In 1986, German überpainter Gerhard Richter rather harshly explained why he had begun producing his "color chart" abstractions 20 years earlier. It was "an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phony reverence," he said. "Devotional art -- all those squares -- church handicrafts."
By the late 1990s, however, the artist had had a change of heart. "I’m less antagonistic to ‘the holy’, to the spiritual experience, these days," he said. "It’s part of us, and we need that quality."
Apparently so. Several years ago, Richter undertook to design a huge stained glass window for the Cologne Cathedral’s south transept, and the new work was unveiled with a special mass on Aug. 25, 2007.
Although he’d never worked creatively in a church environment, Richter -- a professed atheist "with Catholic leanings" as well as an honorary citizen of Cologne -- was "both thrilled and intimidated" with the monumental task. With good reason: the cathedral -- officially known as the Hohe Domkirche zu Köln -- is not only the country’s largest place of worship and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also Germany’s "favorite place," according to a September 2006 survey conducted by German television station ZDF. Richter’s window cost around €370,000 to fabricate, with the funds raised from more than 1,000 individual donors. The design itself was a gift from the artist.
The original south transept window was presented to the cathedral in 1863 by Prussian King William I and depicted rulers such as Charlemagne, Henry II and Cologne archbishops Anno and Engelbert. Destroyed in WWII, it was replaced with clear glass. For the new window, the cathedral wanted a figurative representation of 20th-century Christian martyrs. Richter produced two designs depicting the execution of Nazi victims based on old photographs but he, and the church, ultimately felt that the scenes were inappropriate. Instead, the artist produced a computer-generated color-grid work based on his 1974 painting 4096 Farben (4096 Colors). At 24 yards high and 1,200 square feet, measuring 21 yards above floor level, the gargantuan new window consists of around 11,500 colored 3.7-inch squares that produce an intricate, rectangular grid. Its 80-odd hues correspond to those in the cathedral’s existing glasswork.
Prior to the unveiling, some observers had thought Richter’s design too modern and abstract. But three clerestory windows in the south and north part of the chancel -- produced around 1300 -- contain a chessboard-like grid similar to Richter’s design. The artist wasn’t aware of this, but his new window links the eras. "What baffles me is how it fits into the rest of the church," said the cathedral’s master builder, Barbara Schock-Werner. "It looks like it’s always been here. And the light just flows through the colors."
The usually reticent Richter, who claims he’s "happy it wasn’t a failure" and that "it’s exciting that it’s an artwork that can’t just be taken down," has already been approached by the Cathedral of Reims, where French kings were once crowned, to design a window in that Gothic church.VIDEO GAGA
Most art forms lose their mojo on the web, but video art seems made for the medium, writes Dominikus Müller in artnet.de, reporting on the new Hamburg-based video portal Oh!TV. Founded this summer by Alain Bieber as a "nonprofit platform with zero budget," Oh!TV devotes its efforts to films ordinarily seen only in galleries and at film festivals.
A little like the film and video page of the art portal ubu.com or perhaps the online portions of the more docu-film based DVD magazine Wholphin, Oh!TV is attempting to sort the wheat from the chaff of user-generated content sites like YouTube. It also plans to post video art that has never before appeared on the web. Artists like Erwin Wurm, Olaf Breuning and AES+F (whose Last Riot dominates the Russian pavilion at the current Venice Biennale) have promised works to the site, and rumor has it that the notorious Berlin-based art star Jonathan Meese might even do a kind of "video message to the people."
Current fare includes a vid by the Iraqi-Finnish artist Adel Abidin (whose work is on view at the Nordic pavilion in Venice), as well as a music clip by the Hamburg band Deichkind. Apparently, the tag "artist" has more appeal than that of a plain old filmmaker or music-video producer. "At the beginning we had the problem that everyone wanted to be in the site’s ‘video art’ section," says Bieber.
Müller writes that this kind of site might signal the end of wild, wooly Web 2.0. "This increasing ‘magazination’, or thematic-editorial bundling, might mean a kind of changing of the guard in the Internet." Monopol -- a trendy German art-meets-lifestyle magazine -- called the condition of art, video and Internet a "sweet spot" six months ago. "It’s that moment of happiness and full freedom," writes Müller. "Now, a half year later, there’s a shift toward more structured portals and pre-selection."NEW YORK IN THE HAUS
The exhibition "New York States of Mind" opened in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in Berlin’s lush Tiergarten Park on Aug. 23, 2007, to swarms of art lovers, revelers and even a live cow.
Visitors waited in long lines to see a visual cacophony of a show featuring works by 26 living and late New Yorkers including Patty Chang, Hans Haacke, David Hammons, Mark Lombardi, Gordon Matta-Clark, Josephine Meckseper, William Pope L, Jordan Wolfson and even, well, Marcel Duchamp. According to the press material, the show "deals with specific forms of confronting the public arena that have become characteristic of the New York art scene."
Unfortunately, the vast main exhibition space feels a bit like a gymnasium and the categories that curator Shaheen Merali broke the show down into -- "material reality," "compound tropes," "Shangri-la" -- aren’t particularly obvious or cohesive. Yet many works shine, like Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s documentation of One Year Performance, in which he spent a year during 1981-82 in New York without ever setting foot indoors (the documentation is brilliantly shown outside in an open-roofed box); a series of Mary Ellen Mark’s portraits, many dating to the 1970s; and Tavares Strachan’s The Problem of One Thing Existing Simultaneously #4, a broken beer bottle that’s been meticulously duplicated, with the identical pieces are displayed side by side.
The show is also an homage to German-American relations (which have been admittedly strained in recent years) and the funky building itself. Long called the "pregnant oyster," it was designed 50 years ago as a convention center by American architect Hugh Stubbins, Jr., and given to West Berlin by the American government. Renamed and repurposed as an arts venue in 1989, the HKW has been under renovation for the past year.
The reinaugural show is accompanied by a full lineup of New York-themed films, concerts and art performances, as well as lectures by the likes of author Luc Sante (Low Life). The "transatlantic talks" program is being kicked off by Jeremy Rifkin and German Federal foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in September.
And the cow? Just a fitting part of the opening’s carnival-like atmosphere. The bovine behemoth stood sadly next to a barbecue concession run by Berlin’s American-burger joint, White Trash Fast Food.
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a critic and journalist based in Berlin.