Go below for sentences like, "Her head is in the top fifth of the picture plane."
Gerhard Richter’s 1965 painting “Woman Descending the Staircase (Frau die Treppe herabgehend) is both an explicit reference to and update of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2” and a conceptual riffing on the continually unsettled tension in the relationship between photography and painting. The choice of content, an archetypal every-celebrity, is telling of twentieth century art’s paradigm shift from piety to commodity, from religious morality to worshipped beauty. This German work is contemporaneous to America’s Pop Art movement, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s Marilyns and Roy Lichtenstein’s romance comics’ heroines, and shares with those the artistic tactic of appropriation. “Woman” also captures the ambient currents of change towards popular culture and celebrity seen in Pop Art. But Richter’s work stands away from that movement in its intellectual derive into the netherworld between media, a walk down the alley of still paintings and moving images.
“Woman Descending the Staircase” is situated in a white walled box of a room devoted to Richter inside the Art Institute of Chicago. To see it one must ascend a staircase in the new “Modern Wing” of the museum to the “Art Since 1960” labyrinth of galleries. The glamorous woman pictured in the painting is the belle of the ball in Richter’s room, which also features an ample array of his photo-paintings, his brash “Ice” abstractions and the Candle painting used on the cover of Sonic Youth’s landmark 1988 album “Daydream Nation.” The “Ice” quadruplet of jagged, monumental, thick slabs of paint is to your right as you view “Woman.” The crazed juxtaposition between the two styles of the same artist show that his stylistic choices are not cultivated eccentricities but are carefully calculated to convey his conceptual undergirding. To “Woman’s” left is a candle painting. Complementing “Woman” from across the room is a bouquet of flowers. Two women holding a German Sheppard sit next to the bouquet.
This small anthology of styles and subject matter, of “subjects,” points the gallery viewer’s eye towards the woman. She stands out in the gallery on a small wall all her own, constructed just for her and placed in front of a window allowing the full cityscape of Chicago to shine through. Her size in the painting up close is the size of the skyscrapers seen from afar. She becomes architectural and as much a part of the city as the Willis Tower (nee “Sears.”) The other paintings in the Richter room become “subjects” because she is anointed Queen through this arrangement. Hardly a moment passes where she is not crowded around, overly and overtly regarded, stared at, by the normally quick to look and quick to leave viewers.
The work stands at 6’7 with her body taking up a full 6’5 of it. An Amazonian height, outsized to reality but close enough to feel realistic to a normal human figure yet still subtly colossal. The hanging of the piece emphasizes this by adding an extra three feet to the height. The viewer looks up to her, physically and mentally, positioning her as an object of veneration. The span of the canvas is 4’3 and is symmetrically placed on the wall with slightly less than the same width on either side.
Compositionally we see the full body, like a female Kouros, in the middle third of the picture plane starting from almost the top and extending to the bottom. Her body space widens at the base as her right foot, expensively adorned, moves forward. Her left arm swoons out into the right third of the canvas. Her entire body is shown to the viewer besides a right arm that dwells behind her. Her head is featured in the top fifth of the picture which a strident, confident purposefulness. The figure’s environment is austere, just a staircase and blank walls. The staircase takes up half of the picture and juts down diagonally to the left. This puts the viewer at the bottom of the staircase as she walks by, paparazzi snapping away. While Duchamp shows us the right of the figure of his “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2,” Richter shows us the left-center.
Obstinately gray, a newspaper tonality, the work turns purple with hints of lilac and intimations of cobalt. The shading never reaches extreme heights of white or dramatic lows of black, it stays in a middle range of middling grays. But inside this middle range it articulates every position available, contrasting darks and lights over and over again as the stairs descend the picture plane. Notably, this isn’t the children’s palette of bright, happy primary colors used by the contemporaneous Pop Art movement; this is the depression-laden selection of an uncle who doesn’t open the curtains very often. It also isn’t the earthen tones of Duchamp which seemed to aspire to neutrality without fully committing to it by leeching out color altogether. This instead is the coloring of black and white newsreels, page six tabloids of the 1960s, and color-drained dreams and memories.
The paint is applied thinly, an even veneer across the entire plane. As opposed to his “Ice” abstractions displayed next to “Woman” the paint has no life of its own. It seems sanded down until it has become one with the canvas, less on it than in it. There isn’t a build up to emphasize the figure nor is there less attention paid to the background to deemphasize it. And though paint covers its entirety, canvas seems to peak through when you gaze for too long – that is the extent of its economy. The painting style runs the gamut from the sparse colorscape of the wall to the detailed, photo realistic texturing of her sleek, silvery dress. In between is the haze of her body, indeterminately possessing the weight of physicality and the weight of air. This effect is produced by the brush swipes taken at the paint, like someone moved around a Xerox while the machine was still running. Some things, like her face, her arm, her body, are blurred and out of focus. Some things, like parts of her dress and the staircase, remain in sharp focus.
The choice Richter makes by painting blurs demands interpretation, as does his overt reference to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2.” Duchamp’s piece was an iconoclastic barrage on what painting is supposed to picture. In most paintings prior to the Cubist movement Duchamp participated in, the viewer was presented with an image designed to be still, to represent one perspective and one moment in time. “Nude” showed multiple moments in time, superimposed over one another to produce the illusion of movement, much like many pictures in the micro-movement “Dynamism.” The incipient film industry at that time (1912) was most likely the catalyst for this idea. Films were literally moving pictures and were seen as a modern technology to react to, as the Internet is today. Richter’s painting also tries to capture something inherent in another technology but outside of painting’s reach. The photo blur, a by-product of incorrect shutter speed in photography, is often the result of a subject moving too quickly to be captured. By painting blurs and differences in focus, Richter was trying to capture an affect of movement that is shown in photography. This pursuit runs counter to the historical discourse of photography as being, itself, an emulative medium - something which could only hope to act like painting, never to stand on its own feet (or tripod).
The idea of a painting trying to be a photograph doesn’t come without a certain populism either. Pictures can be produced by anyone and are seen by everyone. It is an everyday visual language and grammar that the rarefied art world at the time hadn’t already assimilated. In Richter’s aspiration to photography is an analogue to Pop’s aspiration to billboards and comics. Both were attempts to confuse and collapse the walls of “high” and “low” culture. That the image of “Woman” is appropriated aids this interpretation since Richter took a figment of real popular culture from a newspaper and transfigured it into a consecrated item for the cultural plutocracy. But the inability of Richter to fully simulate a photograph and its attendant peculiarities reveals a boundary for painting, much the same as Duchamp’s piece. For however much both pieces aspire to show the idea of movement, all they can create are clever facades of it – not its actuality. This puts these paintings in interesting opposition to Clement Greenberg’s minimalists and abstract expressionists. Greenberg theorized that these painters were important since they isolated what only the medium of painting can do, that they found out what was specific to the medium of painting. Richter and Duchamp did the opposite, they showed what painting wasn’t and couldn’t ever be. Ironically they uncovered as much meaning towards Greenberg’s goal of defining painting as Barnett Newman or Robert Ryman.
Judging a work like Richter’s is a bit of hubris for a student and generally unneeded. It has been judged sufficiently – it hangs in a major museum in a space of honor and maintains a space at the center of a celebrated artist’s oeuvre. To the answer the tired question of “But is it art?” - it certainly is. It is art as it is the product of historical art-making practice and comments not only on its own medium but others. In addition it serves as a mirror to 1965 and the rising tide of celebrity, commodity, and popular culture in society. Since a popular culture necessitates certain technologies like television, film, and photography, Richter is also expressing something new and specific to the twentieth century experience in the western world. As didactic and obscure as this reading of “Woman” sounds, the painting is also retinally attractive, a lush and arresting picture of that old painter’s stand-by – a beautiful woman. In its achievement to simultaneously pleasure cerebral, societal, and libidinal impulses, it is certainly a success. It plays equally well “as art” to the avant-garde and the derniere-garde.
“Woman” would not be as clear of a success - a masterpiece - without its historical reference to Duchamp and the philosophical dialogue it implies. Nor would it be quite the success it is at a smaller physical scale or without its stylistic innovations or its socially important content. It would not be as interesting seen outside of a museum, where it can interact with the paintings, photos and objects it is referencing. Finally, its importance is sealed in the position it takes in the zeitgeist of its time, next to Pop Art but not inside it, mirroring the techniques of Pop Art by using popular appropriations to develop fine paintings but, in the process, producing something else altogether.
NOTE ON WORKS CITED:
For the whole of this essay I consulted the Wikipedia page on Gerhard Richter, the Wikipedia page on “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2” and the Art Institute’s web page for “Woman Descending a Staircase.” I did so to double check factual matters like dates and titles. In no way did I look at anything else. I mention this not out of absurd paranoia but because I’m pretty sure everything I just said has been said before. It is all pretty obvious and not innovative. However, I’m not about to look at a pile of art theory books to properly cite it and I’m pretty sure that is not what you want out of this essay anyways. I think the way the plagiarism policy is worded is suspect – it leaves open any similar interpretation that is not cited to be regarded as plagiarism. But if a work explicitly references another in its title, it seems pretty obvious that is how everyone will talk about it. That being said, maybe no one has said what I just said.
Wikipedia Page on Gerhard Richter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_richter
Wikipedia Page on “Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nude_Descending_a_Staircase,_No._2
The Art Institute’s page for “Woman Descending A Staircase”: