From hot to cool on the Richter scale
His work resists classification, but it’s hard to think of a more influential contemporary artist than Gerhard Richter, whose superb new retrospective exhibition is now at Tate Modern
THROUGHOUT his long career – he is 79 – the German painter Gerhard Richter has tended to look more like somebody in middle management than an artist. He has also shown a remarkable capacity both to exasperate people and not to care about doing so.
Familiar complaints are that he is wildly inconsistent, that he switches styles (lurching from extreme abstraction to extreme photorealism), that he’s a conceptual artist masquerading as a painter or, indeed, vice versa. The implication is that there is no authentic Richter, that he is a cynical artistic opportunist, latching on to any passing fancy.
Panorama,Tate Modern’s superb new retrospective exhibition of his work, from student efforts in 1957 to the present day, allows us to assess his extensive, apparently contradictory output and to judge whether the many charges laid against him are justified. It quickly becomes apparent, for example, that he simply doesn’t see any implicit contradiction or opposition between abstraction and representation. It is just not an issue for him. The opposition that clearly does count for him, though, is that between hot and cold.
From the beginning he has avoided developing a signature style in the sense of, say, Van Gogh or Lucian Freud. Rather he has regarded any style, from the personal to those denoted by great historical schools or movements, with analytical scepticism. This is crucial. For example, German Romanticism prioritises feeling over thought. When Richter revisits the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, he takes away the heady emotionalism and tries to see what remains. When he turns to abstraction he cools down the heat of the Abstract Expressionists.
Similarly, with ideologically charged subjects, he’ll take away the ideological fervour and attempt a cool reappraisal. This isn’t to say that he is himself unfeeling or at all ironic. He terms himself naive and even sentimental. Always, he aims to arrive at a point where he can say, in one of his characteristic phrases, “It is what it is”. This might sound excessively chilly and uninvolving and, to be fair, some observers have difficulty with his work on exactly those grounds. But the funny thing is that the closer Richter gets to absolute zero, to nullifying the familiar trappings of expression and convention, the more likely he is to come up with something revealing, fascinating and visually compelling. And he manages to do so over and over again. It’s hard to think of a more influential contemporary artist.
He was born in Dresden in 1932. Because his father was a teacher, the family moved on twice within the next decade, to much smaller regional towns, effectively keeping the young Richter, as writer and curator Robert Storr has noted, “out of harm’s way” through the war years and their aftermath. His father and his maternal uncles served in the Wermacht. Richter himself, “drummed into the Hitler Youth”, remained aloof, feeling that “they were all a bunch of pompous asses”.
In 1961, after a traditional art training, Richter crossed from East to West Germany and settled in Düsseldorf, where he began to make paintings based on photographs and reproduced images. Rather than disguising their sources, he emphasised them, by deliberately blurring the images or by incorporating borders and captions. This strategy recalled pop art, and initially his subjects were luxury consumer goods. But, in the same offhand manner, he went on to paint, for example, his Uncle Rudi in his wartime uniform, archival images of US bombers, and a snap of Richter himself as a baby in the arms of his Aunt Marianne, who, it emerged, suffered from a mental disorder and had been murdered as part of the Nazis’ eugenics programme.
In broaching such issues, he was clearly moving beyond the territory of pop art, although he later said to Storr: “I never knew what I was doing.” He has often been quoted as expressing agreement with the composer John Cage’s sentiment in his Lecture on Nothing:“I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” Richter says he interpreted Cage as meaning “I know that I don’t know anything”, which seems to sum up his stance pretty well.
Nonetheless, his willingness to deal with controversial aspects of Germany’s recent history culminated in probably his most famous group of works, 18 October, 1977.These dark, blurred, monochromatic paintings, made in 1988, refer to the apparent suicides of members of the Baader-Meinhof Group in prison a decade earlier. (The story of the group is brilliantly recounted in Uli Edel’s 2008 film, The Baader-Meinhof Complex.) Richter touched a raw nerve, but his intentions remained characteristically unclear. He wasn’t endorsing or criticising either terrorists or state, he intimated, but commenting on the inevitable failure of utopian ideologies.
From the early 1980s abstraction has become increasingly important in his work, but he has also continued to paint representationally, tackling such standard genres as landscape and the vanitas still life. His immediate family have always featured as subjects, including his first wife, Ema, in a renowned variation on Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and his current wife, Sabine, in a beautifully tender reworking of Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.
His craftsmanship is exemplary, but he has often said that he is no virtuoso, he just has the good taste to know when something is not working. Recurrently, he obliterated unsatisfactory representational images by dragging paint across them, and the result sometimes became visually interesting to him. Gradually he refined a method of making abstract paintings using a squeegee, building up and removing vast swathes of pigment, leaving complex masses of layered, intermingled colour. The end result emerges from a series of controlled accidents.
One whole room at Tate Modern is given over to a set of six monumental abstracts, the Cage paintings first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, taking their name from John Cage. It’s a stunning room and they are a remarkable achievement, an example of Richter’s “late magisterial production”, as the art historian Benjamin Buchloh terms it. Buchloh also points out that they are “semantically precarious” because Richter eschews claims to any spiritual content in abstraction and, equally, the paintings lack the representational reference of, say, Monet’s Waterlilies.Nor does he see abstraction as a logical stylistic conclusion in the modernist sense. In other words, Buchloh argues, it is a puzzle that the paintings work, but somehow they do.
Richter was flying to New York on September 11th, 2001, at the time of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. His plane was diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia. A few years later he made one small painting specifically about the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, but he was uneasy about it and he scraped a lot of paint away. The result is a pale, ghostly, vestigial image, and it is all the more effective and unsettling for that.
Panoramais a huge exhibition that brings together a large proportion of Richter’s most important works from many public and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s his most substantial show since the acclaimed 40 Years of Paintingin the US in 2002, and he’s done a great deal of important work since then. After its run at Tate Modern is complete, it travels on next year to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and then to the Pompidou in Paris. If you care about painting and its relationship to the world we inhabit, it is essential, stimulating and extremely rewarding viewing.
Gerhard Richter: Panoramais at Tate Modern, daily until January 8th 2012. See tate.org.uk
Richter, ‘drummed into the Hitler Youth’, remained aloof, feeling ‘they were all a bunch of pompous asses’