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.