Catalog of works: 70-6
Empty, minimal, and noncommittal, Umgeschlagene Blätter (Turned Sheets) is one of Gerhard Richter's boldest statements on the fictive nature of representation. Painted in 1965, this stark trompe l'oeil image of furling paper belongs to the earliest phase of Richter's mature oeuvre. It dates from the high point of the artist's Pop period, when he was fast gaining a reputation for paintings based on on appropriated photographs. This painting reveals another tangent of Richter's work at the time, as he began to explore disparate styles of art-making.
Umgeschlagene Blätter relates to several series of works from the mid- to late-1960s that he calls his Constructions, in which a photo-like illusionism was created without the help of a direct photographic prototype. These paintings extended Richter's photo-painting project inasmuch as the naturalistic accuracy of the subject meant they could very well have been sourced from photograph. Doors, windows, corrugated iron, curtains, and in this of case, paper, were all rendered in the continuous grayscale of black and white photography with lifelike verisimilitude.
"At some point it no longer satisfied me to paint photographs," Richter explained of this new field of experimentation. So he "...took the stylistic devices of photos--the accuracy, lack of focus, illusion-like quality..." and applied them to images that examine the limitations of our visual and perception' (G. Richter, 'Statement', in Art International 12, no. 3, 20 March 1968, p. 55).
Richter had started copying found amateur and photojournalistic snapshots as he regarded them as having "no style, no concept, no judgment" and he was freed from the necessity of compositional decision-making. While the Constructions were based on something other than existing visual models, they too were a form of anti-art, designed to knock down the pedestal on which exalted artists are placed, and remove the mystique of the artistic and creative process. Umgeschlagene Blätter is the ultimate iconoclastic statement. There is a subdued and subversive atmosphere to this seemingly uncomplicated image. Its disquieting emptiness plays up to the fact that it was created just as the death-knell of painting began to ring loudly and it bravely confronts us with the artist's, and our own, sense of horror vacui. The painting has turned the tyranny of the blank page into a witty visual statement that shatters the illusion of the picture plane and bluntly reveals the magician's trick of representation.
Umgeschlagene Blätter knowingly lies on the borderline of abstraction and figuration. Richter has reduced the image down to its most elemental form where it flickers between the recognition same of an objective depiction and pure optical effect. Through the subtle gradation of light and shade this otherwise blank canvas has been lent a sense of spatiality that defies its flat surface. What is "represented" is no more than subtle tonal modelling but we cannot help but "read" these tonal shifts as symbol and subject, however devoid they are of meaning. Richter is playing with our visual reflexes to remind us that appearances do not necessarily correspond to a complex reality. He lures the viewer into feeling secure before a seemingly innocuous painting, yet it is a trap, an ambush designed to make us look at art with renewed scrutiny. In this way, Richter appears to be investigating a similar territory to Magritte's La trahison des images [The Treachery of Images], which showed a pipe with, underneath it, the words: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe.'
Yet Richter's work has little in common with the subjective and subconscious concerns of the surrealists and more to do with the reductivist methods prevalent amongst artists of the 1960s. Umgeschlagene Blätter hijacks the emphasis on surface and materiality found in the work of many of his contemporaries, whilst puncturing their refusal to portray the exterior, visual world. In this way, Richter uses the critical irreverence of Pop to attack the bounds of painting, while simultaneously opening up new realms of potential for the medium. It is also an attempt to come to terms with the simple notion of looking and poses unresolvable questions about the limits of human perception. Such works, Richter later wrote, "...are metaphors for despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us to apprehend things, but at the same time restricts and partly precludes our apprehension of reality"(G. Richter, 'Notes, 1971' quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.) Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 64).