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 49). It was not until 1968 that Richter began to use his own photographs, collecting colour pictures of his first holiday abroad with his family to Corsica. This experience and the paintings that were to follow deeply affected Richter and became the foundation for his monumental and ongoing Atlas of source images.
In Kerze, the composition is based on a photograph taken by Richter in his own studio. Influenced by old master vanitas painters such as Georges de la Tour and Francisco Zurbaràn, the artist began to experiment with arrangements of candles and skulls placed in varying degrees of natural light, sitting atop otherwise barren tables. As he mused in his writings of the same year, 'traditional, supposedly old works of art are not old but contemporary... the better we know tradition -i.e. ourselves - and the more responsibly we deal with it, the better things we shall make similar, and the better things we shall make different' (G. Richter quoted in H. Obrist, Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Cambridge, 1995, p. 101).
Like the skull, the candle has been invoked throughout art history as a poignant memento mori, the transience of its flame reflecting the ultimate ephemerality of all life. It is a symbol that is also articulated in world faiths, standing for the ardent strength of the human spirit. Whilst Richter has always considered himself an inveterate atheist and anti-ideologue, the image is a perfect tribute to the man who continues to affirm his belief in art as 'the highest form of hope' (G. Richter, Documenta 7, Kassel, 1982). Perhaps significantly, Richter had just turned fifty when he created his first candle painting. At this moment in his life, the motifs of burning candles and gently illuminated skulls were a means to come to terms with the passage of time. As he explained, 'I was fascinated by these motifs, and that [fascination] is also nicely distanced. I felt protected because the motifs are so art-historically charged, and I no longer needed to say that I painted them for myself. The motifs were covered by this styled composition, out-of-focus quality, and perfection. So beautifully painted, they take away the fear' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 262).
As Robert Storr has pointed out 'these paintings were plainly forerunners of the much darker reflection on mortality that comprises the October 18, 1977 cycle', depicting the demise of the Baader-Meinhof group.
1982-1983 were years of profound change for the artist and were marked by his move with wife Isa Genzken to Cologne, providing a ''signal' that Düsseldorf had fallen behind its rival as the centre of contemporary art in West Germany' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 262). 1982 was also the year that Richter took part in Documenta 7 curated by Rudi Fuchs. For this acclaimed exhibition, Fuchs installed five of the artist's yellow, large format abstract paintings in five different rooms, situating them alongside works by Claes Oldenberg, Robert Mangold, Gilbert & George, and Lawrence Weiner; all artists that Richter greatly admired. The success of this show dramatically raised the international profile of Richter, who was then working diligently across many different and contrasting artistic registers. At the time, the candle paintings stood quite apart from the dominant vogue for ebullient, neo-expressionist painting championed in Germany by artists Anselm Kiefer, A.R. Penck, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff. It is this extraordinary autonomy and dexterity of practice, un-predicated by fashion, that demonstrates Richter's very apt position as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.
Since the candle paintings were originally painted almost thirty years ago, they have taken on a new meaning as a symbol of renewal. In 1995, the artist marked the 50th anniversary of the allied bombings of his hometown Dresden during the Second World War. His solitary candle was reproduced on a monumental scale and placed overlooking the River Elbe as a symbol of rejuvenation. As he later reflected, 'at first it was only intended to look pretty... but later a politically useful statement was also found in the picture... [as] candles had always been an important symbol for the GDR, as a silent protest against the regime... it was a strange feeling to see that a small picture of candles was turning into something completely different, something that I had never intended. Because, as I was painting it, it neither had this unequivocal meaning nor was it intended to be anything like a street picture. It sort of ran away from me and became something over which I no longer had control... When I painted the candles I wasn't thinking of February the 13th but I did experience feelings to do with contemplation, remembering, silence and death' (G. Richter quoted in D. Elgar and H.U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter - TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007, London 2009, pp. 320 and 354).