Painted in 1968, Stadtbild Ha shows the aerial view of several modern blocks of flats and the streets above and below them. Dating from a pivotal moment in Richter's career, the cityscapes are a vital link in the development of his painting, while they also condense many of the issues that have remained central to his work.
Richter has portrayed this landscape in a stark black and white, with only moderate use of uniform greys, avoiding tones. In this way, he lends the picture a newspaperish quality, giving an impression of a cheap reproduction that is not present in the source image, as seen in Atlas. This disruption of the original, this adjustment to the quality of the reproduction, reflects the changes, be it in the form of blurring or other techniques, that Richter almost always exacts on photographic source images. Rather than paint something taken directly from life, he has painted a photo and in so doing, has taken the lowliest image and enshrined it in oils: 'Perhaps because I'm sorry for the photograph, because it has such a miserable existence even though it is such a perfect picture, I would like to make it valid, make it visible - just make it' (Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, quoted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, ed. H.-U. Obrist, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p.33).
By taking a photographic source, an objet trouvé of sorts, Richter performs a great sleight of hand, seemingly absolving himself of responsibility for the picture's content. He makes the selection appear arbitrary. The aerial view itself shows a distance, reinforcing the feelings of detachment. But the use of an aerial photograph is itself deliberate, and recalls the wartime images of the destruction wreaked all over Europe by bombers. Likewise, the clean, geometrical order of the new buildings shown hints obliquely at the destruction that preceded such reconstruction projects in so many places. These buildings appear to be the architecture of the future, of optimism. They are deliberately generic and non-specific (although the Ha in the title implies Hamburg), and indeed Richter customarily edited out distinguishing landmarks from his cityscapes of this period (especially evident in the extreme cropping, removing the Arc de Triomphe, in Stadtbild Paris). The precision with which they have been built amidst the chaos of streets from the older world show a New Order imposing itself. However, Richter's customary detachment forbids the viewer from seeing these buildings unequivocally as those of hope: Stadtbild Ha presents the viewer with the new, aspiring utopias of the Post-War age, but does so with a cynicism that appears to question the entire notion of the new landscape. By taking such an image, Richter forces the viewer to react, to read into the picture, despite the mechanical, cold-hearted detachment with which he has painted it.
This is Pop at its edgiest and most political, coming from an artist with an overtly political background. As well as taking content which is arguably political, Richter's technique in creating Stadtbild Ha has a political edge in which the medium, to borrow McLuhan's phrase, truly becomes the message. Not only does the reproduction of a photograph by other means exalt the democratic source, but also the act of reproducing the work, of relying not on inspiration but instead copying a 'common' image almost by rote is an assault on the sacrosanct status of the 'artist'. Richter has deliberately placed himself in the position of a camera, his act of painting a mechanical one. In so doing, Richter attacked the elitism and, even more so, the mystique that surrounds the role of Artist in general.
But Richter is a painter first and foremost, and his art, while radical in many ways, is not tainted by radicalism. The ironic distance evident in Stadtbild Ha's content is mirrored in the technique of its creation: the leveling hand of the Pop-political painter has granted glory to a mundane photographic source while the technique attacks the notion of the artist itself. Conversely, the very techniques with which Richter has emphasized Stadtbild Ha's photographic origins also highlight its painterliness. The extreme figuration of the aerial photo has here been twisted beyond use by the seeming abstraction of the color blocks. The shapes of the buildings and the formless tangle of the streets at the top and the bottom of the painting smack of the gestural painting of the Abstract Expressionists. The centre could almost be the work of Franz Kline or Soulages, the top and bottom Morris Louis, Pollock or Sam Francis. By reducing the accuracy of the original picture, simplifying the shapes and tones, he has painstakingly constructed an accurate townscape that at a glance mimics, and even mocks, Action Painting, presenting a black and white photo through a visual idiom that parodies that movement's expressionistic exertions. He keeps, in contrast to Action Painting, his artistic will completely in check, were more gestural artists let it run free.
This play between the figurative and the abstract, between the scientific precision of the photograph and the haphazard randomness of the Abstract Expressionists, cuts to the centre of Richter's painting. He questions the validity of representation, choosing images that appear arbitrary, creating images that can appear figurative or abstract, inherently questioning the entire purpose of art itself. Already in his Color Charts and his more Duchampian pictures of corrugated iron and curtains, Richter had playfully created images designed to dupe the viewer, to challenge our preconceptions and send them flying, making us assume that the images were abstract or geometric, only to discover that they were in fact plucked, out of context, from the world around us. The painterly quality of the Stadtbilder, descendants of the photographic, non-aerial view of Milan, Mailand, Domplatz, introduced a new dimension in which to explore these ambiguities. With that work, Richter broke free of the constraining scale of the human figure which had dominated many of the pictures immediately preceding the Stadtbilder. Mailand, Domplatz served both as link and departure point, exploding within his oeuvre and opening up the potential of more abstract pictures, pictures which explore once more, yet in a new way, the entire nature of representation and painting. It is in keeping with this progression that in 1968 - the same year that Stadtbild Ha was painted - Richter's first true Abstract Paintings appeared, and they did so as the linear heirs of the city- and the mountain-scape.
Richter himself revels in these ambiguities, deliberately ensuring that they do not promote a single view. They are not the cold attacks and constructs of a critic, but the product of that entity whose own validity he himself has attacked - the artist. Stadtbild Ha is inscrutable, "Theory has nothing to do with a work of art. Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures. A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view" (Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, quoted in Obrist (ed.), op.cit., 1995, p.35). The rich layers of dialogue in Stadtbild Ha shift mirage-like in our minds, as we perceive the various critiques and attacks that the work contains, and yet it is this process itself, and no single view, that marks the success of the picture. Stadtbild Ha, and indeed all of Richter's painting, is not 'Meaningless', but the shifting sands of its interpretation render it fully and gloriously 'Unmanageable'.
In artistic terms, Richter claims that it was in viewing the works of Pollock and Fontana that opened his eyes to a new artistic thinking, hitherto limited by their East German, Socialist Realist education. Like Richter later, they had attacked the notions of art, attacked the traditions and the constraints that were taken for granted, but did so in a constructive manner. Richter, a painter who loves painting and who loves Titian and Vermeer, has attacked but also expanded the bounds of his art. Stadtbild Ha probes concepts of painting, probes the medium's pitfalls and limitations, but does so in a manner that allows Richter to continue to paint, opening entire vistas of potential. It is thus not as a critic or a theoretician that Richter has begun this painting, but instead as an artist seeking new life and new validity for his beloved medium, and all the ambiguities of art that he has explored in this work combine to give it extra strength while making Stadtbild Ha and its creator all the more inscrutable.
Gerhard Richter, Cities, 1968
Gerhard Richter, Administrative Building, 1964 Private collection, London