At my old office during breaks from staring at a computer screen, I would go to the kitchen to look out at the windows of the office beyond as they cast shadows on curtains. While I couldn’t see through the windows, I enjoyed looking at the layered composition of light and shadow and how it would change with the season. Sometimes the windows were opened or the curtains curved bowing and distorting the shadows across the surface. Here are some photos I took over the course of a few years:
Images by Aaron Lim
So, when I saw Gerhard Richter’s Window (2002) painting at the SF MOMA recently, I recalled my memory of those windows and it allowed me to think about them within the context of art. Part of a series called Shadow Paintings, they are paintings of windows whose abstract gridded frames cast dark shadows on a surface beyond. What I appreciate about this painting is that it is graphically simple, and yet works on a meta-level as a painting on painting.
Gerhard Richter, Window, 2002. Image by www.gerhard-richter.com
Window has an illusionary power which contributes to a sense of reality. In contrast to the sharp white grid and border which frame the view, the shadows are painted with a range of tone such that the transition from light to shadow exhibits a gradation of value where edges become blurred which is similar to what occurs in reality. The painting is a polyptych where multiple canvases are placed side-by-side against each other creating a hairline gap of physical shadow in between. Artificial spotlights in the museum cast a shadow from the canvas edge that when juxtaposed with the painted shadow appear to occur simultaneously within the same reality extending the illusion to the pictorial space.
Gerhard Richter, Window Grid, 1968. Image by www.gerhard-richter.com
However, seeing this painting it was difficult to reconcile my memory of the real windows in a physical space with that of painted windows in a pictorial space. The painted white border of the canvas merges with the physical rectangular geometry of the canvas establishing the space of the painting. The painting created by the rectangular frame of the canvas is itself a window. Borrowing from Christian Lotz’s analysis of Richter’s Window painting in his book The Art of Gerhard Richter: Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning, the paintings themselves are windows whose illusionary power confirms Alberti’s definition of painting:
“First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.” Alberti, On Painting
In other words, the canvas is a window whose rectangular edges frame a view into a world beyond. In this way, the painting works on a meta-level because it simultaneously refers to itself both as a painting of a window and the painting is itself a window.
Gerhard Richter, Window, 1968. Image by www.gerhard-richter.com
At the same time, the subject of the painting is denied because we are looking through a window to a space which is empty or blank and removed of depth. The window’s function of being able to see through it is negated where all we see are the shadows themselves cast on a vertical surface by the window frames. The dimensions of the shadows are nearly identical in dimension to that of the frames, suggesting a space without depth–a non-perspectival space—which distorts the sense of reality. Further, the white window frame merge with the white walls of the museum, allowing the shadows to stand out. Thus, the subject of the painting is the shadows themselves entirely created and dependent upon the artifice of the constructed window. In this way, Richter’s Window painting both confirms and denies Alberti’s definition of painting as an illusion of reality.
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy www.gerhard-richter.com
For more information, I highly recommend Christian Lotz’s book The Art of Gerhard Richter: Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning.