There is a lot clamoring for our attention in this media-saturated world, requiring we tune it out or at best merely glance at it to keep from drowning in the din. Our lack of attention, however, only increases the intensity of the din as the loudness of the images is jacked up to recapture our weary eyes and ears, further decreasing the amount of time we spend looking at them. We’re being trained to look but not to see, to scan for information, not to contemplate, and so we risk limiting ourselves to skimming surfaces rather than seeing what depths surface in them, ultimately leading to a facile dismissal of those images that ask us to slow down.1
One image that asks viewers to slow down is offered by Gerhard Richter’s mural “Strontium,” hanging in what is essentially the lobby of the de Young art museum in San Francisco. It is a piece of art that’s dizzying to the casual viewer but vertiginous to a more careful one. Approximately thirty-one feet tall by thirty feet wide, it commands one’s attention, even from across the hall. But from a distance, its seemingly tidy rows of dots, almost mechanical in their regularity, resembling an enormous black and white, printed textile, betray the mural’s scale. It’s only as one nears “Strontium” that the mural reveals itself. In fact, one perceives it is a mural only when standing relatively close to it: what had seemed an unbroken whole is revealed to have seams, the overall image made up of, according to the de Young’s website, one hundred thirty separate images, all of which resemble the one they comprise.
It also becomes clearer that the dots are softly out of focus, as if the “dots,” whose shading suggests they are actually spheres, were moving when their image was captured. If one gently unfocuses one’s eyes, the spheres seem to pop out of their plane, more sculptural than pictorial. I even found that if I looked into the depths of the mural without unfocusing my eyes, they would struggle to bring the blurred spheres into focus, contracting and relaxing to no avail, inducing a slight sensation of falling.
The blurring also opens up the possibility of seeing the surface of the image instead of merely seeing through it. That is, it invites consideration that it’s not the image itself that is blurred but its reproduction, calling attention to the surface of the image and the medium representing it, rendering visible what is often invisible, bringing to surface the meaning of the surface and how it is what we really encounter when we sound out an image’s depths. Along those lines, artist Michael Grove—who with his wife and artistic partner Ruth Ann took my partner Todd and I on a brief but rich tour of the museum—pointed out how, if one looked at the mural’s seams, they appeared to float on or just above the columns and rows of spheres, effectively bringing to sight the plexiglass coating of the mural, reminding us there’s yet something else between the image and viewer.
Indeed, such considerations are supported by some of Richter’s other works that play with the perception of images and the media that convey them, as in his paintings of photographs in which he smears the paint, giving the images a blurred, even ghostly, appearance, punning on the rather spectral nature of photography.
None of these experiences, though, address the issue of what one is looking at. Sure, it’s big and dazzles the eye, but what is it? Most immediately it appears to be an abstract pattern of shapes, but there is an indelible sense that the image is photographic. The caption accompanying the mural reveals that it is titled “Strontium” because it is a representation of an electron micrograph of the molecular structure of strontium titanate.2 For me, the revelation was funny. First the reversal of scale is so extreme that it’s a bit nutty. There was something pleasing to me in knowing that those large, fuzzy shapes were molecules. Moreover—unfamiliar as I am with images from electron micrographs—that the mural was even representational took me a bit by surprise. As his paintings of photos suggest, Richter is not opposed to representation. Over his varied career, Richter has created paintings with an astonishing verisimilitude, such as his well-known series of skull and candle paintings, which are so realistically rendered they might cause one to question whether or not one is actually looking at a painting.
Despite its realistic representation, though, “Strontium” is almost the flipside to his “Two Candles” paintings. That is, “Two Candles” raises the question of whether or not one is looking at a painting of something because its bravura technique so vividly captures something we recognize—if not two candles themselves, at least a photograph of them. “Strontium,” on the other hand, is more conceptually virtuostic than painterly, rendering something we don’t recognize that, though it’s reproduced with photographic techniques, doesn’t appear to achieve verisimilitude because it doesn’t resemble something we can see and know; it’s unfamiliar to many, if not most, of us, so it’s unrecognizable.
The playful interrogation of representation and verisimilitude that is apparent in “Strontium” is extended when one realizes that strontium titanate itself is a kind of representation. Extensively synthesized in the mid-1950s as a diamond substitute, strontium titanate was actually the diamond substitute until harder, less expensive ones like cubic zirconia were created. So, even more than his paintings of photographs, “Strontium” presents a breathtaking nesting of representation: it’s a representation of a representation of something that, as a substance that often stands in for another, is a representation itself. Better yet, strontium titanate, though softer than diamonds, literally outshines them. According to Wikipedia, the optical dispersion of strontium titanate—its shine or dazzle—is four times that of a diamond. Regarding its optical effect, at least, strontium titanate is more dazzling than what it is meant to resemble, much as Richter’s mural.
1 In my blog entry “Dam the Flow,” https://chaszak.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/dam-the-flow/I argue that something similar is happening to reading and writing. Both practices, I contend, are diminished by the reduced forums in which we habitually communicate.
2 Michael told me that in all the years he had been going to the de Young, he’d never read the caption because he didn’t want to pin down what the mural could be by imposing an outside meaning on it, effectively limiting the interpretive horizon available to one. I agree with him to an extent. I usually resist looking at the caption for a work of art until I’ve taken the time to look at it and get a sense of what I see, but then I have no problem reading a caption. Good ones can be like having a conversation with a knowledgeable viewer, especially if the art is good. Great art provokes great discussion. Still, I was amused and impressed that he’d managed to refrain from looking at it for so long.