instrumentation: E-flat clarinet
details: 12 pages, including performance instructions; A3 portrait, full colour
I have long been fascinated by Gerhard Richter’s overpainted photographs. As a collection they are curious—in some ways they are informal, spontaneous, casual, and even insubstantial; in other ways, they are violent, unforgiving, dismissive, even brutal. I’ve written before about my interest in the gaps that these works reveal between different conceptions of material, between ambiguities of surface, image, representation, depth, and authorship, and the magnetic hovering between ‘real’ and ‘depicted’, between covering and revealing, between honesty and obfuscation, between destruction and rejuvenation.
These paintings are miniatures—simply snapshots, usually 10 x 15 cm—but there is something about the mismatch of the scale of the overpainted layer with the scale of the bits of photographic images that peek through that gives an impression of something quite massive. The paint overwhelms, subsumes, obliterates. In the context of the proportions of the photo, the simple, smeared layers of paint often take on an extreme, gargantuan presence.
For me, the tensions and ambiguities in these relationships between paint and photograph are magnified in the 180 or so of Richter’s overpainted works that involve people, and in particular in those that involve faces. Some of the overpainted works—the landscapes, for example, or the extensive Grunwald series—remain fairly abstract, and their tensions between layers, while fascinating, remain largely conceptual. But when the original subject of the underlying photograph is a face, a person, the magnitude of the collision becomes much more severe, more threatening, more ruthless.
27. Juni 2009 (the titles are simply the date of execution, and in this particular case one can just about make out from the incongruous digital timestamp in the corner that the original photo is from 24 (2? 12?) 2000) is one of the most arresting images in this series. It is—or was—a portrait, a close-up of a face, cropped such that the face fills most of the left half of the image. Overtop of the face is a thick, pulled glob of bright red paint, again filling most of the left side of the canvas, so that only a small sliver of eye and eyebrow, and a tiny bit of the outline of the jawline, remain visible. The right side of the canvas is in some ways no less severe: what had been a distant, hazy, neutral blue-grey background is here covered with of streaks of red and green, less dense in texture and almost latticework in character, but in some ways the fact that this side reveals a bit more of the original image beneath makes the opacity of the thick red on the left even more devastating, more powerful, more unavoidable.
But it is important, too, that it’s clear that these two halves are both uncontrolled and unmanipulated—their patterns, shapes, hues, and textures are all merely byproducts of simple, even clumsy gestures: quick, improvisational, indeterminate. (Apparently, Richter even sometimes pushes the photograph facedown into the paint, so he’s not even aware quite what the result will be.)
These overpainted photos of people have, for me, taken on an extra poignancy during the pandemic. The sense of erasure—of people, of memories, of experiences, of environments, of interactions both serious and inconsequential—has been overwhelming. One’s experience of humanity is pulverised, garbled, distanced, forgotten, virtual. Faces are covered—literally, of course, but also figuratively, emotionally, experientially.
This new solo for E-flat clarinet is entangled in all of these thoughts. The mismatch of scale in material and form; the layering of materials as an act of violence; borrowed materials and the happenstance of smearing and pulling; surface as an obliteration of depth; something simultaneously small and massive; a sense of erasure, dislocation, or inaccessibility; the rehabilitation and reanimation of the mundane and inconsequential; the trace of the hand and the tangible reality of material; the sheer, unforgiving extremity of chance; the private, casual intimacy of a simple snapshot; memory.
27. Juni 2009 was commissioned by Carl Rosman, an old friend who I have had the great joy to work with in lots of different contexts (as clarinetist, singer, conductor, student, teacher … ; and me as composer, conductor, record producer, teacher, student … ) pretty much consistently for nearly 20 years now. He has played—and continues to play—an outsized role in my musical life, a truth for which I’m enormously grateful. The commission was enabled through support from the Nordrhein-Westfallen Covid Cultural Recovery Fund, and is dedicated to Carl on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
Now there’s painting on one side and photography—that is, the picture as such—on the other. Photography has almost no reality; it is almost 100 percent picture. And painting always has reality: you can touch the paint; it has presence; but it always yields a picture. … I once took some small photographs and then smeared them with paint. That partly resolved the problem, and it’s really good—better than anything I could ever say on the subject.
—Gerhard Richter (as quoted in the accompanying text for the Gagosian Gallery exhibit, “Gerhard Richter: Overpainted Photographs,” London, April–June 2019)