The Tate Modern in London has a room dedicated to the 6 large (approx. 9′ square) abstract paintings in Gerhard Richter’s Cage series (2006). These works are dedicated to modernist composer John Cage who famously stated, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” The surfaces and layers of these phenomenal works by an acknowledged world master certainly say something to me.
These paintings use Richter’s repeated technique of loading a squeegee with paint and dragging it across the canvas, scraping back paint, and repeatedly dragging paint across again, before the paint is dry, blurring the images, and layering the paint. I read about this technique long after I’d seen these works. I had written in my notebook at the time I saw them, “I feel these paintings in the gesture of pulling the paint down and away.” The immediacy of that gesture, the visceral feeling it creates, ironically makes these large, cool canvases seem quite intimate. From a distance the canvasses are cool, static, mainly horizontal and somewhat monochromatic: several of them are largely cool grey and white. From up close, however, they are energetic, hot and vibrant with flecks and bits and blobs of multitudes of color and shapes.
These works are completely abstract and yet, yet . . . watery, reflective, filled with nature and figures, glimpsed, half seen, fleeting, almost as if remembered from a dream. The colors of these paintings reveal both the seasons and light at different times of day from sunrise to sunset. In Cage 1, two thirds of the painting is like looking into the center of a river, with highly reflective sunlight on the extreme right. The dark blue band at the top third creates a visual wall from which the reflections seems to dance off the “water.” A similar “wall” can be seen in the top third of Cage 2. This seems more urban to me, like a wall along a canal. Cage 3 seems more wall than water, perhaps the bottom third is reflection, perhaps not. Cages 4, 5, and 6 all seem to be about the middle — perhaps of a wall, perhaps water reflected: graffiti? blood? remains of ripped down posters? is that a reflected figure in the upper right quadrant of Cage 6?
Richter is concerned with art as mirror. Perhaps this series functions that way. Do we always see only our own reflections in abstract painting? Or is the reflection of the painter in the background, and behind him the world? Nothing or everything?