November 2011; Gerhard Richter: The Last Flicker of Post-War Painting

Gerhard-Richter, Kerze (Candle), 1982, oil on canvas

Gerhard Richter, Panorama
October 6 - January 8, 2012
The Tate Modern

Panorama, the Gerhard Richter exhibition currently on show at Tate Modern currently is a success with audiences – and that is reassuring. It is reassuring that following the blockbusters of the last century’s masters like Gauguin and Miro’, an original contemporary artist like Richter is able to attract similar attention. The exhibition is well curated and most of the works on show are truly exciting. With over a thousand works to choose from, the curatorial tasks involved in this project have been challenging to say the least.

Most importantly, like the abstract expressionist works to which some of his large “squeegee canvasses” could be linked to, demand to be seen in the flesh. Seeing Richter in photograph (an unintentional pun on the nature of his practice) just cannot compare to being in front of the painting itself – too much here happens on the level of surface and that never translates well in photography. Although reviews of the show have been predominantly very positive, I have not yet come across a review that highlights one of the most evident strengths this artist’s body of work demonstrates. Richter is an artistic chameleon able to confidently embrace dramatically different painting styles and to continuously switch from one to the other with incredible competence. Although Tate’s exhibition is arranged in chronological order the overall picture remains fragmented and puzzling. It is almost impossible to make a developmental case for the artists’ technical or conceptual growth, as the early pieces are as piercing as the last from both perspectives. The exhibition continuously takes the viewer through a journey of Richter’s polyphony of artistic voices: op art, pop art, dada, abstract, expressionism, abstract expressionism, figurative, photo-realism and his trademark blur. How many living artists can claim similar fluency along with the ability of creating new painterly languages? Likewise the artists embraces all genres of the classical art historical canon, from portrait to religious and history painting, to landscape and still-life; each secular genre is originally approached and imbued with a new and timeless sensitivity. This is what is particularly special about Richter and simultaneously is what most of his detractors, as well as admirers, seem to forget. It is the vastity of Richter’s technical and conceptual vocabulary that is overwhelming not simply the overall quality of a virtuoso’s works.

Most of Richter’s output is informed by the relationship between photography and painting: a deep crisis in the history of representation that marked the development of 1800 and shattered the reflective mirror of painting forever. Photography’s influence over the early modern history of painting is an extremely fascinating chapter in the history of art book – one that leads to the development of new expressive painterly languages able to speak of subject previously unknown to art. Some of the most loved Impressionists like Degas openly used cameras to create paintings. Others never admitted to using one but the compositional language of their work is visibly affected by the syntax of the new medium. From the late 1800s onward, the relationship between photography and painting resembles the love affair of a couple that periodically embraces and rejects each other. Cubism aimed at distancing painting and photography leading to the birth of abstraction, a place where photography, at least at the beginning of 1900 could not go. But with Cubism came collage and the acknowledgement that the fragmentations of photographic images reorganised on a new representational plane can be considered art. Modernism fell in love with photography as an art form and Surrealism used it as a tool in testing the boundaries of the figurative until pop art reconciled painting and photography through the widespread use of screen-printing and the practice of appropriation. It is therefore interesting to notice that Richter’s’ career pretty much begins here, through the painting of fragments of black and white pages of magazines: adverts and images of consumer goods like cars surrounded by text.

Richter’s encounter with the work of Duchamp in 1965 caused a major stir in the value the painter assigned to conceptualism. From this point onwards we find the artist playing with automatism (in his colour charts painting: Colours, 1974) and deadpan. He even created his own photographically informed version of Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, the famous piece by Duchamp. Here, the idea of movement and time which Duchamp attempted to capture in his painting following the cubist lesson, is aptly replaced by Richter’s own blur; a suggestion of the layering of memory over the passing of time through the application of a photographic effect.

Amongst the most interesting works on show is the cloud triptych – a group of paintings that has not been seen in Europe since the 1970s. These canvasses constitute an ironic homage to Constable and his fascination with the subject matter. Towards the end of the 18th century, Constable was the first artist to obsessively paint clouds en plain air in the attempt of capturing the real essence of the evanescent but three-dimensional masses fluctuating in the sky. Constable captured his clouds on small portable canvases to then transpose his studies on larger works once back in his studio. If only he had been alive towards the end of the 1800's, Constable, like the Impressionists, would have used a camera for this purpose, but he couldn’t, as photography had not yet been invented in his lifetime. It is therefore intriguing to see Richter painting his clouds from photographs he has taken and reaching heights of realism in the rendition of the subject that Constable could have only dreamt of.

Gerhard Richter, Ema Naakt (Nude On A Staircase) 1966 200x130

Then came the 80's and unfortunately with it came the only “out of key note” of the show. Simply titled Mirror, 1981, the unfortunately large rectangle of glass stuck to the gallery wall is just that. It is meant to be a “painting in constant flux unable to avoid representing what it is in front of it”. It has to be noted that Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden (Art and Language) did just that, albeit in a smaller more manageable scale in 1965. Richter’s experimentation with glass began in 1967, but this is perhaps the least original and least exciting of his attempts to use the medium in his work. Most notably, two installations of glass, 6 Panels of Glass in a Rack, 2002-11,  and 11-Scheiben (11-Panels) from 2004 demonstrate the artist’s ability to effectively use reflective surfaces in a much more subtle and sophisticated way.

The 80's room is also where the first large-scale abstract works appear. Unlike those that will follow in the flow of the exhibition, these are garish and are possibly benefitting from the mythical patina the decade has acquired in time (a kind of cultural blur). The clashing of acid green and lilac evokes what only the fashion of the time managed to conjure together over one human body. There is a strange sense of nostalgia hovering over these paintings – the colours speak of an energy and euphoria, a sort of pre-aids reckless joie de vivre that seems now gone. Obliquely placed between the kitsch and the romantic are the artists’ still-lifes. Softly blurred in their silent stillness, the classic memento mori of Kerzen (Candle 1982) and Schädel (Skull, 1983) acquire further emblematic layers.

Gerhard Richter,  Confrontation 1, 1988

A defined rapture in the rhythm of the exhibition is provided by a room entirely dedicated to the Baader Meinhof group series. Although dark and hauntingly claustrophobic, these images demonstrate that if used in certain ways, painting can still be a shocking and controversial medium. The Baader Meinhof group used terrorist means against politicians of the German government who were closely involved with the Nazi regime during the war. The members of the group, all of which are here painted in black and white from original photographs, were arrested and mysteriously died in prison. Although the events took place in the late 70s, the exhibiting of Richter’s paintings in the late 1980s re-ignited debate over the unsolved and uncomfortable situation. This series constitutes a unique re-invention of the history genre; one that like the Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19, by Gericault worked as a catalyst for debate and prevented memory from allowing to forget.

Cage, the outstanding series of large canvases inspired by the experimental American composer are placed outside the outline of the exhibition located as a bonus track in a greatest hits CD. This series from 2006 belongs to the Tate and is usually on view for free on Level 3 (Material Gestures). It seems obvious that the Tate wanted to preserve its free status whilst connecting it to the rest of the show. The six canvases of which the series is comprised are some of the best examples of Richter’s technique where the use of a custom made giant squeegee allows the artist to create unique effects as paint is exposed for the material qualities that classical art always aimed at hiding. Directly related to the famous piece “4’,33”” by Cage which consists of silence in which the ambient noise of an auditorium and the audience in it becomes the work of art, Richter empowers his viewers allowing them to take center stage in the personal meaning-making of the series. This  is the overall feeling one is left with after seeing the exhibition – bombarded by a number of images that are simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, quiet and loud, concise and elusive – Richter’s work takes the viewer on a journey of discovery of one’s boundaries, challenging the preconceived understanding of what painting and photography are, what they can be and what they may be in the future.

                                                                                          
 

 

Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.
giovanni.aloi@googlemail.com
 

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