Work

by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Gerhard Richter

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The work of many artists can, at least in ret­ro­spect, be divided up into distinct periods, with shifts or gradual moves towards new subject matter, novel tech­n­iques or fresh artistic pre­oc­cu­pa­tions taken up, revised and abandoned. That pro­gres­sion from one mode to the next does not apply to Gerhard Richter. Pick almost any span of time in the past 40-odd years, and you might find Richter making eerily pho­t­oreal­ist­ic work, Pop ap­pro­pri­a­tions of found imagery, min­im­al­ist mono­chromes, vibrant abstract Im­pres­sion­ist pieces on a massive scale, delicate landscape studies or elegiac, intimate portraits.

At first, this makes for a be­wil­der­ing ex­per­i­ence - it is often hard to believe the works gathered here are the product of one hand - but for all the in­con­s­ist­ency on the surface, one thing is constant: Richter is in the business of painting; a long, rigorous in­vest­ig­a­tion of the pos­s­ib­il­it­ies of his chosen medium, from the ways in which paint might be applied to a canvas, to the nature of things in the world recreated by a painter.

The earliest works look like Pop Art, but, while Richter followed Warhol or Licht­en­stein in taking imagery from popular culture, he’s not in­ter­es­ted in elevating and cel­e­b­rat­ing the Coke bottle or the cartoon, instead exploring what a painter can do with an ap­pro­pri­ated image. Cow is drawn from a children’s book, the animal and its name precisely copied; Dead shows a partial newspaper headline above a pho­to­graph of a man crushed by a huge block of ice; Mustang Squadron and XL 513 see fighter jets re­pro­duced from magazine il­lus­tra­tions.

Family at the Sea is taken from a snapshot of Richter’s then wife as a child, while Motor Boat (1st Version) sees a jolly gang of friends speeding across a bay. All these works are paintings of pho­to­graphs or il­lus­tra­tions. Richter paints the white border of Family at the Sea and makes sure we can see the guidelines he drew when copying his Cow, but each of them bears distinct traces of Richter the painter, from the Futurist-inspired speed lines that trail the aer­o­planes to the blur applied to the surface of the speedboat crew, a tactic that fast becomes a Richter trademark, present in works from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Next come the abstracts of the 1980s, huge works full of eye-popping colour, with paint spread in dense layers only to be removed, revealing the pro­gres­sion from blank canvas to completed work. These are not just abstract paintings, but a com­ment­ary on abstract painting. Richter has no time for the boozy heroics of Jackson Pollock; instead, he has developed a series of actions and processes to produce abstract images em­phas­ised by his layering and removal of paint.

There are layers of satire, too, with Richter un­der­min­ing the anarchic, intense ste­r­eo­types of abstract ex­pres­sion­ism with his precise ma­n­ip­u­la­tion of surfaces, and pointing wryly to the blurring of his paintings from pho­to­graphs each time he scrapes his squeegee across a canvas to form a hard-edged line.

Richter’s interest in handling paint is more clearly stated in his grey paintings. A series from the 1970s are all a dim, dark grey, and seen from across the room appear identical. Up close, one is de­l­ic­ately stippled; another has been painted with bold strokes with a big house­p­ain­t­er­’s brush; a third is patchy, with silky areas con­tras­ted with thick globs of paint; and a 2003 reprise bears a sug­ges­tion of a grid.

These powerful mono­chromes are matched to studies of colour. Red-Blue-Yellow (Reddish) and Red-Blue-Yellow (Greenish) are the result of primary colours applied in orderly swirls until they blend together. Untitled (Green) sees the ex­per­i­ment repeated, with shades of one colour.

Similar man­oeuvres are employed in re­p­res­ent­a­tion­al works, too. Buhler Heights is a pro­gres­sion of four paintings, beginning with a misty, bucolic landscape and ending with ho­r­i­zont­al lines of colour that suggest the same scene. Another grouping takes identical prints of a multiple exposure pho­to­graph­ic self-portrait, adding in­creas­ing amounts of red paint until Richter and his studio are ob­l­it­er­ated.

For all his ex­per­i­ment­a­tion, Richter is a tra­di­tion­al­ist. Farm, a small work from 1999, bears the surface blur, but is composed according to a grid. Candle, from 1982, is a breath­tak­ing study, a display of skill that in its subject matter owes a debt to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Small Bather matches the blur technique with a pose borrowed from Ingres, while Seascape, an im­pos­s­ible scene based on a composite pho­to­graph, takes on Turner at his own game. In lesser hands, these would be acts of hubris, heroic failures at best, but Richter pulls it off, thanks to some sublime draught­s­man­ship.

Ul­ti­m­ately, though, there is something terribly cool and rigid about the Richter project, a fact reflected in his Wer­k­ver­zeich­n­is, an ex­haust­ive register of works last updated in 2005, each one re­pro­duced at the same scale, ordered and numbered in sequence, and the Atlas, a vast com­pen­di­um of source materials collected over the years, grouped together them­at­ic­ally on more than 700 panels. It is im­pos­s­ible to avoid Richter’s pseudo-sci­en­ti­f­ic approach to his own oeuvre in this ex­hib­i­tion, and it threatens to overwhelm the in­di­vi­du­al works. A given painting might make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you stand before it, but that immediate feeling is easily flattened by Richter’s careful, studious, almost re­lent­lessly sys­tem­at­ic approach, his ongoing formal inquiry into the nature of his craft.

The result is that, though there is no doubt Richter is a great painter, this ret­ro­spect­ive ends up being less than the sum of its parts, with the paintings gathered here strug­gling under their own col­lect­ive weight, each one a paragraph in a long essay on painting. Visitors will likely leave the National Gallery en­lightened and educated, but unmoved.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 14th November, 2008.