Gerhard Richter’s September is serene and troubling in equal measure. Serene in that it depicts a timeless and abstract image from the World Trade Centre attacks, and troubling because the painting is devoid of any political, ideological or emotional content. This could be considered as either a reverential approach or nihilistic and unsettling. September had never been exhibited in the UK before and as 2011 marked the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the painting featured heavily throughout the Tate’s publicity material for the Gerhard Richter: Panorama retrospective. The December – January 2012 Tate Guide featured an interview conducted by Nick Serota in which the artist revealed his working process:
‘The picture I used for this painting was very beautiful, with flames in red and orange and yellow, and wonderful. And this was a problem. Of course I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. And I made it banal. It doesn’t tell much. It shows more the impossibility to say something about this disaster’. (pg. 15)
A lengthier interview published in the exhibition catalogue suggests that Richter never intended to render the moment United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.
Richter: ‘I was very struck by the images in the papers, I didn’t think you could paint that moment and certainly not in the way some people did, taking the inane view that this most awful act was some kind of amazing Happening and celebrating it as a megawork of art’
Serota: ‘So you tried to find a way of dealing with the subject without making it spectacular’.
Richter: ‘Yes, concentrating on its incomprehensible cruelty, and its awful fascination’. (pp.25-26)
It is likely that Richter began by rendering the scene exactly as it appeared in his source material, realizing that the painting conveyed nothing more than a photograph of the event, or that he believed the gradual destruction of his original rendition was an essential part of his working process. I’m inclined to believe that it was the latter. After all, what purpose would a realistic rendition of the photograph serve? How would its impact differentiate from a photograph other than being a skillful exercise in photorealism? In abstracting his painting, diffusing the paint surface and violently cutting through layers of paint with a knife, the viewer is prompted to rationalize the nebulous rendition, projecting upon the canvas their own interpretations of the event.
September looks like a retinal image of the disaster, as if you were watching your television, closed your eyes and found the image seared into your cortex. Like a memory, the image is neither sharp nor precise but exists as an elemental form. This is an image about imagery – how technology documented but was also employed to carry out an act of twenty-first century terrorism; the use of jet planes as weapons, worldwide live footage streaming on the internet and on televisions, helicopter shots, mobile phone calls to loved ones. The act of painting emphasizes that for most of us 9/11 was experienced at a level of remove.
September was displayed rather innocuously at the Tate, tucked in beside the entrance of the penultimate room. The work deliberately eschews monumentality. The canvas is relatively small, its abstracted forms not immediately announced. Richter correctly anticipated that a monumental approach would in itself be inane. As with his Baader Meinhof paintings, the most loaded of source material is carefully selected before being rendered in a seemingly dispassionate way. Many regard his attitude as nihilistic, but I don’t believe this to be true. If anything, the exhibition affirmed that painting can address traumatic events, encouraging us to question how we receive images whilst contemplating their hold over us.
The major retrospective Gerhard Richter: Panorama has now ended its run at the Tate Modern but is soon to open at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.