The death of painting has been predicted so often that it’s surprising anyone should still nail their colors to that particular mast. Yet this first major retrospective, since 1991, by the German painter Gerhard Richter, shows his ongoing preoccupation with the possibilities of painting, and his belief that, like dancing or singing, it is “one of the most basic human capacities.” As its title, “Panorama,” suggests, the exhibition takes an overviewof his oeuvre. This is presented, not as a thesis, but as a debate. Ongoing possibilities and new beginnings are characterized by the oppositions that occur between abstraction and figuration, painting and photography, the poignant and the banal. No definitive readings are offered. Rather questions are posed which examine painting’s responses to the disasters of history and the tension between skepticism and ideology. Richter is reluctant to speak of what he does, quoting the composer, John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”
Each room at Tate Modern is devoted to a particular moment in Richter’s career from the photopaintings of the 1960s to his monumental Cage paintings, completed in 2006 and shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007, where the surfaces have been animated by the application of a squeegee. While focused on painting, the exhibition also includes glass constructions, mirrors, drawings and photographs that all, in some way, refer to and extend his practice as a painter. The relevance of Richter’s early years in the East – he was born in Dresden — and his “relocation” in 1961 to the West where he studied in Düsseldorf and encountered the spawning of new avant-gardes such as Fluxus and Pop, is at the root of these oppositions.
In the ’60s he began to use readymade photographs as the basis for his paintings. This was both a rejection of the current overarching dominance of abstraction, and a response to the plethora of Western media that assaulted him. The profound impact of Duchamp resulted in paintings such as the beautifully sensitive Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966. Richter also began to confront Germany’s largely unacknowledged Nazi past, painting family members who had been both supporters, as well as victims, of National Socialism. His Uncle Rudi (1965), dressed in his Wehrmacht uniform, executed in monochromatic grays, has the potency of old newsprint. This blurring of imagery, like a still from a grainy black-and-white TV, is used again in his “October, 18, 1977” series of the Baader Meinhof: a radical group active in West Germany in the late ’60s and ’70s, who were motivated into direct action by the belief that many former Nazis still held power. These hazy images seem to exist somewhere between actuality and dream. Like the narratives of the German writer W.G. Sebald, Richter invites us to look through a glass darkly, so that images float into our consciousness like lost memories.
Aunt Marianne [Tante Marianne] 1965
His “damaged landscapes” of the late ’60s employ a heavier impasto so that his cities and landscapes appear to disintegrate into abstraction as the viewer approaches. Many of these seascapes and mountains look back toward the German Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, but Richter’s work is imbued with a sense of melancholy that the chasm of modernity separates from the Romantic vision. It is as though — like Rothko — he’s fundamentally attracted to the idea of the transcendental, while acknowledging the impossibility of such a position: “If you grow up first in a Nazi system and then under a Communist system … that’s enough to make anyone skeptical,” he has said. Yet, despite this skepticism, he acknowledges “that we can’t exist without some form of belief in things. We need it … even as an atheist, I believe. We’re just built that way.”
Yet, for all his life experience and the diversity of his artistic approach, Richter eschews irony and cynicism. At times his work is highly charged, at others more banal, functioning as two sides of an argument. Monochromatic gray paintings sit alongside multicolored grids. Some works are meticulously planned, while others are the result more of chance. What this powerful exhibition shows is a subtle sensibility grappling with what it means to be alive during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Theodor Adorno claimed it was not possible to create lyric poetry (or art) after the Holocaust. But Richter makes a case for attempting to do so. When asked what the purpose of art is, he answers: “For surviving the world. One of many, many … like bread, like love.”
Gerhard Richter Panorama is at Tate Modern from 6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012
22 Nov/Dec 2011 artillery
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Images © Gerhard Richter