Artist Rooms: Gerhard Richter


Review by Helen Tope


Images by Dom Moore


“Richter shines a light on imperfection: it is dazzling, it is epic and intimate in equal measure – and I urge you to see it.”

There is no-one quite like Gerhard Richter. Born on February 9, 1932, Richter has carved for himself a unique space within contemporary art. An artist who delights in illusion and imprecision in a career spanning five decades, Richter has bounced between figurative and abstract painting, creating a unique body of work that is difficult to pin down.

This exhibition, selecting pieces from various points in Richter’s career, is one that works remarkably well – not least because he has produced such a wide variety of work. This collection, acquired jointly by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland is part of a series called ‘Artist Rooms’. The concept is simple: the exhibition is an individual room containing work by a particular artist, giving the visitor an introduction to that artist. The scheme was launched in 2008 and began touring the UK in 2009. ‘Artist Rooms: Gerhard Richter’ opened last weekend at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery and remains here until January 2016. This is the first time the world’s most expensive living artist has been exhibited in the city.

During his career, Richter has delved into the cerebral world of abstraction, joining the likes of Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko, whilst also painting warm, affectionate portraits of his daughter Betty (1988). He has devoted his creative life to painting, sticking with the medium even when it became deeply unfashionable in the 1970s. Such is the length of his career, that he can boast influences from conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp to composer John Cage. Richter explored Pop Art and Formalism in his youth, moving onto bold abstract works in the 1980’s. His figurative, highly recognisable landscapes and portraits sit alongside the abstract work, with Gerhard moving back and forth between the two. What becomes clear in viewing Richter’s work is that he is an artist on which nothing is lost. Every new idea is stored away, often re-emerging decades later.

Visitors admiring ’48 Portraits’

This is particularly well illustrated in one of Richter’s most famous works, 48 Portraits (1971-2, 1998). Taking up an entire wall of the gallery, this piece is the star of the show. 48 Portraits is a series of monochrome images of famous men, featuring names such as Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka.  It is, at first glance, an awe-inspiring tribute to some of the greatest minds of the past 200 years. Physicians and poets are democratically placed side by side, shoulder to shoulder.

But Richter invites you to look closer. Nothing is quite as it seems. The portraits are not paintings at all, but photographs of a painting Richter has created – using a photograph of the subject as source material. The brush strokes from the painting, though blurred, are just about visible. These have become known as Richter’s Photo Paintings (for obvious reasons). Look again and you’ll notice how the portraits are cropped like passport photos. With Richter, humour is never far from the surface, and the piece suddenly changes into an affectionately-drawn rogues’ gallery. The grandiose setting of this piece is deliberate; Richter is pointing out that human endeavour ultimately outweighs – and outlives – plaudits and honours. All that matters, suggests Richter, is the work itself. Does it last? Does it still have something to say about the human condition?

Richter’s 48 Portraits challenges our preconceptions about how greatness should be revered: with gravitas and humour taking equal billing, Richter pokes gentle fun at the pomposity of formal portraiture. The achievements of these men are such that they don’t need a distinguished, preserved-for-all-time portrait. Their work continues to evolve in the light of new discoveries. Therefore how we view them will continue to change also. The portrait, like the photograph, cannot create a definitive image: it can only capture a moment.

Abstract Painting (1994)

While the 1980’s solidified Richter’s reputation as an artist of international standing, the 1990’s saw Richter wanting to simplify his existence. This period saw Richter return to working in abstract. He had begun his career in the 1960’s being heavily influenced by Pop Art, creating canvases of exuberant colour. Richter has since become one of the world’s most notable artists when it comes to using colour: and you can see it for yourself in his Abstract Painting from 1994.

Using oil paint on canvas, the colours are thickly applied with a squeegee, pulled across the canvas to blend and blur colours together. This canvas explodes with dashes of green, yellow and blue – it’s difficult to make out where one shade ends, and another begins. The effect created is a painting that looks almost out of focus – leaning on the blurring techniques Richter has used repeatedly in his work. The true image is tantalisingly out of reach – and beyond interpretation.

There is no right or wrong way to react to this piece: its purpose is to celebrate the act of painting. Richter has remained a passionate exponent of painting, even when it became deeply unfashionable. His commitment to paint means that placing him in any art-history context is near impossible: his use of traditional techniques binds him as much to the greats of Post-Impressionism as it does to the modern world. Richter’s creative agility means that you find yourself travelling backwards and forwards through time as you make your way through the exhibition. By revisiting old ideas to make new pieces, Richter avoids classification. He is never the same artist twice.

Gerhard Richter. Abstract Painting (809‑3), 1994. ARTIST ROOMS Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. Acquired jointly through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 © Gerhard Richter

Mustangs (2005)

One of the more recent examples of Richter’s work, Mustangs is the re-imagining of an earlier idea. Based on Richter’s original painting, Mustang Squadron (1964), this digital print depicts the aircraft that had a key role in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945.

This is deeply personal subject matter for Richter, who originally came from Dresden but was dispatched to relatives 30 miles away before the devastation occurred. Richter is not usually known for his political material, but he was 13 years old when Dresden was bombed; and this is the work of a child of war.

The planes are flying through a tilted, diagonal frame. Uniform and elegant, remove the British insignia, and these planes could be a wallpaper design in a young boy’s bedroom. Described by the New Yorker as “sinister elegance”, this print is almost bleached of colour, just the palest greys and a red, bloody tint in the top left-hand corner. The drama is happening out of frame.
It is as close as Richter gets to biography; a piece that feels deeply conflicted. The feelings of a young boy who lived with the presence of war cannot be safely tucked away.

Richter employs his trademark ‘blurring’ technique to create a sense of distance for the observer. The imprecision here is vital for an artist who refuses to deal in absolutes. He superimposes image upon image; material upon material – nothing can be pinned down – no reading of his work is correct, no meaning, definitive.

It is this uncertainty that has come to colour much of Richter’s work. A childhood spent in the shadow of World War Two, and the sense of transience that comes with surviving war, meant that Richter early in his career discarded convention and found his own way: technique, ideas and time itself – are there to be played with. Exploration takes flight over permanence. The ‘Artist Rooms’ concept dovetails so beautifully with Richter because he has never stayed in one place for too long. His ideological ascent is dizzying; not least because it refuses to travel in a straight line.

There’s plenty to read on Richter, but nothing prepares you for the real-life encounter. Richter overwhelms, but never aggressively. This collection pulsates with energy. It’s the energy of an artist striving for clarity of expression at the age of 83. This exhibition is about bringing art, great art, to the young in particular, and that feels wholly appropriate for an artist who defies categorisation. The childhood notion of boundless possibility has never been lost.

After the Second World War, Richter went back to Dresden. Returning to the city as a student; he walked to college through streets of ruin and rubble. The notions of security, routine – even reality – had become an illusion, and the psychological impact cannot be overestimated. The assurance belonging to other artists of his calibre eludes Richter. His career has been etched through with the need to explore uncertainty; the imperfect and the illusory. But this is what makes him so valuable.

He is an artist who speaks for those who feel out of place, out of step with the world. Richter is the artist who illustrates what can be drawn from an uncertain mind. It questions, it doubts – and this is the result. An audacious body of work that cannot be labelled: gloriously defiant, but filled with sensitivity and wonder.

Richter shines a light on imperfection: it is dazzling, it is epic and intimate in equal measure – and I urge you to see it.