Gerhard Richter has been an art superstar since the sixties, with a resumé and bank account to prove it. He gets good press. Huge retrospectives. Critics and dealers comfortably refer to him in the same breath as old-timey masters like Vermeer or Titian and no one gets upset or annoyed with this. But why? Why do people go crazy for Richter’s coldly scientific paintings? You could say they were radical, although you’d have a hard job of explaining why. However, since no one is likely to challenge you, the problem won’t arise.
It’s hard to make painting seem radical because really it’s not. Yet people keep making paintings, selling and exhibiting. We might say painting is dead because it seems, in a Hegelian sense, incapable of maintaining its historical themes and social importance. But still, painting hangs around – in an undead state – like a vampire or zombie.
A lot of the time we hear from critics that contemporary painting is infantile and unradical. Zombie formalism and crapstraction are terms that get thrown around, especially by people convinced of their own radicalism. Often it’s professional jealousy or prurience. Or just because no one can think of anything better to say. Which isn’t to say they’re incorrect.
The subject matter, in Richter, isn’t very radical. In fact, a lot of the time the subject matter feels totally random or mechanical, which you come to expect in the end because it’s part of the overall vibe. The result is a lot of work that seems aloof and mysterious but in a titillating kind of way. This is what people love about Richter. On the one hand he’s a master technician. On the other his work connects easily to insider talking points.
Richter’s oeuvre can be (roughly) divided into two streams – his photorealism and his ‘abstract’ process works. With the photo pieces it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to say anything in particular. In fact, Richter seems determined to say as little as possible. The photo references are picked at random from press clippings or family albums, like ready-mades or ‘found’ objects. The more mundane, the better.
Richter is adept at reproducing photographic effects – in particular, his attention to photography’s distorting, flattening effect. He’s good at emulating the blurring that occurs in out-of-focus imagery. Either way there’s always this really odd sensation that somehow Richter has managed to take a photograph with paint.
Richter is very self-reflexive. He’ll make paintings of photographs of paintings of photographs, as in the series he did based on a painting by Titian. At every stage the image seems blurrier, more abstracted as the original Titian gets dissolved in a flurry of brush strokes. It’s like watching a Polaroid come up in reverse. What’s Richter trying to say here? Is it supposed to be an academic exercise? What’s the point?
His abstract stuff, such as his ‘squeegee’ paintings, can be just as mechanical. The conceit is that the paint is scraped on with a spatula instead of being put down with a brush – which is the sort of thing you’d expect from a plasterer rather than a fine artist. While this sort of technique is (or was) a challenge to post-Greenbergian, post Ab-Ex, post-post-painterly abstraction, it sits rather uneasily in a contemporary context. Richter’s blurry painterly residue is more of a ‘sign’ for ‘abstract painting’ – not essentially the thing itself. This is art as a hall of mirrors: endless representations of representations.
Richter grew up in Soviet East Germany. As an art student he was taught to revere the works of Friedrich and Menzel and that everything after French Impressionism was ‘western decadence’. In fact, no books on modern art were to be found in his school library. The doctrine was dogmatically pro-socialist realism, anti-modernism.
He encountered his first works of high modernism at the 1952 Dokumenta exhibition (which must have been a shocking experience for someone with no point of reference for American painting), an instant release from the traditional strictures of the academy. Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana in particular were exciting discoveries that initiated his involvement with the Taschists, a band of second wave abstract painters similar to the Gutai in Japan or the Art Informel in Holland. 1962 would also mark his first encounter with American pop art and the work of Roy Lichtenstein. These paintings, with their artful cynicism, would change the course of Richter’s artistic development and his life. ‘I thought that kind of thing wasn’t allowed’, he said. ‘I threw away all my paintings, burned them and started anew.’
‘Analytical’ is a good word for Richter. He’s very good at analyzing the nature of painting as a whole which is probably a generational thing. In the sixties people were looking to reconcile Duchampian anti-art with a more traditional desire for beauty. The same could easily be said for artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg or the composer John Cage who were all part of the same crowd. Richter even dedicated a series of squeegee paintings to Cage. These are the guys more or less responsible for the look and feel of today’s contemporary art.
People like the idea of new stuff, but they also dig the classics. Classic old-school modernist stuff, like geometric grids which pop up again and again in Richter’s work, look the ghost of modernism past. The earliest stuff is matrices of colour squares on white backgrounds – reminiscent of those popular Dulux colour charts in B&Q. They tend to have fairly clinical sounding names like green, blue, yellow or red, white, black. Like a list of ingredients in a recipe or pharmaceutical kit. It’s Barnett Newman but purged of romantic heroism.
Another modernist grid appears in an installation of portraits made for the Venice Bienale in 1972. They include European cultural heritage figures like Kafka, lined up like entries in a high school yearbook. In fact, there’s something very homogenous about the portraits themselves, which are pilfered from book jackets and encyclopedias. Everyone is male, wearing a suit, their white faces cast in crude shadow. They become units in a larger pattern. Tellingly there are no painters present. It’s a hall of fame – Warhol reheated.
Perhaps this is why arrivistes feel so comfortable comparing Richter to Vermeer, the master of enigmatic interiors. Vermeer always hints at stuff without giving straightforward answers. Also, we’re painfully conscious of the maestro peeking over our shoulder – as if painting were a game of phenomenology – of looking and looking at looking.
Vermeer and Richter happen to share an interest in photography – only it wasn’t called photography in Vermeer’s time. Instead he had a thing called camera obscura, which involved mirrors and lightboxes. Concern for the problems of pictorialism can be observed in a number of Vermeer’s painterly allegories such Ariadne where we get an example of mise en abyme or paintings within paintings. Or trompe l’oeuil such as in the case of The Art of Painting which features heavy drapes hanging over the picture-box.
This is where the similarities run out. One is suspicious that Richter is guilty of the typical postmodern philosophical error of treating works of art as merely undetermined cases- illustrations or exemplifications of philosophical puzzles. Think of all the postmodern artists who simply rely on Rene Magritte (the philosopher’s friend) to make the case for the game of unreflective but paradoxically pictorial reality.
I can recall a Richter exhibition at the Manchester Whitworth a few years ago. We had been told that it would be a showing of his much-lauded ‘Cage’ pieces, but on the day of the opening were disappointed to find that the installation merely consisted of blown-up photographs, as the real paintings were currently on show at Basel and unavailable to transport. The whole curatorial event seemed like a farce, an administrative error. Had they not properly checked whether the paintings were free to loan before the event had been organized? Had the photographs been a last-minute solution to this oversight? Richter was present, as was the composer Arvo Pärt, who had written a choral piece to accompany the opening. This too had a risibly apologetic character. ‘Sorry we don’t have the real paintings but here’s some lovely, tasteful music to make up for it’ – they seemed to be saying. The curatorial literature stressed Richter’s fascination with photography, his blurring of the line between photography and paintings. True enough, I thought, but I still would have liked to see some actual work.
Alone with the Cage repros, I felt myself becoming disenchanted with Richter. Not just because of his complicity with a truly disastrous installation but because the photos themselves were horrible and unflattering. They looked, in that moment, in the harsh white-cube gallery lighting, like the worst kind of student accommodation kitsch: like flabby, overblown mannerism. My sense of disappointment was overwhelming. Like a character in Proust, I felt hemmed in by a cage of middle class mediocrity, the surreal horror of sweaty-faced bourgeois people drinking wine and admiring their own unearned tastefulness.
If Richter is responsible for reviving history painting via photography (as some have claimed) then he is also responsible for its sterilisation. He has failed, after all, to reinvigorate discussions of abstraction to the same degree as photography, and his self-referential habits have, in my honest opinion, lost their charm in a century full of self-reference and me-ism. He’s not really produced anything since the millennium that hasn’t amounted to a simulation or a ‘process’ piece. Sometimes it’s pretty, but it’s never, ever lyrical. Never conscious of its own ludicrousness. Never allowed to be marginal, supportive or dumb.
Richter nowadays is a sacred cow: a market placeholder. Often he’s touted as our ‘Greatest Living Painter’, which feels like a bit of a piss-take considering Jasper Johns is still clinging on to life. What these doyen really mean is that Richter (and perhaps Koons) is one of the last white, straight male artists whose work is guaranteed to never depreciate in monetary value. He’s become a sort of celebrity motif, an ornament of management and distribution. His work continues to flip for record-breaking prices.
Richter may not be a naked populist like a lot of current art stars. He’s popular, yes. In fact, he’s incredibly popular. But we can’t easily describe what his ‘message’ is or precisely what kind of public event he’s attempting to stage. Unless you’re an insider it would be impossible to know what the political or journalistic message might be or even if there is one. Yet it’s clear to me now that this hasn’t spared him from becoming a passive client of media publicity. Sure, he’s harder to square than artists like Christopher Wool or Grayson Perry. But no matter. Even as a puzzle, Richter sells.
Ultimately a Gerhard Richter painting is at no risk from description because its main function (unwittingly) is as an infinitely reproducible instrument of entrepreneurial culture, like an NFT. Richter, by making a kind of painting that trails after the anonymity and mechanics of photography, and which only derives its identity as painting from a kind of virtuoso handling, has essentially trivialized painting, transforming it into something secondary, banal and tedious. Some might say that’s the point. But it’s a bitter pill to swallow.
Gerhard Richter can’t escape the most common problems of postmodern art even as his practice works hard on its own indeterminacies – it’s endless project of self-description. Basically, he treats the world as a background. Whereas other artists strain for pop culture relevance or smart-alec facetiousness, Richter is a sort of solipsist, looking down at the world from the top of his freezing, lonely mountain. ‘My art is not relevant’, says Richter. ‘My motivation was more to create a sense of order, to keep track of things’. Like a clerk, then. Or a bureaucrat. How very German.
Now people getting into art globally today are conditioned to be awed and alienated at the same time and not complain about feeling torn apart. You don’t have to understand an object in order to admire it: obscurity can itself be glamorous. Richter, I think, was really important in helping to normalise this kind of thing. His art is intellectual and elegant the way we seem to expect from contemporary art but also puzzling which is good because it keeps us curious. But it won’t, I fear, bring art back into kilter with everyday life nor save us from the psychopathy of art globalisation.
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