Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Gerhard Richter’s “Strontium” at the de Young (SF)

For the opening of the new de Young Museum, leading German artist Gerhard Richter was commissioned to create a monumental photo-mural for the main interior court. This work, entitled “Strontium,” is a grid of digitally manipulated C-prints, laminated between aluminum and plexiglass. It cost a fortune.

According to David Strubbe in the Berkeley Science Review (Spring 2006), the image is the crystal lattice of the material strontium titanate as seen by high-resolution transmission electron microscopy. Strubbe says that the blurring of the image was contributed by Richter.

The top photo, from the Contemporary Art Institute website, shows the whole work. Below are images showing the scale of the work and a detail of the pattern.

Repeated viewings have not altered my original impression, that the work misfires. Despite the intense optical buzz, the overall effect lies somewhere between tedium and low-level irritation (like static). I keep thinking that the panels would really sizzle if they were arranged on the four walls of a small gallery. Also, I think that the main court, with its surprisingly bland geometry, could use a blast of color.


CadeRageous said...

I too, didn't like this piece immediately, but it's one of those that grows on you. Recently, I was at the De Young and immediately in front of this large piece, a punk/rock band was playing and the place was lit up in changing lights. This piece really made the experience even better. I now like the piece in it's black and white splendor, but it really comes to life when some colored light is shone upon it. Here's a link to a post with some pictures showing you what I mean. They aren't large images, but you should get an impression.

Anonymous said...

Much of postmodernist art goes beyond the visual in significance. Let me see if I can shed some light here.

The circular patterns of "Strontium" echo the dimples of the copper panels. The dimples on the skin of the museum were machined with computer precision based on digital photographs of canopies of trees in the park. But for the abstraction of the pixelization, the texture of the panels would have served as a kind of camouflage to blend the museum's facade into its surroundings. But the abstraction itself hides the patterns, concealing that which would have concealed. This double layer of abstraction accentuates the man-made nature of the museum within a natural setting.

But wait there's more! The park itself is not really natural. It was cultivated to look natural but is in fact built on what used to be sand-dunes. So the park really no more belongs where it is than the de Young belongs in a truly natural setting.

And here is where we come full-circle. "Strontium" is a magnification of strontium titanate molecules. Strontium titanate is a synthetic material with properties akin to diamond. So like the copper skin of the museum, "Strontium" calls into question ideas of what is natural and what is man-made. But if you notice, the image is not focused. The blur was produced digitally by the artist and is not a natural effect of electron microscope imaging. Strontium titanate is used in optics and therefore should clarify rather than obfuscate. That the artist should deliberately blur the hugely magnified image is the height of irony.

Postmodern art often contains multiple layers of meaning by reference to its context. One has to look beyond the piece itself to appreciate its significance.