Gerhard Richter

November 10, 2017
Gerhard Richter, Ema (nude on a staircase) the 1992 photoprint
Gerhard Richter, Ema (nude on a staircase) the 1992 photoprint

For decades Gerhard Richter has been one of the world’s most successful living artists, with work in museums and leading private collections all over the planet. The current record price for one of his paintings stands at US$46 million. Now comes the the biggest test of a long and distinguished career: Can he make it in Queensland?

This may not seem a big deal in Cologne, where Richter lives, but it’s a burning issue for Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, which has gone to considerable trouble to bring together the show, Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images. Despite his God-like status in the contemporary art world, Richter (b.1932) will be an unknown quantity for much of the local audience.

For those who are familiar with Richter’s work, the big surprise will be the quality and breadth of this exhibition. When the project was announced I imagined a pot-pourri. Instead, curators Rosemary Hawker and Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow, have constructed a survey that covers most aspects of Richter’s output.

There are some notable omissions – none of the colour chart paintings, nothing from October 18 1977, his notorious series about the Baader-Meinhof gang, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. There is only one of the grey monochromes, which are most effective when viewed as a sequence. Iconic pictures such as Ema (nude on a staircase) (1992) and Betty (1991) are included in the form of full-scale, editioned photo-reproductions. The originals were painted in 1966 and 1988 respectively.

Don't look now.. Gerhard Richter's 'Betty' (the 1991 retake)

Don’t look now.. Gerhard Richter’s ‘Betty’ (the 1991 retake)

On the plus side, GOMA has managed to obtain a suite of four late canvases titled Birkenau (2014) which confront the perennial question as to whether we should seek to find political and emotional resonances in Richter’s abstract paintings. Although he has always denied there is correct way to interpret his work, when you name a set of dark, turbulent abstractions after a concentration camp, it’s hardly a chance association.

Gerhard Richter, a panel from 'Birkenau' (2014)

Gerhard Richter, a panel from ‘Birkenau’ (2014)

The show’s other coup was to obtain the complete Atlas from the Lenbachhaus in Munich. This voluminous archive consists of 400 sheets of photos, notes, drawings, studies and other source material compiled by the artist. Richter began the project in 1962, and it’s still growing. It was aquired by the Lenbachhaus in 1996.

The Atlas is Richter’s entire career in miniature, along with many ideas that never made it to the gallery wall. Its very existence tells us much about the artist’s personality: about his need for order, his preoccupation with detail. When this is combined with descriptions of the ultra-tidy nature of Richter’s studio it becomes a portrait of an obsessive-compulsive.

Richter’s life in art is a fascinating study in resolving (or embracing?) contradictions. He has been described rightly as a philosophical painter, but his work is not exclusively cold and cerebral. From his earliest days to the present, there have been powerful emotional undercurrents in his experiments. The seemingly random jumps between abstract and figurative styles have an autobiographical basis the artist has done his best to disguise.

To come to grips with this complex, elusive figure, it helps to read Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, by Richter’s archivist, Dieter Elger, who played an important role in obtaining loans for the GOMA show. For sheer excitement, Elger’s artist biography is right up there with Douglas Dundas Remembers. It’s a kind of corporate history that charts the artist’s inexorable rise to the top. Elger discusses dealers, prices, exhibition strategies, and so on, with just enough private life to see the man behind the mask of neutrality.

This is understandable. No-one wants their private life pored over by the public, but in Richter’s case a little candour only tends to humanise him.

Gerhard Richter: a page from the Atlas

Gerhard Richter: a page from the Atlas

Richter spent the first 30 years of his life in East Germany, brought up in a family in which an art-loving, atheistic mother encouraged him to despise his pious, prosaic father. He defected from the DDR with his first wife, Ema, shortly before the Berlin Wall was built. In Dusseldorf he became an aspiring avant-gardist, but with an academic skill set that set him apart from his peers, who had not endured a Soviet-style art education.

He began to attract attention with artfully blurred paintings based on photographs. His subjects, such as a copy of an advertisement for a folding clothes dryer, were often conspicuously banal. From the beginning it was important to Richter that viewers should not look for messages in his work. He had grown up under a duplicitous, ideologically-charged system, and felt no need to advertise his political views, even at the height of the 60s counterculture.

Richter enjoyed copying photographs as objects, perhaps as Duchampian ‘readymades’. No contemporary painter has had such a long and complicated engagement with photography. Some of his large, seeming spontaneous abstract paintings have been traced from photos of enlarged brushtrokes and laboriously hand painted.

When he has managed to work in a more spontaneous manner, as in a long-running collection of painted photographs, it has always been within a specified field of action. A typical Richter work begins with a set of self-imposed rules, like the laboratory conditions under which scientists make controlled experiments.

Only by reading between the lines in Elger’s biography does one recognise that Richter’s grey monochromes correspond to a period of depression and confusion. A series of bleak photorealist landscapes – the very antithesis of the Romantic sublime – were made following the break-up of a relationship when he was feeling “a bit lonely”. A late series of mother and child pictures reveals the satisfaction he has found in his third marriage to a much younger woman.

Gerhard Richter, 'Meadowland' (1985), the non-sublime landscape

Gerhard Richter, ‘Meadowland’ (1985), the non-sublime landscape

Eventually one realises that this severe, intellectual painter has always worn his heart on his sleeve while denying the very existence of a shirt. It may be because he has subjugated every aspect of life to the practice of painting with a singular determination that few artists could even imagine.

It’s easy to caricature this determination as a typically German search for the Absolute, but Richter is a reluctant idealist. His labours in the studio have convinced him there are no Absolutes, only “approximations, experiments, and beginnings over and over again.” It’s Richter’s peculiar strength that he has concentrated on beginnings rather than ends. He realised long ago that one has to abandon all thoughts of a destination in order to make the most of the journey.

Gerhard Richter: The Life of Images
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
14 October, 2017 – 4 February, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November, 2017