Thursday, July 3, 2014

polke/richter. richter/polke @ Christie's London

Sigmar Poke, Gerhard Richter 
What was most surprising about this exhibition was the proximity of the two artists’ work in the 1960s and 1970s. I think of the two as being concerned with very different questions – Polke in the world of fantasy and dream while Richter stays obsessed with the practicalities of painting. Paintings such as Polke’s Bavarian, 1965 or Don Quichotte, 1968 are engaged with the familiar Richter discourse on the press, its relationship with painting, its inability to represent reality, the unreliability of the media. Polke takes up these questions in very different ways, specifically through distentions of the press image, while Richter repaints, blurs and reframes photographic images.
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Gerhard Richter, Frau in einer Hollywoodschaukel, 1968
Richter’s Frau in einer Hollywoodschaukel, 1968 raises the thematic engagement with the woman as performer, the star, Woman descending the staircase, 1965 becoming so much more than a quotation of Duchamp when seen in the light of this work. The removal of all narrative context, the blur, the push towards abstraction, all these characteristics, pushing the woman out of the image, and replacing it with the confusion of movement, the surfeit of reality in which the performer moves.

Sigmar Polke, Bavarian, 1965
As we know already, grey is so prominent in Richter’s early work. The grey work is dense and sensuous, just like the bigger squeegee works made in more recent years. In a work such as Grau, 1970 on display here, the imperative of seeing his grey works face to face is evident. We don’t even need to stand up close to see the brushstroke going across the canvas. And viewers will remark that it is a very different grey from the mountains, or that in Wolke, 1969 with the Cy Twombly like pencil scrawls, as though the world underneath the clouds is just there, not so important, able to be captured in a sketch. It is, of course, the sea. Even in these early days, Richter is at his most sensitive with clouds, the sea, nature of all kinds.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 1986, oil on canvas, 69.7 × 100.3cm. Christie's Images Ltd, 2014
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild, 1986
Around the same time, while Richter’s works become ever more sensuous, tactile, Polke begins his love affair with enamel, acrylics, spray paints. Polke overpaints and abstracts, but the commonalities are becoming fewer. Polke uses the overpainting to interfere with what’s underneath, as though is a competition between the different layers and surfaces. Richter, however, uses overpainting as if in a social experiment, to see how the colours behave when they interact with each other. The result is more aleatory, more unpredictable, but always controlled, as we have come to expect of Richter. And unlike Richter, Polke is not engaged in a process of erasure and palimpsestic destruction, correction after building up the expectation of finality. The layers, however fused, are still final in Polke’s paintings.
Sigmar Polke, Laterna Magica, 1988-96 
Similarly, as always, I was surprised and delighted to see that in the 1980s Richter was already painting versions of his abstrakte Bilder that became so well known twenty years later. My sense is that Richter is never done, he always goes back to the concerns that preoccupied him, while Polke is on a trajectory that moves forward.

Polke and RIchter at the 1966 exhibition
Maybe because of my love of Richter’s paintings, or perhaps because of the exhibition itself, it seemed as though the display was more focused on demonstrating the connection of Polke’s paintings to Richter’s, attempting to convince of the status of Polke’s works as of equal interest. Of course, the connection began in 1966 with the exhibition polke/richter in Hanover to mark the closeness of their relationship. This doesn’t preclude, however, the possibility that one painter became great and the other, not quite as important.

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