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© Courtesy: Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Daniel Richter
Tefzen, 2004
Oil on canvas
Puchased 2004

Daniel Richter’s boldly painted canvases are calibrated readings of the world derived from reference materials including reproductions of artworks, book covers, posters, film stills, newspaper clippings, comics and record album covers. Richter’s expressionistically charged canvases are creating renewed interest in the paint medium, and continue in the tradition of politically motivated art in the West that spans from Goya to Leon Golub; the latter is an artist to whom Richter’s iconic and socially engaging works have drawn comparisons.

Tefzen comprises a flurry of absurd actions, resembling a circus troop that has just been engaged in battle. Dead bodies litter the canvas; a clown lies on his stomach, his sad painted face looks out to viewers. A dog writhes obscenely in the foreground, whereas a bear, most probably dead, slumps nearby. In the background an angry looking blue lion moves forward, perhaps to avenge all this death, while another wild looking dog, possibly a wolf, pokes his head over the downed circus performer and surveys the surrounding devastation. Dominating the painting is a self-portrait of the artist disguised as a lithe showgirl. Standing with his hands in the air, the artist’s gesture exclaims, “On with the show.” Yet, he casts his eyes downward at the strange scene of destruction. His unbelieving eyes belie all that his body announces, placing
Tefzen within the realm of both tragedy and satire.

The figures in Tefzen are modelled using a variety of visual vocabularies, and paint is applied to the canvas in a number of ways, from quiet pockets of colour to more aggressive painterly techniques of throwing, dripping and splattering. Above all the activity a grid-like structure supports red, white and blue stars reminiscent of the American flag. In fact, the overall colour scheme can be described as highly keyed “patriotic American”: a red ground interspersed with white and blue. Blood coloured liquid appears to trickle from the stars over the scene below. A tiny turbaned man, like a Lilliputian from Gulliver’s Travels, stares up at the body of the clown. With his greenish hue, the figure looks to be edited out of night vision video footage and inserted into this strange landscape. A small and almost invisible text written across the body of a matronly looking woman, seen to the left of the clown, implores, “Please Help
Us.” As such, Tefzen can be read as an allegorical history painting, perhaps that of a modern disaster-as-spectacle.

Tefzen is one of a cycle of four paintings by Richter, which read as anagrams: Nerdon from “Norden” meaning North; Eston from “Osten” meaning East; and Duisen from “Sueden” meaning South. Tefzen, the fourth painting, is a hybrid of “Westen” (meaning West) and “Fetzen” (which as a noun means “shreds,” and as a verb is slang for fighting). The title can plausibly be translated as “Fighting West.” It is tempting to simply call it “Western,” with all the political implications and critical dimensions this implies.