by Ann Jones
Gerhard Richter is often described as the greatest living painter – certainly he is the most expensive – but it’s easy for such superlatives to get in the way of the work, especially work that poses questions and needs consideration and concentration rather than reverence. Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern offers much more than a retrospective of his career – above all its about his exploration of paint both as his raw material and as a medium whose relevance has not always been accepted during his long career. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Richter exhibition I didn’t like but nonetheless I approached the Tate show with caution: I would hate to hate Richter, even mild disappointment at a show that couldn’t live up to expectations would hurt, and I’m usually not much of a fan of chronological arrangements.
In the end my first visit to the exhibition was brief; I walked through the show quickly after a screening of Corinna Belz’s fascinating documentary Gerhard Richter – Painting, a dialogue between the artist and his materials which offers real insight into Richter’s working methods, but also into his inability to articulate how he knows when a painting is finished (there seemed to me to be a certain generosity in allowing the camera access given that Richter seemed to find its presence intrusive, but the result is an interesting portrait). On that walkthrough, I’m pretty sure I exclaimed “Oh. I love that painting!” out loud a couple of times. When I saw the painting of Richter’s daughter, I may have added “Aah. Betty.” From that first quick look, I knew that many of Richter’s most familiar works were there (his painting of Jackie Kennedy perhaps the most notable omission for me) along with others I’d known about but only seen in reproduction. There were also surprises – both good and bad – the squeegee paintings of the 1980s reinforced the idea (brought to the fore by the worst excesses of design on show in the V&A’s Postmodernism: style and subversion 1970 – 1990) that that was a decade with a lot to answer for aesthetically, and what poor Betty had done to deserve being stuck in a room full of them I have no idea.
Richter’s work fascinates me for many reasons. There are many artists who work from photographs as source material for paintings – as The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery in 2007 amply demonstrated – but few for whom painting and photography are so inextricably linked. It’s possible to link Richter’s squeegee paintings to Jackson Pollock’s action painting: although Richter’s approach is more restrained in some respects, and possibly more technical, it’s no less physical and no less intuitive. In these paintings, just as much as in the finest of his portraits, Richter’s understanding of the way paint behaves is crucial, his knowledge of the way different paints will dry allowing him to peel back surfaces revealing earlier layers.
The scale of Panorama, coupled with the chronological approach makes Richter’s commitment to, and mastery of, painting clearly apparent. This though is ultimately not what interests me the most. That’s his incessant exploration of the relationship between painting and photography. Painting from his own photographs and photographing his own brushstrokes lets Richter lose himself in an extraordinary loop of image making, with photographs being the subject of paintings which themselves become the subject of photographs only to be painted again. Some of the works that surprised me the most were paintings made from photographs of brushstrokes; tiny sections of large paintings becoming large paintings in their own right.
The use of small newspaper photographs or postcards as the starting point for often quite large paintings gives some of these paintings a beautiful softness that somehow strengthens rather than compromising the images. The vast bank of photographs – both gathered and made – that forms Richter’s Atlas (part of which was shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2003) feeds Richter’s imagination and allows images to get under his skin; there are often several years between the photograph and the painting he makes from it. Sometimes the significance of the image is too great; it seems Richter needs time to process major events, responding several years later with paintings that serve as reminders and offer questions and but not necessarily answers.
And sometimes the least significant photographs become the most compelling paintings. I have an unreasonable love for Richter’s toilet roll paintings, one of which is shown here in the same room as his Nude on a staircase – a beautiful and naturalistic direct challenge to Duchamp’s painting Nude descending a staircase, itself a challenge to Cubism’s inability to deal with movement – along with a glass work simultaneously critiquing Duchamp on several fronts.
For all the beauty of the painting though – and the cloud series, just to pick one example, is sublime – it is the content that bowls me over. In an age dominated by lens-based media, where news reaches us via newspapers and television – and now still more immediately via the internet – painting isn’t the obvious choice of medium for an artist to use to talk about history, politics or current affairs, yet this is something Richter has repeatedly chosen to do and it is here that his work becomes the most moving. Panorama includes three paintings, or gatherings of paintings, that make my spine tingle.
The first of these catches me unawares in the back corner of room 1. Here a series of paintings made in 1965, decades after the events depicted, deals with the unspeakably awful history of Nazi Germany and Richter’s own family’s place within it. Side by side hang two works, one a painting of Richter as a baby in the arms of his Aunt Marianne, the other a photograph of a painting of his Uncle Rudi in military uniform, smiling, apparently happy to be going to war and here representing the Germans who willingly participated in the destruction of the Nazi era. Richter describes uncle Rudi as having been young and stupid; he was killed early in the war. The work here is a photograph of the 1965 painting (which Richter donated to the Czech Museum of Fine Arts in in memory of the atrocities committed by the Germans at Lidice); it stands in for the painting but an additional coldness emanates from the photographic surface. The painting of Aunt Marianne is warmer and softer; this offers a tender moment but an imperfect memory: Marianne and the baby Gerhard blur into one another. There is warmth here – this is a distant memory of a family in happy times – but there is also imprecision. The memory is as indistinct as the family photograph from which it was constructed and the painting which gives it form here. Marianne suffered from mental illness. She was sterilised – possibly by Richter’s first father-in-law Heinrich Eufinger – and later killed as part of the Nazi eugenics programme. Though Richter apparently didn’t know the true story of his aunt’s death until after making the painting, there is a real resonance here especially when the work is placed next to the image of smiling, naive uncle Rudi. As if this juxtaposition wasn’t enough – and it is, for me it’s the most arresting moment of the exhibition – on an adjacent wall there’s a painting of Herr Heyde who developed the gassing technique used in the concentration camps.
Later in the exhibition, the work 18 October 1977 confronts us with the fate of the Baader Meinhof gang three of whom died on that day. A series of fifteen paintings always shown as one work but without a fixed sequence, this work confronts us with the images of principle members of the Baader Meinhof gang made from photographs and with all the imperfections associated with newspaper and police photographs enlarged beyond the level of detail they contain. The work offers no clear take on the ideology of the gang, nor on the question of whether their deaths were suicide or state killings, but in the starkness of the blurry black and white paintings there’s a sense of sadness at the outcome. Richter sees this set of paintings as a single work but in refusing to impose an order on it he allows it to be seen afresh according to the reading of the curator who determines the sequence. Here then, painting is taking on subject matter it’s not generally seen as able to deal with and making a strength of the inherent imprecision.
In the final room – or the penultimate room, if one counts the Cage paintings shown the other side of the shop and cafe – unobtrusively sited and modest in scale, is Richter’s representation of September the 11th. On a plane to New York at the time (diverted to Canada), it took Richter four years to make work about the attack on the World Trade Center. The painting shows the twin towers after the second plane hit but without the fireball so familiar from the news reports and photographs of the time. The towers are indistinct in the smoke and the surface of the paint is cut into; the disruption of the awful familiarity of the image somehow gives it a new power and I find my attention held by it in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.
In the same room, as a reminder of the extraordinary diversity of Richter’s practice and bringing us back to the glorious exploration of a material are two large squeegee paintings one of which – vast and mesmerisingly white – I know I could look at for a very long time.
All in all this is a great show. The curatorial aim of providing a complete picture charting five decades of work means there are works here I’d have chosen to omit – and I’m honestly not sure anyone gains anything from knowing that Richter never quite escapes the apparent urge to make paintings of vases of flowers – but it does provide a pretty amazing journey through Richter’s career and in doing so it talks of the history and art history of the twentieth century, the continued relevance of painting and the many ways it interacts with photography to the benefit of both. Above all though it confirms Richter’s place as one of the best artists working today, still as relevant as ever at (almost) eighty.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama is at Tate Modern until 8 January 2012