The corner of a large unfinished room. Possibly an industrial space, or perhaps an art gallery under construction. In the centre of the picture, an open doorway frames darkness. In the foreground, some kind of ducting made from sheet metal. The photo is colour, but the palette is virtually monochromatic. The walls and floor are grey concrete, and the only hint of colour is a scattering of small yellow strips on the floor.
The composition is straightforward. The door is smack in the centre. The ducting in the foreground is cropped severely so only a fraction of it intrudes into the frame. The picture doesn’t reveal much at all. It’s just a photo of an empty room, with a door that leads somewhere else.
The overall impression is of a snapshot. Maybe a reference photo for a builder or architect. Except for one thing. Spread diagonally across the frame is a thick smear of paint. Mainly pink and grey with streaks of blue and green, the smear sits on top of the picture surface, calling our attention to the flatness of the printed photograph. And at the same time, because of the thickness and texture of the paint, the smear registers as an object. And when we look at it this way, it has the appearance of a column of strange molten material intruding into the room, hovering over the concrete floor, reenforcing the illusion of depth in the the image.
Thus Gerhard Richter’s smear sets up an uneasy oscillation between our depth perception on the one hand and the paint’s assertion of flatness on the other. This is what happens when paint trespasses on a photograph, encroaching on the medium that overthrew painting as the dominant technology for making pictures in our culture.
The effect reminds me of the famous Holbein double portrait, The Ambassadors. In this painting, made long before the invention of photography, the artist brought tremendous skill to bear in meticulously creating the illusion of depth. And then he painted a prominent skull at the bottom of the picture, rendered in anamorphic perspective. When the painting is viewed at an acute angle from the picture plane, the skull resolves as a three-dimensional object in space, and all else is blurred. But when the painting is seen front on, the anamorphic skull reverts to being a streak of grey paint, apparently smeared across the surface of the picture. It has a similar effect to Richter’s photo-smear, setting in motion a tension between two worlds that can never be resolved.