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Should Daniel Richter’s Duisen Be Interpreted in a Marxist Light?

Joshua Duncan

Art History III

Prof. James Bockelman

30 November, 2011
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Illustrations

Figure 1. Richter, Daniel. Duisen. 2004. Oil on canvas. 8.5’ x 11’. Art News.org. 17 Sept. 2011.

<http://artnews.org>.
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Figure 2. Richter, Daniel. White Horse – Pink Flag. 2004. Oil on canvas. 85.83” x 66.14”. Art

News.org. 17 Sept. 2011. <http://artnews.org>.

Figure 3. Goya, Francisco. The Third of May. 1814. Oil on canvas. 106” x 137”. Wikimedia

Commons. 17 Sept. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_of_May_1808>.


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Daniel Richter’s Duisen was painted in 2004 with oil on canvas (figure 1). The 8.5’ by

11’ painting was part of his traveling exhibition “Pink Flag—White Horse” which marked “the

first time that paintings by this…German artist have been shown in North America” (Rubinstein

121). In Duisen, about twenty figures dominate the bottom two thirds of the canvas. The

predominant colors in these figures are reds, pinks, whites, and oranges, with some violets and

blues. About ten figures occupy the foreground, with a crowd of arms and faces placed behind

them, blending together. All the figures fade to white towards the bottom-center, and the

background is entirely dark violet, with a drawing of a cityscape in white lines.

There is a stark contrast between Richter’s handling of the mass of figures and the sky

and buildings in the background. The low-chroma violet sky is overwhelmed by the

expressionistic use of Day-Glo color in the figures. On the other hand, the geometric shapes of

the buildings are rigidly drawn, with the windows creating patterns. If one spends time looking at

the lines of the buildings, the perspective will eventually lead the eye to the vanishing point,

which is above center and between the two central figures. This adds particular emphasis to these

two figures, who serve as a center of interest and contribute to the sense of balance.

The overall balance is created because the composition is essentially symmetrical, with

buildings and figures on the left balanced by similar ones on the right. Visual rhythm is created

by the upraised arms from left to right, all directing the eye upwards. Richter’s handling of paint

has been described as “Splatters and slashes of paint, together with glazes, pentimenti and

impasto brushwork…” (Meuller 155). Richter appears to have built up texture in the foreground

by laying multiple layers of paint and possibly sanding back into it. Despite this, the group of

figures is still unified because similar colors are used throughout the group, and the use of white

shapes in all the figures makes the crowd look like a single, massive, abstract shape. Because
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some dark purple colors are brought into the foreground, the figures feel unified with the

background and appear to belong in the space they occupy, even though the two areas are

painted in dramatically different styles.

Duisen belongs to a body of figurative work Richter began creating after becoming a

prominent artist in Germany. The paintings from 2004 featured in “Pink Flag—White Horse”

represent a departure from his earlier abstractions (Rubenstein 121). Richter’s work was mostly

abstract expressionism until 1999-2000 (Hughes 134). On some occasions, Richter has provided

books, record covers, and photographs which inspired specific paintings, such as Why I’m Not a

Conservative (Diederichsen 78). Though Richter did not provide such source material for

Duisen, it is certainly possible that it too was inspired by topical controversies in Germany.

Generally, writers discussing Richter’s work often debate the influence of Marxism in his

art. Understanding a little about Richter’s life in Germany is helpful for interpreting Duisen in a

Marxist light. According to a brief biography published by the David Zwirner art gallery, Richter

was born in 1962 and works in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany. He was in his late twenties when

the Berlin wall was torn down, and Hughes suggests that Richter is critical of the movement to

the right in German culture (Hughes 134). Rubenstein believes Germany’s history “from the

debacle of Nazism to its prolonged frontline status in the Cold War, has provided a wealth of

material to address and a certain obligation to tackle large subjects” (120).

In an interview with Dorothy Spears, Richter reminisced about joining a punk band in his

youth, which first gave him opportunities to work as an artist. After the Berlin wall was torn

down, punk rock became more mainstream, and Richter said he “had to decide what to do in my

life” (Spears). His youth spent in the punk sub-culture affected his early work; Rubenstein

observed the influence of his “punk rock” art style in the painting White Horse—Pink Flag (122)
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(figure 2). The punk sub-culture in Germany was generally pro-anarchy, and Richter’s own

artwork and statements reflect this attitude towards government (Diedrichsen 78). In an

interview in 2008, Richter said he rejected a Minimalistic or Conceptual approach to art because

as a student he found such work “really lame and boring.…I thought of Abstract Expressionism

as a real promise of freedom and unlimited lawlessness” (Spears).

If one examines Richter through the lens of a Marxist critique of art history, Richter

would have been considered a proletariat in his youth, one of the powerless masses, much like

the crowd depicted in Duisen and similar works. Though the subjects in Duisen are ambiguous,

several elements support a Marxist understanding. First, the figures are contrasted in style with

the urban setting. The skyscraper has historically been a symbol of civilization and industry, and

more specifically capitalism. In the painting, the miserable figures strain against the edges of the

canvas, as if attempting to escape. One could interpret Duisen as a dark metaphor for the people

in Germany’s industrial society: ghostly, inhuman people, marching through a bleak world of

precision and order.

Alternatively, Rubenstein has suggested that the raised arms could signify surrender and

that the colors suggest that they are being viewed through heat-sensing equipment (Rubinstein

120). If this is the case, the viewer is directly involved in the action of the painting. Rather than

being a force which threatens the viewer, the crowd becomes submissive to the viewer. Indeed,

Richter has drawn inspiration from controversial incidents where German police were accused of

brutality, most notably in his painting Why I’m Not a Conservative (Hughes 135-136). If

Rubenstein is correct, it logically follows that in Duisen, the viewer is likely meant to be a

soldier or police officer equipped with heat vision, thus explaining why the crowd is

surrendering. From the viewer’s perspective, these people are dehumanized. If this was Richter’s
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intent, it is logical to conclude that there is a Marxist message in Duisen, which puts the viewer

in the role of a powerful force threatening the poor people depicted in the painting.

It is easy to breathe Marxist ideas into a painting by Richter, but is this tendency a trap?

David Hughes claims that the question of whether Richter’s paintings contain political messages

is one which “has irked critics of Daniel Richter’s work more than any other…” (133). To

demonstrate to what extent this is the case, even a painting with a title like Why I am Not a

Conservative, which one would assume would have a clear meaning, is in reality much more

complex. Jan-Hendrik Wentrup believed that the title was meant to be ironic, a semantic trap for

Richter’s “unwitting viewer” (Hughes 139).

Richter may have strong political opinions, but he himself has said, “I insist on

categorization. Politics remains politics, social action remains social action, and art remains art”

(qtd. in Hughes 144). Richter avidly studies art history and draws inspiration from great painters

of the past. The result is that many of his large-scale works feel like they follow the tradition of

grand historical painting, yet seem to mock tradition due to their vagueness and often absurd

subject matter. Rather than assuming that Richter’s paintings should be interpreted in a Marxist

light because the artist himself has left-leaning views, one could make the case that Richter is

deconstructing assumptions about art.

In her introduction of different methodologies of art history, Laurie Schneider Adams

defines Structuralism as a method which does not focus on the artist because he “does not impart

ultimate meaning” (Adams 139). In contrast, Post-Structuralism takes the artist into

consideration again (ibid). These methodologies of art history are interested in questions like

whether the artist or the audience imparts the ultimate meaning to a painting, and can be very

helpful in considering Richter.


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It is remarkable that Richter’s critics at times struggle to find some ultimate meaning in

Richter’s work, and become frustrated by the attempt to make sense of some of his images.

Hughes points out that Richter’s titles often reference myth, history, geography and literature,

but give his critics few clues (139). Many admit they do not have definitive answers, and try to

find meaning by posing questions. This is why Richter can be seen as deconstructing past ideas

about art. Because his paintings are so ambiguous, interpreting them is like trying to interpret a

work from another culture with limited information.

A painting like Duisen invites the viewer to ask many interesting questions which may

have no answers. When confronted with Duisen, Hughes wondered, “Are the figures arms

upraised in a sign of celebration, protest, or surrender?” (147). There is no definitive political

message to be found. In contrast, the art of Otto Dix, a German forefather of Richter, was clearly

about the horrors of war. Richter does not believe art “serves as a template for a better world”

(Hughes 144). Indeed, Richter’s motto is “Beauty through confusion, truth through collision”

(146). However, his choices are not all random. The aesthetic of his art made for punk rockers in

his youth carries over into his fine artwork. Hughes writes that Richter’s personal iconography

has to do with his biography as well as “social issues that concern him (e.g. asylum seekers,

protest actions, street fights, and civil wars)” (141).

What questions can we ask about art history to deconstruct Duisen? If the figures are in

the act of surrendering, iconic paintings like Goya’s The Third of May could have been an

inspiration (many have observed that Goya has influenced Richter) (figure 3). But unless Richter

decides to provide more information on how and why he created Duisen, this remains a simple

observation. In stark contrast to The Third of May, which has a clear political message, Richter’s

work is ambiguous in its meaning. However, it does demonstrate another characteristic of


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Richter’s paintings: assembling bits and pieces from great art traditions of the past to create a

hodge-podge.

As mentioned before, many Richter paintings feel grand and historical, but something

isn’t right, and Duisen is a perfect example. The color and the contortion of the figures is

reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The mark making shows the wild energy of abstract

expressionists like Wassily Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock. Yet the final result feels starkly

different from all of these artists from the past. If Richter’s goal was to develop a distinctive

style, his jarring paintings certainly accomplish that. Hughes claims that Righter has contempt

for artistic tradition, which is a surprising accusation for an artist whose work demonstrates an

astute knowledge of that tradition (138-139).

In conclusion, while many have observed the influence of Marxist philosophy in

Richter’s work, including Duisen, his philosophy of art makes it difficult to interpret his

paintings so simply. By reading Richter’s own statements about his art and the role of art in

general, it is more helpful to understand Richter as an artist who is interested in deconstructing

art history, rather than as a politically-motivated artist who is merely interested in Marxism.
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Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. “The Methodoligies of Art History.” The Making and Meaning of Art.

Prentice Hall, 2006.

Diederichson, Diedrich. “Why I’m Not a Conservative.” Modern Painters (Winter 2002): 78-83.

15.4. 78-83. EBSCOhost. Link Library. 17 Sept. 2011

<http://www.cune.edu/academics/library/>.

Meuller, Stephan. “Daniel Richter.” Art in America (September 2008): 155. EBSCOhost. Link

Library. 17 Sept. 2011 <http://www.cune.edu/academics/library/>.

Rubinstein, Raphael. “Allegories of Anarchy.” Art in America (December 2004): 120-123.

EBSCOhost. Link Library. 17 Sept. 2011 <http://www.cune.edu/academics/library/>.

Spears, Dorothy. “In the studio with Daniel Richter.” Art + Auction. Oct. 1, 2008. 17 Sept. 2011

<http://www.re-title.com/artists/daniel-richter.asp>.

“Daniel Richter.” David Zwirner. 17 Sept. 2011 <http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/25/>.