BEFORE THE TATE:
Some argue Gerhard Richter is the world’s greatest living painter. What is indisputable is that he, more than anyone else, has made painting once again vitally relevant to an international artworld seemingly in thrall to installation and digital media. And, remarkably, he has achieved this without ever resorting to retrogressive revivalism. As this extensive show of over 60 works on loan from private collections will prove, Richter’s painting is highly intelligent and deeply sensuous, conceptually questioning and a pure celebration of the unpredictable delights that can come about when paint is pushed around. Before Richter, figurative and abstract painting were considered to be mutually exclusive. Yet he is a master at both. Richter touches on politically sensitive imagery in super-realist detail one instance and is off on spaced-out abstract reveries the next. Inspiring.
Gerhard Richter:Forty Years of Painting
Somewhere in March 2002, The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), showed the first full-scale survey in New York City devoted to the work of German artist Gerhard Richter (born 1932), one of the most influential painters working today. Included where some 180 paintings from every phase of Richter’s career, from 1962 to today, ranging from photography-based pictures to gestural abstraction. Also on view was Richter’s cycle of 15 black-and-white paintings titled October 18, 1977 (1988), based on press photographs of the Baader–Meinhof group. The exhibition was organised by Robert Storr, Senior Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture.
In his foreward to the catalogue, Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, provides the following commentary about the artist:
“No other artist has placed more intriguing and rigorous demands upon specialists, interpreters, followers, and average viewers alike – nor upon himself. Richter is the author of pictures so different from one another that at first glance they seem to be by different hands. He has defined a vast pictorial and conceptual territory for himself, and has given it specific dimensions in canvases that vary from Photo-Realist figuration to total abstraction, from snapshot and postcard banality to transcendence, and from serene or pyrotechnic beauty to brooding austerity. Aproaching this maze of paintings can be confusing at first, but the more one looks and the more the overt contradictions and subtle continuities of Richter’s oeuvre take on substance, the more enlightening the experience becomes. In Richter’s work there is pleasure and pain, sly wit and high seriousness, but above all there is a demonstration of the way in which painting’s resources are constantly replenished by the very problems it seems to pose, both for the painter and the viewer. Nobody in our own time has posed them better or solved them more inventively than Richter.”
Richter manipulates reproductions of images from sources as diverse as encyclopaedias, magazines and newspapers, transforming them into cultural archetypes. The previously mentioned stag alludes to the German fascination with the wild, symbolized by the forest and the deer, a direct descendent of Nordic legend and Romanticism. “For us Germans in particular,” explains Richter, “relating to forests as strongly as we do, the stag does of course have a symbolic quality. I wanted to be a forester when I was young, and I was really excited when I found a real stag in the forest and took a photograph. Later I painted him, and the painting was a bit less romantic than my youthful photograph.”
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, grew up under National Socialism and lived under East German Communism for 16 years before moving to West Germany in 1961. Here, he discovered Neo-Dada, Art Informel and Fluxus and formed an off-shoot of Pop called “Capitalist Realism” with his friends Sigmar Polke and Konrad Leug: this was the only “movment” to which Richter ever belonged, and it was brief. His greatest contribution to postwar art has been his pioneering of realism through paintings copied from photographs. Choosing to walk alone he has also created sumptuous abstracts and Neo-Expressionist imagery. Richter’s aversion to “groups” or schools or ideologies of any kind is a byproduct of the experiences of his youth.
Richter’s images have regularly appeared in European shows for the past twenty years, but a major retrospective of his work at MOMA, is a confirmation of just how important Richter is now considered by the powers that “make and break” in the art world. His personal “history” is a fascinating read on its own, and an eerie reminder of how the world repeats negative patterns.
Ironically, the candle paintings for which he is now famous were poorly received in the early 1980s when they were first exhibited, mainly because Richter was then immersed in vividly hued abstracts. The sudden lane change to realistic subject matter in a painterly style infuriated the avant garde. “Of the six I showed none sold. They later became so expensive,” notes Richter with a laugh in his interview with Storr. The one “constant” however, besides aggravating people, in Richter’s stylistically ricocheting career, are the abstract paintings, which grow more lyrical and exotically hued as he gets older.
From the Pop Art and Photo-Realism of Richter’s early 1960’s work, which some have compared with sepia family photos, but they are newer, more edgy than that, the clinical gray canvases, gestural paintings of the 1970s, photo-based still lifes and landscapes of the 1980s, and the haunting and often sad portraits and equally uplifting abstractions of the past 15 years, Richter has done it all , creating a prolific body of work as daunting in size as it is in diversity. Defining his work in words is a monumental exercise in the powers of concentration and analysis.
At first glance, Richter’s early paintings look like ghostly Warhols, with the pigment drained out of them, and the emotional connection between these two artists persists throughout the show. Both employed different methods to “mechanize” their work: Warhol, by silk-screening: Richter, by mechanical “wiping,” and both borrowed freely from ready-made images in newspapers, magazines and photographs. By force of circumstances, Richter was unable to express himself as wildly and exuberantly as Warhol. Both artists assimilated the public’s strange and horrible fascination with suffering and media exploitation of it. Richter is as immune to this fetish as he is to the constraints of fashion or the expectations of the avant garde elite.
Warhol and Richter both painted Jackie Kennedy in mourning, but Richter’s Jackie (“Lady with Umbrella,” oil on canvas, 63 by 37 3/8 inches, 1964, Daros Collection, Switzerland) is painted from a newspaper photo taken moments after her husband was killed; contrary to Warhol’s “resolute” widow images of Jackie, Richter’s version is of a grief-stricken woman. “…it is notably discrete by comparison to Warhol’s many treatments of the same subject – her hand covers half of her face and her name does not appear in the title – and more subtly emotional than Warhol’s high contrast, grainy silhouettes of the bravely tearful first lady. Taking advantage of the iconic nature of the source as his foil, Richter turns things around to give us a respectfully distant, gently brushed, almost tender likeness of a grieving woman,” wrote Storr in the catalogue.
Both artists were obsessed with death and history – as portrayed in the media – turning ordinary human beings and everyday happenings into the modern equivalent of “history painting.” It was no longer necessary to be an important person, place or thing to be painted. Warhol has his soup cans. Richter his toilet paper rolls. The most obvious difference between them is that Warhol had a consistent Pop Art style and his silk-screens were colorful, while there is absolutely no artistic “pigeon hole” in which to slot Richter and his misty palette, or “sfumato,” denies excessive use of color, except in his gestural abstracts, which take color to its optimal brilliance and contrast. Richter uses paint like a genie, his oils achieving magical nuances as they are dragged across complimentary colors on slick aluminum or smudged and smeared in delicate gradations of gray and white tinged with pink or lilac, where Warhol deliberately mechanized and flattened the painterly aspect of his colors through the silkscreen process. Warhol’s style was easy to classify, but Richter’s is not.
Richter admits that he likes Warhol’s “Disaster” paintings and provides the following interesting commentary in the catalogue’s interview with him and Mr. Storr:
“I believe that the quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate on the essential. The hyperrealists didn’t do that; they painting everything, every detail. That’s why they were such a surprise. But for me it was obvious that I had to wipe out the details. I was happy to have a method that was rather mechanical. In that regard I owe something to Warhol. He legitimized the mechanical. He showed me how it is done. It is a normal state of working, to eliminate things. but Warhol showed me this modern way of letting details disappear, or at least he validated its possiblities. He did it with silkscreening and photography, and I did it through mehanical wiping. It was a very liberating act.”
When Richter was questioned by Storr why, in the midst of painting abstracts, he suddenly began copying Titian and creating romantic landscapes, Richter was candid: “the assertion of my freedom: ‘Why shouldn’t I paint like this and who could tell me not to? And then the affirmation was naturally there, the wish to paint paintings as beautiful as those by Caspar David Friedrich, to claim that this time is not lost but possible, that we need it, and that it is good. And it was a polemic against modern art, against tin art, against “wild art” and for freedom, that I could do whatever I wanted to.'” For a man who had been so constrained in his formative years, the idea of not having the choice to do something made it the very thing he had to do. As this body of work at the MOMA shows, it became one of major points he set out to prove.
Knowing the circumstances of Richter’s “history” will reveal why freedom is such a big deal with him and no small wonder the young flock to see his paintings. A young Columbia graduate at the exhibition in New York expressed genuine surprise at how much he loved the show, and the endless lines at MOMA were packed with young people. In the galleries, there were more young people in clusters, arm in arm, staring fixedly at bombers, swirling abstracts, seascapes and slain terrorists in clothes and hairstyles reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, which somehow blend perfectly with Richter’s work. Misty images of toilet paper, as tenderly and meticulously painted in 1965 as a still life by Chardin, were especially fascinating. Needless to say the toilet paper images are not as banal as they seem, as an ensuing conversation will show: “It is important!” declares Richter.
In his “iconography of the everyday” toilet paper, light fixtures, kitchen chairs, Richter turns the tables on conventional expectations. The toilet paper is portrayed importantly, in two cases in a quasi-Romantic glow that pre-date the glow of his early 70s paintings, which it is as a symbol of a new and affluent consumerism and consumer goods. But in his 1965 painting of a chandelier entitled “Flemish Crown,” Richter does not wish to make the chandelier important, because of the bourgeois values it represents. There is, of course, a little gamesmanship going on. The chandelier picture has only one subject, the chandelier, so it is not unimportant, even if it is not a terribly flamboyant chandelier. Indeed, in the extended interview printed in the catalogue, Richter describes the chandelier as “a monster” and he also calls it “banal” and terrrifying. “I didn’t have to distort faces. It is much scarier to paint people’s faces as banal as I find them in photographs. That is what makes the banal more than just banal.” “The Flemish Crown is a piece of a larger reality that is frightening, not a symbol of something but part of the thing itself,” Storr declared, to which Richter responded that “it is an image of this horror, a detail of it.” “Of ugliness?” Storr asked. “Of the misery of this world,” Richter laughingly responded, adding “Perhaps this special culture…a petit bourgeois culture…And although it was terrible, it was never meant to be an accusation.”
Richter’s yearning for the painterly excellence of the past as in Old Master paintings is palpable and he pines nostalgically for those bygone days: “I feel close to this idea of seeing the pain and loss in the world. I can’t paint as well as Vermeer – we have lost this beautiful culture, all the utopias are shattered, everything goes down the drain, the wonderful time of painting is over.” That might sound melodramatic and contradictory but Richter is dead serious: “I still want to paint something like Vermeer. But it is the wrong time and I cannot do it. I am too dumb. Well, I am not able to.” He does not rate his technical abilities very highly compared with the Old Masters, and perhaps his paintings are the swan song of figurative art, as video art, computer art and digital cameras revolutionize our youth, capturing their attention for hours which were once spent doodling or sketching or painting or playing ball. But, if the enthusiasm of the young folks at the MOMA show is anything to go by, maybe Richter can revive figurative painting.
THE ROBERT STORR INTERVIEW
The philosopher Roland Barthes has offered further insights into Richter: “He is troubled by an image of himself, suffers when he is named. He finds the perfection of the human relationship in the vacancy of the image: to abolish in oneself, between oneself and others adjectives; a relationship which adjectivises is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death.” So many of Richter’s images are stalked by the inevitability of death. Storr continues: “Although Richter seemingly had sided with the image, and many of his images were death-haunted, his motivation and reasoning essentially parallel those of Barthes, resulting in a pictorial language, which, throwing off domination and violence, ‘had been stripped of adjectives.'” Richter’s demeanor, even in a setting as fraught with superficialities as a press preview, exuded gentleness and total non-violence quietly. The most powerful thing about Richter’s rebelliousness is its softness. Like the smearing and smudging of the paint turned into mist on his canvases. There are no bullets, angry slashes of paint, bombs, shouts and clenched fists in Richter’s work. There is instead an unnerving, determined gentleness.
Contrasting with the public images of prostitutes, terrorists, nurses, and bathing beauties are Richter’s private portraits. He has gone on record as saying: “I believe the painter mustn’t see or know the model at all, that nothing of the ‘soul, the essence, the character of the model should be expressed. Also a painter shouldn’t see a model in a particular, personal way because one certainly cannot paint a specific individual but only a painting, which however, has nothing to do with the model.” Richter cites the presence of chairs and other household paraphernalia in classical vanitas pictures of skulls; back then, the banal “snapshot” was an icon for the inevitable battle against death.
As photography took over painting’s historical function of representing reality Richter wrote: “At the same time, photography took on a religious function. Everyone has produced his own ‘devotional pictures.’ These are the likeness of family and friends, preserved in the likeness of them.” The glamorous, 1965 “Woman Descending the Staircase,” based on a magazine photo, is juxtaposed in “Atlas: Panel 13” with an unglamorous secretary, who he also painted. In 1966, he painted Ema (“Nude on a Staircase”). The titles refer to Duchamp’s iconoclastic “Nude Descending a Staircase” of 1912, but the naturalistic “Ema” was counter-iconoclastic. Ema was his wife, tenderly painted form a photograph he took fully intending to paint from it (not a “found” object or a picture in a magazine) and the pose was decidedly classical even though it was inspired by the anti-classical Duchamp original
“Uncle Rudi,” oil on canvas, 1965, The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Prague, Lidice Collection
Richter painted two other family members, “Uncle Rudi” (1965, The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Prague, Lidice Collection) and “Aunt Marianne” ( 1965), and the man who was to be identified as her executioner, “Mr. Heyde,” (1965, Private Collection). The portrait of his uncle captures “the Nazi in the family”: “He was young and very stupid and then he went to war and was killed during the first days. Uncle Rudi represented a generation of Germans who willingly participated in its own destruction and the destructions of the millions it tried to dominate.” Richter donated this painting to the Czech Museum of Fine Arts in memory of the terrible atrocities committed by German troops at Lidice, Czechoslovakia. Tragically, Richter’s Aunt Marianne, also died at the hands of German executioners; she was killed by Nazi Doctors in a system of large-scale “euthenasia” designed to eliminate the chronically ill, the retarded and the insane.
The link to the innocuous “Mr. Heyde” is that he had pioneered the gassing technique used in the “Final Solution” of elimination of all undesireables. He lived, as “the murderer among us” from the end of the war till he was exposed in 1959. Richter painted “Mr. Heyde” several years later and points a finger with customary restraint, highlighting the horror of his neighborly demeanor: “Who would ever have guessed? Who can we trust among us?” is the underlying question.
These three paintings narrow the gap between personal experience and public reality, between an unpleasant and painful, guilt-infected past and a present dependent on selective memory: “There is nothing in German painting at the time that presents the continued Nazi penetration of daily life so matter-of-factly, so unflinchingly, or from so many sides of the German experience,” Mr. Storr wrote, adding that “More so than any Pop Artist or Photo-Realist of the time, Richter used the working premise of the inventory to assess contemporary reality from top to bottom, revamping the traditional genres.” Storr continues: “Transposing the frozen action of the photograph into the enduring but temporally ambiguous realm of painting, Richter fastened on the emblems and ephemera of post-war life and distilled their often bitter essence in tonal pictures whose poetry is a combination of matter-of-fact watchfulness and unrelieved uncertainty.”
In his most formative years Richter was wedged in by the incomprehensible regime of the Nazis and the pounding of his home city, Dresden, by Allied Bombers, which was finally reduced to rubble by the end of World War II. Then along came the Russian Communists, who were not tolerant of “free” or “expressive” art. From this perspective, it is easy to understand Richter’s guardedness and skepticism which is why so many of his paintings stir deep pathos in the viewer. Besides the death-haunted clouds which hover over Richter’s most important paintings, there is a sense of mourning for the loss of innocence and ideals – like the “October 17” series, and the haunting “Betty,” staring at a foreboding grey cloud which threatens to engulf her optimism and youthful ideals.
Richter responds by pointing out that at that time paintings of American bombers by a German artist was forbidden, and the only way to paint them was as a joke, like a Pop Art painting. “You didn’t paint it as a joke” retorted Storr, to which Richter lets down his guard enough to admit “No, but I was satisfied that it was taken as such. I would have been embarrassed if it were too serious. It was not an accusation: I wasn’t accusing the Americans. I never wanted to accuse anything, except life maybe….” Humour and satire have often been the refuge of the disenchanted: Richter’s “jokes” tell complex stories.
In the same interview with Storr, Richter reminisces about the 60s: “We (artists influenced by Pop Art) refused to take anything seriously. That was important for survival. We were unable to see the statement in the work, neither the audience nor me. We rejected it: it didn’t exist. Part of the reason was that there existed a different kind of painting, and (Georg) Baselitz was the right man for that German tradition. People thought my painting was somehow modern, but they couldn’t admit it had any kind of quality. Instead it was somehow funny but copied from the Americans. So people thought that we were traitors. Baselitz said to me: ‘You have betrayed your fatherland.'” When asked by Storr what Baselitz meant by traitor Richter responded: “That I was giving in to the international style, but he remained a German. That’s how it was.”
While the controversial subject matter of the Nazi inheritance passed the critics without intense debate, it was in the realm of landscape painting that Richter drew the most fire in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, no avant garde artist would have dared to have painted landscapes from their own snapshots, or from souvenir postcards like “Himalaya,” (1968, Collection Gilberto Sandretto). The unassuming landscapes were provocative because they exuded a neo-romantic air, although Richter had no intention of reviving a return to romanticism: every attempt at pigeon-holing was futile. “Richter,” Mr. Storr noted, “caused a disturbance by quietly making paintings that resisted every attempt to fit them into existing categories or to explain them away as deliberately insincere exercises in formal and pictorial anachronism.”
CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH & TITIAN
Despite these truthful protestations, there is no doubt that the Dresden artist, Caspar David Friedrich, greatly influenced Richter as a student; the contrast between Friedrich’s brittle, sharply focused views and Richter’s diffused portrayals of landscape, (without a stand-in for the viewer), are nevertheless linked by Richter’s need to express his right to paint as he wishes, like Fredrich if necessary, and to prepare to re-interpret the type of landscape painting which he has revived. Richter plainly states opinions which ring with Romantic sentiments: “I believe that art has a kind of rightness, as in music, when we hear whether or not a note is false. And that’s why classical pictures, which are right in their own terms, are so necessary for me. In addition to that there’s nature which also has this ‘rightness.'” Characteristically, Richter also stresses an awareness of the “wrongness” of nature (unlike the great Romantics whose focus was harmony) of nature, with its utter disregard for human needs, wants and fears.
“Barn,” 1984, Collection Massimo Martino Fine Arts and Projects, Mendrisioo, Switzerland
Bucolic “Barn,” (1984, Collection Massimo Martino Fine Arts and Projects, Mendrisioo, Switzerland) and “Meadowland,” (1985, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), are beautiful, but they shut the viewer or the admirer of nature out. The longing to merge harmoniously with Richter’s scenes will never be fulfilled; they are not intended as “retreats” into the sublime, or escapes. His paintings make it clear that these nirvanas exist only in the “longing” mind of the viewer: “My landscapes are not only beautiful, or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all ‘untruthful.’ By ‘untruthful,’ I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature. Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless, the total antithesis of ourselves.” Richter also notes matter-of-factly that his landscapes lack the spiritual basis that underpinned Romantic painting but they offer solace to those who still yearn for the comfort of nature, even those who do not believe in an omnipresent God.
Selection of Adrian Searle article for the Guardian: Tenderness and Terror, the Tate’s Gerhard Richter retrospective
“Curated by Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey, this show sets up all sorts of telling juxtapositions, while following the thread not just of Richter’s thinking, but of history – and in particular German history – since the second world war. We go from the saturation bombing of Dresden and Cologne to 1960s West German consumerism, from 1970s domestic terrorism to 9/11. There are paintings devoted to Richter’s parents, his aunts and uncles, and what happened to them in wartime. There are paintings devoted to his children, and to becoming a father again in his 60s. He confronts the personal with the public, one kind of history with another.”
“Often Richter’s paintings are based on photographs: his father Horst, moon-faced with jutting-out hair, cradling a dog; smiling Aunt Marianne with the infant Gerhard, looking less than happy. Richter’s maternal aunt was mentally ill, eventually institutionalised, and killed in the Nazi’s eugenics programme. Here’s Uncle Rudi, the grinning soldier in his great coat, dead in the first days of the war. On another wall, in glowing colour, a group of Nubians, whose image comes from a Leni Riefenstahl photograph. And there two couples, almost naked, enjoy the freedoms of the permissive age. My God, I think, looking from picture to picture, how the world turns. Almost the first thing you see in the show is a painting of a man crushed to death by a great block of stone. Tote, it says on the canvas: dead. Images and symbols of death keep coming back, even in the blankness of Richter’s most mute abstractions.2
“That’s one way of telling the story. His art also reflects his encounters with other artists: Joseph Beuys, a side-on painting of an old chair, like the one Beuys sat a wedge of fat upon; and Marcel Duchamp, a painting of Richter’s first wife, naked, walking downstairs, in memory of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Nearby hangs a little grisaille study of a roll of toilet paper dangling on a wall, a distant joking recall of Duchamp’s urinal. Why not a bog roll? It has a dumb kind of everyday presence, as much as Manet’s sticks of asparagus or Chardin’s cloves of garlic. It hangs there, waiting, with as much or as little dignity as anything else. Richter sees it with a careful, affectless eye.” A.Searle
Next A. Searle gives us an expressive account of Richter’s work in the following video, for The Guardian.
In the Studio With Gerhard Richter