It’s difficult to believe that after twenty years of looking at Gerhard Richter’s paintings, they never cease to surprise me, to move me, and to open up still more questions as I stand before them. At the new retrospective of his work, Panorama, that opened at the Tate Modern last week, there were moments when I felt as though I was seeing his paintings for the first time.
|Gerhard Richter, Yellow-green, 1982, CR: 492|
Richter’s is a body of work with which I am more familiar than perhaps that of any other artist. Over the years I have seen the paintings and photographs again and again, in traveling exhibitions, in their home institutions, in intimate gallery spaces and filling the walls of the worlds great museums. I have studied them, written about them, and no matter how often I see them, I never tire, and I am always amazed that they have still more to teach me. They continue to teach me about painting, about its relationship to the world, about myself, and most profoundly, about the places that painting takes us, places and spaces — emotional, psychological, intellectual — to which we otherwise have no access. My friend and colleague John David Rhodes will question my tendency toward reverence for great works of art. But it’s difficult to be anything other than reverential, and made humble in the face of Gerhard Richter’s paintings. Having the opportunity to see Richter’s work often and in multiple viewings has been one of the great privileges of living in New York, London and Paris.
|Gerhard Richter, Farm [Gehöft], 1999, CR 861-1|
Nicholas Serota and his curatorial team at the Tate Modern have made what can only be described as radical choices in their hanging of Richter’s work. This is an exhibition that emphasizes disparity in an attempt to create maximum tension and clash between works that are nevertheless hung in roughly chronological order. The sheer diversity — in the size of the canvas, application of paint, historical references, subject matter, theoretical concerns, and the list goes on — of Richter’s thinking and its realization in painting, is at the foreground of this huge retrospective. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I applaud these curatorial choices because as much as they enabled me to see Richter’s oeuvre in a whole new context — ironically the context of his own working process — there was a noise and a busyness to each room that at times made for such overwhelm that it was difficult to focus. That said, all of the ambiguity, and the unfathomability of Richter’s work is also emphasized when a work such as Farm [Gehöft] 1999 is placed side by side with a monumental abstract image from approximately the same time. Even though I missed the peacefulness of being with Richter’s work, the disparities and arguments between paintings actually underlines depths that we might not have previously recognized.
|Gerhard Richter, Six Photos May 2-7, 1989 (a/2 May 1989), CR: 74a|
Among the works on display that I had not previously seen is a series of photographs, Six Photos 2.5.89-7.5.89 (CR74 a-f) in which Richter appears like a spirit in the process of disappearing thanks to the delayed action shutter release mechanism of the photographic process. These six photograph, each signed and dated, are unusual because they are not overpainted (though there is of course a set of prints that he subsequently overpainted) and neither does it seem as though they were placed in Atlas, that is, they do not appear to have been archived. And yet, these six fleeting images encapsulate so much about his oeuvre. As is so often the case, Richter pictures himself, not painting, but together with his paintings. Although he is the great artist, this series of photographs reveals what is always for Richter his own troubled status, not as a painter, but of his relationship to painting and, at times, to his own painting. In fact, this series of photographs might even be seen as the quintessence of Panorama. Because, the impossibility of resolving his relationship to the task of painting, and ultimately, to representation as it is nevertheless captured in these six images echoes the impossibility of the juxtaposition of works in conflict that might have been painted at different points in his career, but are nevertheless, co-existent in Panorama.
|Gerhard Richter, Alps II, 1968, CR:213|
To be sure, Richter’s is not a body of work that is just about painting. It is work that is deeply informed by the historical and political worlds that surround it. Another painting I saw for the first time in this exhibition, Alps II, 1968 demonstrates this with unimaginable force. The tripartite painting sees clouds, or perhaps it is the Alps themselves, from above, or maybe even perpendicular to the mountains. It is a painting in which the thick grey strokes that might have been painted with a house paint brush move tumultuously through and around the whole spectrum of the grey palette, from white to black, from luminosity to obscurity, light to darkness. Even more so than Turner’s seascapes in turmoil, Alps II might be abstract, but it is a world in revolution, the intense, dark grey paint at the compositional centre of the canvas is devastating, churning up turmoil and immense pain. Not only does this immensity plummet the painting’s viewer to the deepest emotional levels, but we cannot help noticing the date: 1968. Alps II was painted in a year when the world was in turmoil, and there is an aggressivity, an anger even, to the short, but insistent brush strokes. These strokes, unpredictable, yet always moving somewhere along a horizontal axis, capture a world about to burst. This is the ultimate power of Gerhard Richter’s painting: it moves effortlessly and sometimes impossibly, at one and the same time, between the most intimate emotional experiences of the individual who stands before it, and the monumental sweep of public history.
|Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988, CR: 663-5|
I have written about Richter’s work before, I will write about it again, and most likely, again. Because this is an oeuvre that will never be clear, in which the problems it raises will never be resolved. It is a body of work, that like the blur in the photo-paintings and even in the paintings that did not originate in a photograph, is filled with ambiguity, and is always unfinished. This does not mean that the paintings await completion, but rather, they are plagued by uncertainty. And yet, they exude complete confidence in that uncertainty. It is as though the troubling of vision that becomes realized in the blurring of the paint on canvas, or that which results from the vertical stacking of glass panes is a microsmic expression for the ultimate inability of painting to approach, much less represent what it might claim to reveal. There is no truth of painting according to Gerhard Richter. Rather, its only reality is that which reverberates throughout the “daily practice” of painting. And what this exhibition makes clear is that throughout, Richter continues to practice and to attend to his practice, his process of painting as the most important moment of creativity.
|Gerhard Richter, Cage V, 2006, CR: 897-5|
There is something incredulous about Richter’s paintings that is captured by Panorama in new and exciting ways. It was a privilege to be at the exhibition with a friend who was seeing Richter’s work on this scale for first time. My friend was in awe at the virtuosity of Richter’s paint on canvas. He kept saying “who else was doing this in the 1970s”? And then as we moved onto the variety and reach of monumental abstractions to unoverpainted photographs of his family, to re-presentations of photos of paintings once placed in Atlas and later repainted, to glass panes, mirrors and the poignant tonalities of Cage I-VI, my friend repeated as if in disbelief, “there’s no one even comes near not only the diversity, but the intensity and scale of this work”.
|Gerhard Richter, Tulips, 1995, CR: 825-2)|
I can’t possibly capture the complexity of the paintings, and neither can I begin to approach the expanse of emotions, ideas and revellations that these paintings lead us through. Richter’s is incomparable to any other body of artistic work — not only the technique, the experimentation, but I don’t know another painter who moves from historical traumas, to Romantic, but troubled landscapes, through violent effacements and erotic lyricism, from death and a focus on the poignancy of memory to the passionate aliveness of what it is to be human.
To be sure, there are problems with the exhibition, most notably the fact that too many paintings are crammed on too few walls, and the loss of context through taking the works out of their series is frustrating. But, to be with Richter’s paintings is an experience that everyone must have at least once in a lifetime. Wherever you are, go see Panorama and make this that occasion.