Symphony of Light: Gerhard Richter

Curator: Kevin Slavin
date: August 15, 2011
Categories: Environmental Design
Tags: Color, Environment, Grid, Richter
Photo: Kevin Slavin
Primary panels from Gerhard Richter's Symphony of Light, stained glass window. Careful attention reveals lateral symmetry across the columns.

This piece of work is from 2007, but one reason it’s not better known is that you have to travel to Cologne to see it properly. It’s worth the trip.

One of the most deservedly famous artists of post-war Europe, Gerhard Richter was commissioned to design the replacement for the Cologne Cathedral’s southern transept glass window. The original was destroyed in the Second World War, and there was no record by which to reconstruct it.

For the new window, Richter drew from a series of paintings he made 40 years previous, between 1966 and 1974. Specifically, he used different systems to produce random arrangements of fixed color squares on the canvas, called Farben (translated as “Color Charts”). This process included Cage-like techniques of pure chance, as well as simple mathematical systems not immediately legible to the viewer.  

For the cathedral’s enormous window, Richter used a computer to randomly arrange 72 distinct colors in 11,500 squares. If you look very carefully, you can see that the columns repeat with lateral symmetry: column one is flopped to column three; column four to column six; and column two to column five. But that’s as far as you get if you’re looking for a system, for causality or reason. 

Photo: Kevin Slavin
Full window. This is set high in Cologne's Gothic cathedral, perhaps 10 meters off the ground, 20 meters high.

Early "Color Chart" (Farben) work by Richter, late 1960s.

Early "Color Chart" (Farben) work by Richter, late 1960s.

Peter and the Virgin Mary: one of the other original windows of the cathedral. Donated by Ludwig I of Bavaria, mid-19th century

The window refuses narrative and stares you down. This is especially powerful in the context of being embedded in the cathedral, with organ music booming through it, adorned with crucifixions, surrounded by the other windows dating from the 600 years of the cathedral’s construction (1248–1880 AD).

The original windows illustrate biblical parables. Richter’s window does not. But quite arguably, it embodies them—it brings them to life.

I’m not a religious person. But when I’m in a cathedral, I do what everyone does, which is look for some kind of meaning. But to interrogate this window while it bathes you in light from 12 stories high... you could query it for 600 years, and it would never give it up.

By Richter’s design, a computer’s deterministic random bit generator has precisely directed the design and construction of a story about the absence of stories. Confronting an overscaled array of randomly colored sunlight, the result seems congruous with what might be on the minds of more devout cathedral visitors: looking for a way to come to terms with a world built from chaos and quiet symmetry.

If not reason, at least there’s rhyme.
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