One can not overestimate the crucial importance that this seemingly simple borrowed image of a table, its centre blotted out in a swirling smear of overpainting, has within the total development of Gerhard Richter's art over the last 34 years. In many ways it is the well from which all the artist's major ideas have sprung. This significance has certainly been acknowledged by the Richter himself, who has had the picture included in practically every major retrospective exhibition, illustrated in every monograph, and deliberately designated as the first numbered work in his Catalogue Raisonné.
As Roald Nasgaard writes, "Tisch displays a fundamental pictorial (and perhaps conceptual) structure that has remained central to Richter's paintings. Note, for example, the confluence of a smooth "photographic" ground and the painterly cancellation of it in the Abstract Paintings of the 1980s. Richter has also allowed that Tisch, despite its first place in the catalogue, may not actually be the first executed of the catalogued items from 1962. Its placement, however, signals its special importance and fuller synthesis of issues only partially emergent in concurrent works." (in. Gerhard Richter Paintings, ed. Terry Neff, London 1988, p.48)
Richter tells his version of the creation of Tisch: "The photo for Tisch came from an Italian design magazine called Domus. I painted it, but was dissatisfied with the result and pasted parts of it with a newspaper. You can still see by the imprint where the newspaper was stuck to the freshly painted canvas. Then suddenly it acquired a quality that appealed to me and I felt it should be left that way without knowing why. This became the first painting in my worklist; I wanted to make a new start after my work in East Germany, but also after the many pictures I had painted in the West, among which were a number of photopaintings. I wanted to draw a line, indicating that these paintings were in the past and so I set Tisch at the top of my worklist." (in: Gerhard Richter, The Tate Gallery, London 1991, p.125)
Roald Nasgaard recounts a similar version of events, and thereby views Tisch as the resultant mixture of an artist's dissatisfaction with his own work up to then, a malevolent and destructive urge, and the sheer genius of a chance incident put to good effect. Yet, the discovery of the original Domus pages from which Richter copied the table (see Figure 3.) seems to refute even the artist's own account.
Like the other source photographs that Richter obsessively compiled in a compendium known as Atlas, the artist has stuck the pages from Domus to a backsheet, which he then signed and dated 1962. It appears from this documentation that there were in fact three views of the table reproduced in the magazine. Moreover Richter has covered each illustration with a cloud of smudged grey paint as though he had decided to first try out his idea of overpainting the picture on these small "models" before he even selected which view of the table to present in the final painting. One must deduce therefore that the obscuring of Tisch was not the product of frustration or chance, but rather a totally conscious and somewhat revolutionary decision from the start to combine photorealist Pop with abstract painting.
Benjamin Buchloh spoke of this unique mixture of art historical styles in an interview with Richter in 1986:
B.B: "Table already has both elements within it: a totally abstract, gestural, self-reflective quality on one hand and on the other the function of depiction. And that is really one of the great dilemmas in the 20th century, this seeming conflict, or antagonism between paintings' representational function and its self-reflection. These two positions are brought very close together indeed in your work. But aren't they being brought together to show the inadequacy and bankruptcy of both?"
Richter: "Bankruptcy, no; inadequacy, always." (in: Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, London 1995, p.146)
The choice to paint a table was based on the very banality of the subject and relates to Richter's similar selection of images of cars, chairs (see Figure 2.) and family snap-shots as the inspiration for his photorealist paintings of the mid-1960s. Richter writes: "In 1962 I found the first outlet; by painting from photos I was relieved of the obligations to choose and construct a subject. Admittedly, I had to choose the photographs but I was able to do this in a manner which avoided acknowledgement of the subject, namely through motifs which were less eyecatching and "not of their time"." (in: Gerhard Richter, Tate Gallery exhibition catalogue, London 1991, p.118)
Throughout his career, Richter has avoided categorisation by switching effortlessly and simultaneously from the acute realism of one picture to the total abstraction of another. For him, both styles represent a continuous study on his part into the nature of reality. He explains: "When we describe a process, draw up an invoice or take a photograph of a tree we are creating models; without these we would know nothing of reality, we would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictitious models because they illustrate a reality that we can neither see nor describe with negative concepts: un-known, inconceivable, in-finite, and for millennia we portrayed them in surrogate pictures as heaven, hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we created for ourselves a better possibility of approaching what is non-visual, with all the means available to art." (in: Exhibition Catalogue, Documenta VII, 1982)
The smudged mire that defaces Tisch can be read as a gestural sweep akin to the expansive brushwork found in European informel painting and American Abstract Expressionism. But whereas these art movements used free painterly gesture to evoke an emotion or the personality of the artist, Richter's employment of an abstract idiom here is more conceptual. It should be seen in relationship to an untitled painting that Richter executed in 1968, in which he simply depicts a smear of paint across a grey ground (see Figure 1.). Like the latter example, Richter's blurred form in Tisch is purely referential and is almost a model of what constitutes abstraction than anything expressive in its own right.