This oil painting depicts the American artist Brigid Berlin (also known as Brigid Polk), whose face occupies the lower left corner of the canvas. Polk is featured in three-quarter profile, exposing the right side of her face and part of her left eye and cheek to an external light source. Her face is tilted slightly forward. Polk’s hair is parted on the right side with a volume of hair pushed away from her exposed face, although a few strands also seem to hang slightly over her left eye. A glint from the light source is noticeable in her right pupil, although she looks beyond the frame of the canvas. The painting has a limited colour palette, consisting largely of black, grey, and brown in addition to the flesh-coloured tones of the subject’s skin. Her shadow adds to the apparently unfocused smear of colour in the background.
The painting was completed after Richter met Polk in November 1970 during a trip to New York City. Though recognized primarily for her work in Andy Warhol’s studio, Polk was also known for what she termed her ‘tit prints’ (made directly from the artist’s breasts using paint on canvas) as well as for her documentation of everyday life through photography. In 1971 Richter produced five portraits using photographs of Polk, following his established practice of producing paintings from photographic sources including clippings from newspapers and other publications, amateur shots from various sources, and his own photographs. Of this technique, which the artist first used in 1962, Richter has said:
In a sense this is a stylistic problem, the form is naturalistic, even though the photograph is not nature at all but a prefabricated product. I do not have to intervene artistically with style, since the stylization (deformation in form and colour) contributes only under very particular circumstances toward clarifying and intensifying an object or a subject (generally stylization becomes the central problem which obscures everything else), it leads to an unmotivated artificiality, an untouchable formalist taboo.
(Quoted in Schneede, Westheider and Philipp 2011, p.56.)
In some ways Richter’s turn to producing photographic paintings in the 1960s could be seen as a response to the recurrence of the ‘death of painting’ narrative, a ‘death’ that had been declared periodically since the invention of photography (as painting’s ‘replacement’) in the 1830s. Art historian Johannes Meinhardt argues that ‘Richter’s response to painting’s problematic status, was […] not to stop painting, but rather to rid his work of any hint of subjectivity.’ (Meinhardt 2009, p.136). Meinhardt observes that by the later twentieth century ‘it had become apparent that painting does not create any sort of transcendence or reveal essential truths, but simply produces visual effects’, to which Richter’s response was to focus on ‘exploring the specific reality of the painter’s methods, techniques, and mediums and the pictorial effects he produced’ (Meinhardt 2009, p.136). As a result Richter’s subject matter is, to a certain extent, arbitrary. The subject of the portrait could be, as the curator Paul Moorhouse notes, a close family member or a complete stranger (Moorhouse 2009, p.9).
This work, along with the four further portraits of Polk, proved a significant departure from Richter’s previously monochromatic palette of black, white, and grey tones. As Moorhouse suggests, while the artist’s former ‘use of monochrome had invested the resulting images with a certain austerity, colour now introduced the illusion of living warmth’ (Moorhouse 2009, p.119). The other four portraits of the artist, also entitled Brigid Polk, are held at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, the Böckmann Collection at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in a private collection. Though it is not known who created them, the source photographs can be found in Richter’s collection of source images, Atlas, first published in 1972.
Johannes Meinhardt, ‘Illusionism in Painting and the Punctum of Photography’ in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Essays and Interviews, Cambridge, MA 2009, pp.135–51.
Paul Moorhouse, Gerhard Richter Portraits: Painting Appearances, exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery, London 2009, pp.119–27.
Michael Philipp, Uwe M. Schneede and Ortrud Westheider (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Images of an Era, exhibition catalogue, Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg 2011, p.56.
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