Karen Lang Talks Friedrich, Nietzsche and Richter

February 10, 2011

We asked BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department student Berny Tan to write up her experience seeing art historian Karen Lang’s talk at SVA, which was part of the spring 2011 Art in the First Person lecture series. Below is Tan’s dispatch from the event:

On Tuesday, February 8, art historian Karen Lang presented her research comparing two great German artists separated by nearly two centuries, Caspar David Friedrich and Gerhard Richter. The foundation for this comparison lay in contemporary painter Richter’s documented indebtedness to the Romantic tradition of Friedrich’s paintings, as well as the presence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy in Richter’s writings on his own work.

As a first-year art student, this session was undoubtedly challenging. It effectively required me to take in the dense theories of a member of art academia, the burden of 19th century philosophical writings and the artistic beliefs of an established artist who has developed his ideas over decades. Nevertheless, I appreciated the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and alternative points of view. I felt that this talk set up many questions that continue to be important to the art student, art maker and art audience.

Lang quotes Richter: “To believe, one must have lost God; to paint, one must have lost art.” Like Nietzsche, who mentions the phrase “God is dead” in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Richter presents an idea that destruction or some kind of impossibility is a necessary platform for the act of creation. What I understood from this is that to acknowledge or create art within the context of defining it as an institution, movement or tradition, is to constrict your artistic activity. Indeed, in the age of (perhaps institutionalized) plurality in art, the impossible idea of somehow being original by any means constantly weighs on the artist’s mind. Even with a relatively inconsequential school assignment, I find myself searching for ways to elude predictability, as if originality is the main indicator for the level of my creativity.

Yet, Lang’s talk also established a dichotomy of sorts. An interesting point she made was that Richter views all art as contemporary and, therefore, transcends historical context. Just as artists search for timelessness—a quality long attached to “masterpieces”—each also looks to the recent or not-so-recent past, as Richter did with his work Teyde Landscape, a direct reference to Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea. From what I understood, Richter deals with this by maintaining “political neutrality,” thus creating work of greater depth that can be simultaneously meaningful and meaningless for the viewer.

Is the aforementioned dichotomy something that artist and audience necessarily have to navigate, and does a work that at least attempts to reconcile this ultimately have more value? What do artists search for in their work—can they be satisfied with personal expression, and how many of them are artistically capable of that arbitrary “greatness”? Does grappling with complexity and infusing layers of meaning ultimately lead to a better work of art? These admittedly uncomfortable and unanswerable questions sit in my mind the day after the talk, and I realize that wrapping my head up in these thoughts can be as much a barrier as a motivation to my future artistic activity. To attempt timelessness in the face of the unrelenting passage of time is a daunting task, and perhaps artists are people who are willing to be lost, while somehow finding a way to not be at a loss.

Image: Photo by Flora Lang.

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