Painting Invisible Pictures

(Originally published 19th April 2019)

In 1974, the German artist Peter Dreher (b.1932) decided to make five or six paintings of the same, empty, drinking glass.

Embarking on this project came about from the desire to make “an invisible picture.” According to Dreher, a painting, once repeated, immediately “loses its relationship with reality,” and so in making these paintings — and by completing each one in a single sitting — Dreher was exploring the nature of reality via the permanence that stands inside the change that is inevitable across time. These five or six paintings would surely be a fascinating exploration into an enduring artistic and philosophical question.

However, once Dreher had completed the six paintings, he realised not only that he did not want to stop, but that continuing felt like a need. Six paintings did not feel like the end. He says this was partly just “the joy surrounding the object,” as well as the continued motivation to repeatedly paint “the simplest thing possible,” each time approaching it as if it was an object never before seen. Dreher knew that he would stop making these paintings “when the motivation stopped.” To date, he has made more than 5,000 paintings of that same drinking glass, so we can safely assume the motivation has not yet stopped!

What results is a stunning visual diary of the every day, enabling us to see the acute beauty in the fleeting, lost moments we tell ourselves we have not seen. It is a reminder to not seek comfort in the familiarity of what we know but to see what is actually there and to pull on the thinking that happens around our identification of “things.”

In some ways, the pictures are identical, yet each one is unique. Painting #6 shows the yellow tinges of a thick, practical drinking glass under artificial light; #383 is much darker, the reflections barely noticeable; #1891 reflects the shape of the window that must be on the other side of the room, intriguing the viewer about the space in which the glass exists outside of the edges of the painting.

These paintings, though, are not a series. They are both a single work (collected together under the title, Every Day is a Good Day) and several thousand individual paintings, each one unrelated to any other in its distinctness and its containment of that “invisible” single breath of the ordinary. They speak to the Aristotelian question of properties in asking “What is this thing?” They are an exquisite essay on focus.

Further Reading

Bauermister, Volker, and Obrist, Hans-Ulrich, et al. (eds.), Peter Dreher — Tag um Tag guter Tag (Freiburg, Germany: Modo Verlag GmbH, 2008). (German language)

Dreher, Peter, and Spira, Anthony (ed.), Just Painting (London: Occasional Papers, 2014).

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