Gerhard Richter: Panorama

There is but one thing for which German Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is known – the daze of his sentimental portraits, the shaking up of a photographic image – the blur given to formal representation, as can be seen in ‘Ema’, ‘Betty’ and the ‘Reader’. The blurring of representation would be an ideal title for the retrospective the Tate presents this autumn. For what is seen is an ever-building tension between abstraction and figuration, which to-and-fros from one’s peak to another’s trough. It seems ironic that Richter began to utilise photography, in order to solidify his figuration, as a way to bind himself to naturalism, and not the ever-popular abstract expressionism of the 1960s. The most obvious example being of ‘Ema’ – a muggy, but discernable portrait of the artist’s wife descending a flight of stairs, a deliberate reference to Duchamp’s ‘Nude on a Staircase’ which is alluded to in its title. In 1965, the artist came into contact with Duchamp in an influential fashion. In Room 2, adjacent to the painting of Ema, is a huddle of artworks all dedicated in someway or other to the heritage of the Dadaists (in the same way in other rooms they seem to be to the abstract expressionists). And this is only the very beginning of the contradictions in the work of the artist that I believe the curatorship sought to augment in the show’s arrangement in order to enhance the audience’s critical eye. Follow me around the Tate’s ‘Gerhard Richter Panorama’ while I lay down some of these contradictions, and perhaps even how they meet their solutions.

In the early works of Richter – hazy grisaille oil paintings – one technique fits all. And in doing so, the artist makes out that only one texture exists in real life (from a car’s exterior to a wooden chair). All these paintings are unified by a smooth but restless blur created by a vertically sweeping of a dry brush. In this whirlwind, resilience is rare, and in ‘Tiger’ (1965), it is particularly disappointing. The animal is caught in a spin, as has all that surrounds him. Nothing is static, nothing is grounded and so it is that the painting ceases to exist in a manner that is believable. The result is a painting that is very flat. This, I feel, is always looming over this black-to-white colour scheme because it lacks the warm and cold compliments of the world’s real pallet. I am stood before it, crying out for the grass to stand tall again and the eyes of the tiger to be once more defined. For me this affect in paint insinuates movement, yet is at its core: subtle and poignant – it does not suit this wildly subject. It is an expression of sentiment, and of memories attached to time.

Under this reading, ‘Aunt Marianne’, 1965, is one of the most successful of his earlier paintings. Worked out of a photograph, the artist sits (at this time just a baby) on his auntie’s lap. The figures’ bodies are joined, made out to be one by the unification of their forms by tone. The sole purpose of this painting is to depict the intimacy of their relationship. Their setting is eliminated by the black hole of murky mid-greys, so that the time and place of this scene remain unknown.

My relationship with greyscale is somewhat volatile. Either it is the height of sophistication, or the over implication of nature that leads to a false and naive impression of the world – far from impressive. I can’t decide whether I prefer when Gerhard Richter uses colour or not. This is not intended to be an overly critical point. It is ever-so apparent that Richter is disinterested in colour, and that only in the last 20 years (exhibited in Rooms 10 and 13) does he become comfortable with its contribution to a painting. In the abstract paintings, his use of colour is often distractive. I cannot get closer than one step away from the successful balance I long for. Burnt umbers ablaze in my eyes and the candy-floss pinks seem childlike and distasteful. It always seems that it is in an artist’s attempt at abstraction that these gaudy uses of colour come out, for they do not depict the real world explicitly enough.

The question needs be then: can we be sure of an artist who at one point seemed so convinced in seeking representation close to realism that he might prove that painting is not dead (as Duchamp had asserted), yet was lulled into abstraction just as frequently across the duration of his career? We know Picasso was a man of many tricks and we continue to exalt him accordingly, so perhaps we have no reason to discredit half of Richter’s creations…

What we can be sure of is that bar the odd pieces of sculpture (a silver ball in room 10 and some sheets of glass in Room 2) Richter is a painter at heart. What remains constant is his compulsive and obsessive techniques, a lust for materiality, for defining a physical presence. Midway through the exhibition, having shown the artist to sway both ways, the curators hand over the biggest room to pieces that best embody the stretch marks of the growth in both stylistic directions. In ‘Figuration meets Abstraction’ (Room 5) Richter tests himself. How much detail can he remove before his vision no longer represents something specific – the thing in which he sees? ‘2 Lions’ is on the very tipping point. This muddle of monochromes hides within two predatory lions threatening abstraction. Then there are his clouds, which I love for their sensuality. These and other scenes from nature (as in ‘Damaged Landscapes (Room 3)’, have a subject matter that have all the aesthetic potential to be abstract because of their vague and changeable forms.

Also in this room we see the artist’s reinvention of Titian’s Annunciation, a rare historical painting (in its traditional, predominately religious sense.) Is there a reason that this religious scene is about to dissolve? Richter did not put much faith in such scenes. There is a sense of the humanity of the beings in the tactical blur that is no different from baby Richter, and his aunt, Ema, Betty and the Reader. The artist makes this transience of time particularly clear when he paints from old family photographs.

I still adore the work of Richter, however changeable his temperament, and however hit-and-miss the paintings within this exhibition are (it is true: we could have done away with around half, and still left with the same sense of the artist). The curators’ critical approach to the discussion between abstraction and realism invites the viewer’s contemplation. And his paintings remain some of the most unique of the last fifty years. It is mostly due to his sensitivity with the brush that his work is so very attractive.


Gerhard Richter’s retrospective is at the Tate until 8 January 2012


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