Making art about 9/11 is the ultimate challenge for any artist. How do you take such an utterly iconic image and push it beyond cliché? How do you say anything at all about the attack without veering into either bellowing banality or genteel understatement? In his painting titled simply September, Gerhard Richter, possibly the last of the great painters, may have found answers.
Robert Storr, author of a new book on this one artwork from the Museum of Modern Art, points out that Richter resisted enlarging his canvas to the scope of the event—the clichéd move in grand history paintings—but instead found more meaning in a domestic, even democratic size. September is close to the size and shape of a flat-screen TV, “matching the proportions of the vessel through which we learned the terrible news,” says Storr.
But Richter, now 79, has said that even with the scale right, when he originally tried to paint the burning towers, in 2005, he couldn’t stomach the results. Working in his classic photo-realist style, he found that the towers’ glowing flames registered as garish and attractive: “That couldn’t work,” he said. But rather than give up, Richter took his failed painting, scraped off most of its surface detail, and smeared an abstract veil of gray on top of what was left. “He applied the techniques of unpainting to his subject, but since the subject is the erasure of a building, it’s the perfect metaphor,” Storr says.
Richter gives us a way to view the carnage: the image is so imprinted on our psyches that we recognize it even, or especially, in a painting that is close to obliterated. But he also uses paint to push back against our urge to gawk, against the pornography of violence and catastrophe.
No bit of canvas could ever contain the scale and scope and meaning of the moment. When the world’s greatest living painter can’t do justice to his theme, can only render it as blurred and almost unseeable, you get a sense of its enormity. The impossibility of condensing such a subject into art, or into any final summation, is the true, great subject of September.