With an incredibly executed, glistening halo of flaming light at its compositional heart, and a perfectly balanced atmospheric spectrum of hues, Kerze radiates inspirational tranquillity and is the shining embodiment of Hubertus Butin's statement that "no still-life motif has been such an object of fascination for Richter as the subject of the candle" (Hubertus Butin, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p. 67). A paragon of the Photo Painting style that Richter had perfected since the early 1960s, this work is both iconic and exceptionally beautiful via its masterful veiling of light within the flawlessly composed space. The profound serenity of the quietly flickering flame is matched by the exceptional dexterity of the work's painterly execution. The rendition of technique here is intensely captivating through the countless tonal adjustments that constantly manipulate the spectator's focus. This awesome methodological mastery of pigment suspension and the subtlest chromatic variation is truly sublime.
Richter began his series of Photo-paintings, in the early 1960s. Initially as a European response to the American Pop Art movement, these works took found images from newspapers, books and other sources and painted them in black and white. However, it was not until around 1968 that Richter's true gift to art history began to become clear. It was at this point that he began to expand his painterly spectrum and work in a number of different 'styles' and begin what has now become the ultimate Post Modern painterly project. Veering from figurative (Photo-paintings) to semi-figurative (Stadtbild) to Constructivist (Shadow paintings, Corrugated Iron) to Minimalist (Colour Charts) and pure abstract paintings, Richter took on every variant of compositional genre available and mastered them all with his own hands. Thus following a period of intense experimentation from 1968 onwards, it was not until the late 1970s and the 1980s that his investigations began to bear rich fruit and the various styles which he was working with began to interact within singular compositions, most famously in his series of Kerze paintings of the early 1980s.
Here, one can marvel at the sublime balance of abstract geometry in the lines which construct the figurative ground. Reminiscent of Barnett Newman's 'zips', the candle can be seen as itself and also as a stripe. Its thickness is replicated in the horizontal line that crosses it, which is incidentally the only time that he ever used a horizontal line in one of his candle paintings. Furthermore the vertical stripe of dark shadow to the far left of the composition beautifully counterbalances both the form of the candle itself and the burning intensity of its flame. Key to the compositional arrangement is the use of the repoussoir; a foreground element that channels the spectator's view into the picture plane by bracketing the edge. The geometrically segregated backdrop works as a sequence of frames to close in on the central subject. This device was notoriously exploited by Mannerist and Baroque artists, especially seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Here the candle is dramatically cropped so there is no space between the viewer and motif, whose presentation thus also becomes markedly contemporary.
Richter's choice of the candle as iconographic vehicle to exemplify his colour Photo Painting is fundamentally art historical. Employing such a simple yet powerful motif, Richter confronts the monolith of tradition head on. As is evident from Richter's writings of the same year, this work actively interrogates the current value of historical precedent: "Traditional, supposedly old works of art are not old but contemporary...the better we know tradition - i.e., ourselves - and the more responsibly we deal with it, the better things we shall make similar, and the better things we shall make different" (the artist in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1995, p. 101).
Highly significant is the idea of a candle as a vanitas symbol, which alludes to the fragility and mortality of life. Like the skull, the candle has acted throughout hundreds of years as a memento mori; the fragility of its flame and inevitable demise mirroring the brevity of existence and hence accentuating the value of life. This universal symbol carries traditional associations in most world faiths, and although Richter references this precedent, his work offers very much more than purely esoteric and exclusive semiotics.
Consistent with his distinctive working practice, Richter sourced the candle image in a photograph he had taken in his studio. The central role of photographs in the genesis of his work is evidenced by the epic cataloguing of source images in his encyclopaedic project Atlas. A one-time dark-room assistant and photograph fanatic, from the outset he has been not a painter of nature, but rather a painter of photographs. Thus Kerze is a striking and fully developed essay in painted photography. Dependent upon aperture exposure and shutter speed, the photograph is correlated to light conditions fixed in a moment of time. Hence painting a photograph of a candle provides a rather beautiful post-script to the ancient role of a candle as provider of light.
Richter has said how he is reliant on photographs because they have "no style, no concept, no judgement" (the artist in: Peter Sager, 'Mit der Farbe denken', Zeitmagazin 49, 28th November 1986, p. 33), and Roald Nasgaard has described how Richter's employment of photographs "rescued him from the burden of inherited tradition, and from the alternative traps of the prevailing aesthetics and ideologies around him" (Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; and travelling, Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1988-89, p. 40). Thus, despite on one level functioning as an intensely emotive image, classically meditative and replete with memory, it is important to appreciate that Kerze is also the deliberately objective and accurate rendition of a light-sensitive negative.
With hindsight it is also clear that in the context of the early 1980s, it is astounding that Richter produced a series of such immense control, contemplation and quiet. The era witnessed a resurgence in painting, reflected in major exhibitions such as A New Spirit in Painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1981 and Zeitgeist in Berlin in 1982. Painters like Basquiat, Kiefer, Baselitz, Clemente, and Immendorf, loosely bracketed under the "Neo-Expressionist" umbrella, battled with densely worked, monumental canvases surveying heavy emotional landscapes. By contrast, the restraint, stillness and celebration of technique in Richter's Kerze, distinctly independent of the prevalent mode du jour, evince the German master's aesthetic autonomy and the isolated but brilliant course of his artistic journey.
Just shy of the age of 50 when he made this painting, Richter used all of his experience, analysis and painterly genius to finally master his Photo-Painting style. Throughout his years of manifest technical virtuosity, Richter has pursued the nature of representation and perception. Here he relays the subtlest chromatic changes with fractional tonal scumbling in a consummate exhibition of sfumato brushwork, which can only seduce the spectator. As the cool grey blues of the back wall compliment the warmth of the flame, the semblance of hues fuse together in symphony and resonate in shimmering equilibrium. The elegant functionality of the candle as an object, the vast depository of referents that it harbours, and the bright incandescence it issues finally enshrines Richter's exactly contemporaneous statement: "The fact is that content does not have a form...: it is form" (the artist in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting,Cambridge, Massachusetts 1995, p. 102).
As a post-script, it is interesting to note that rather ironically for a series which was founded on Pop Art conventions of adopting a readymade image from the mass media, this painting was adopted by the hugely successful American band Sonic Youth to brand their most famous album Daydream Nation in the late 1980s, an album which was recently re-released due to popular demand. Hence an image which was built as a comment on artistic tradition entered the mainstream as the definition of a generation.
Oil on canvas
Turin, Palazzo della Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti, Rheingold, 1985, p. 209, illustrated
Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle, Gerhard Richter. Bilder 1962-1985, 1986, illustrated
Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, no. 55
London, Tate, Gerhard Richter, 1991-92, p. 83, no. 39, illustrated in colour
Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, The Sublime Void, 1993, p. 201, illustrated in colour
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Bonn, Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland; Stockholm, Moderna Museet; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Gerhard Richter, 1993-94, p. 93, illustrated in colour
Warsaw, Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej Zamek Uljazdowsk, Gerhard Richter. Atlas, 2004
Krefeld, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, on temporary loan, 1990 - 2007
95 by 90cm. 37 3/8 by 35 1/2 in.
Jürgen Harten, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1962-1985, Cologne 1986, p. 293, no. 546-2, illustrated
Angelika Thill, et al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, 1962-1993, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, Vol. III, no.546-2, illustrated in colour and Vol. I, p. 87, illustrated in colour
Anon., Neue bildende Kunst. Zeitschrift für Kunst und Kritik, no. 6, 1993, p. 5, illustrated in colour
Anon., Artforum, January 1994, p. 3, illustrated
Marie Hüllenkremer, 'Die Richter Skala' in: Merian, January 1994, p. 86, illustrated in colour
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in the mid-1980s