Gerhard Richter

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.

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