There is very little in the way of curatorial interjection in MoMA’s
Gerhard Richter retrospective. There are only two wall texts: one
at the beginning, saying, essentially, that writing about Richter
is futile; and one half-way through, giving the necessary background
to the great October 18, 1977 suite of paintings. The labels
are discretely far from the works: this retrospective is all about
letting the paintings speak for themselves.
While it is possible to applaud MoMA’s curatorial minimalism, it’s
also important to realise that in this case necessity was probably
the mother of virtue. Any attempt to pigeonhole Richter, to place
him in a context, is bound to fail. It’s not hard to see the
influences here, from Vermeer all the way through Clyfford Still to
Andy Warhol. But it’s also impossible to see Richter as a follower
of any movement. Similarly, although Richter’s paintings could only
have been painted by a German, this is not German Art in the sense
that Norman Rosenthal might understand it.
What Robert Storr, the curator, has done is to make a strong case
that Gerhard Richter is one of the great painters of the 20th Century.
This will come as no surprise to most art-savvy Europeans, but by
all accounts Richter has never been given his due over here, somehow
being overshadowed by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.
This exhibition should change all that.
The title of the exhibition, Forty Years of Painting, makes
a very clear statement that this is not going to be a comprehensive
retrospective: it intends to deal only with Richter’s paintings. That’s
great: they’re more than strong enough on their own. The show then
does exactly what it says it will do: presents us with forty years
of painting, in chronological order, some 188 paintings in all.
This simple device shows Richter to be almost unique among painters.
Some artists do essentially the same thing for all their career; others,
like Picasso, change their styles frequently. With Richter we see
great breadth, to be sure, but rather than moving from one painterly
idiom to the next, he is quite happy juggling three or four simultaneously.
To take just one example, his Onkel Rudi a black-and-white
photograph of his late uncle grinning in his Nazi uniform not long
before he was killed, painstakingly transferred to canvas and then
blurred with a squeegee is more or less contemporaneous with
his colour paintings, where he simply applied a series of different
colours, in rectangles, onto a gridded canvas. Both have been hugely
influential: the first broke new ground in making highly-charged political
statements out of highly-charged personal history, while the second,
even if it hadn’t been copied by Damien Hirst, was always a very important
piece of early Conceptualism.
Richter’s multiplicity of styles does make it hard to see the connections
between his works. They are few, it must be said: Richter has an urge
to paint, but he also has an urge to dismantle metanarratives, to
discredit political or painterly ideals. And before I go on, I must
make it clear that Richter can by no means be reduced to any simple
technique: there’s a lot more to his paintings than anybody can put
down in writing. Yet from the beginning of this show to the end, we
see one thing in every room: a highly adept facility with the squeegee,
Richter’s tool of choice for unpainting his works, for smearing the
surface of the canvas.
Sometimes, Richter will use this technique on his photorealist canvases,
with the ostensible effect of blurring the subject matter. In some
paintings, the squeegee has been so heavily applied that the original
photograph can be hard to discern. But after seeing this show, it
starts to dawn on the viewer that the wielding of the squeegee is
an act of creation as much as it is one of destruction. This is most
obvious in Richter’s abstract canvases: by far the most beautiful
paintings in the retrospective, they’re the result of an almost obsessive
sequence of adding, blurring and removing hundreds of layers of paint.
But it is the same mechanism which gives the abstract paintings their
beauty that gives the photographic paintings their soul. In blurring
the sharp edges of contemporary images, Richter creates something
very personal, and very new. You could say he’s done for the family
snapshot or newspaper image what Jasper Johns did for the American
flag: he celebrates it, elevates it to art, and yet changes it profoundly
in the process, creating something unique and beautiful.
Don’t just go see this exhibition; go see it twice. These paintings
grow on you, even when you’re not there: while you’re asleep in the
week after you see the show the first time, they’ll become part of
your visual vocabulary. This is not the sort of art we’re used to
these days, the kind of thing where you look at it, get it, and then
decide that it’s either great or crap. Richter’s work is much more
subtle: his paintings want to be looked at like Titians, not like
Warhols. While it’s relatively easy to immerse oneself in the painterly
surface of the abstract works, much of the rest of the show has that
Modern Art intellectual edge to it: there’s a temptation to say "I
don’t get it" and move on. Either resist that temptation, or,
better, simply return a week later. There’ll be a whole new show waiting.