‘That’s roughly how Cage put it: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” I have always thought that was a wonderful quote. It’s the best chance we have to be able to keep on going’
(G. Richter, quoted in J. Thorn-Prikker, ‘Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker’, in D. Elger and H. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 478).
Gerhard Richter’s monumental Cage Grid I is an ingenious reworking of the artist’s renowned 2006 painting Cage 6. Currently on loan to the Tate Modern, London, Cage 6 forms part of a complete cycle of six paintings inspired by the American avant-garde composer John Cage. Though the artist and musician had never met, they held mutual admiration for each other’s work, and it was whilst listening to Cage’s music in his studio that Richter is reported to have created his widely-acclaimed Cage paintings. Executed in 2011, the present work constitutes a masterful compositional re-engagement with the final work of Richter’s magnificent six-fold cycle. Using a Giclée print of the painting, Richter divides the work into sixteen equal parts. Mounted at equidistant intervals, a grid-like structure emerges from the space between the sections. An astute harnessing of negative space, this effect serves to inflate the dimensions of the original work whilst at the same time appearing to place it behind a set of bars. In doing so, Richter generates a profound structural illusion that demonstrates his celebrated mastery of optical space.
Hailed as one of his most significant abstract series to date, the six Cage paintings of 2006 were included in the artist’s major 2011 retrospective Panorama at the Tate Modern, later travelling to the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris. During this year, Richter created not one but two reinterpretations of Cage 6. The first was Cage Grid I – the present work – in which the sixteen sections of the image were presented as a complete and indivisible set. In conjunction with this, Richter produced a further cycle in which the individual sections of Cage Grid I were reproduced as separate works. This focused response to a single painting constitutes a unique moment within Richter’s practice. Whilst the notion of reworking was undoubtedly a driving force behind many aspects of his oeuvre, here we witness an instance of complete conceptual re-imagining: a genetic transformation of the original work that goes beyond mere modification.
The aleatoric music of John Cage had an extraordinary impact on the visual arts in the latter half of the twentieth century. Citing the composer’s most famous dictum, Richter recalled, ‘[t]hat’s roughly how Cage put it: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” I have always thought that was a wonderful quote. It’s the best chance we have to be able to keep on going’ (G. Richter, quoted in J. Thorn-Prikker, ‘Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker’, in D. Elger and H. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 478). Elsewhere, connections have been drawn between the composer’s espousal of chance in his music and the unpredictable textures and patterns that stem from Richter’s fluid manipulation of paint via squeegee and palette knife. Whilst Cage 6 may be understood in both of these contexts, the present work may be seen to function in new and compelling ways. Containing the expressive freedom of the original within a structure premised on repetition and control, Richter translates the picture plane into an ordered framework. As such, he cleverly repositions the viewer as an outsider who gazes upon the work as if through a window. In this remarkable act of distancing, Richter imbues the busy surface of the original work with a kind of visceral silence – a state explored by Cage himself in his notorious composition 4’33’’.
The grid recurs throughout Richter’s earlier oeuvre as an important formal device: from his 1968 work Fenstergitter (Window Grid), to the neatly structured organisation of the colour chart paintings, to the elegant horizontal and vertical striations of the 1992 Bach works, exhibited alongside the original Cage paintings at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne in 2008. However, the grate-like structure of the present work might be said to function in an altogether different manner, serving to re-articulate a pre-existing picture plane. If the work may be understood as a re-notation of Cage 6, there is perhaps a teasing resonance with the various gridded structures that the musical avant-garde developed as a means of notating sound. In its diagrammatic division of the original image, transforming the free execution of Cage 6 into a work of graphic serialisation, Cage Grid I constitutes an enigmatic instance of re-scoring: an abstraction of an abstraction.