On a two-tone backdrop, a nebulous grey form hangs between the receding white plane of a tabletop and its black supporting feet. Grey haze, achieved by the scrubbed obliteration of black line and white plane, sits both within and outside of the picture. Table, 1962, the painting designated by Richter as his first, is presented as such in a rigorous assembly of works stretching to the present day. The trajectory described in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, is akin to an orbit: at its centre this modest painting and the problematic elements it comprises.
The exhibition seeks to address the restless nature of Richter’s practice by identifying and cataloguing various moments (Genre Painting and Early Squeegee Abstracts, Art after Duchamp, Landscapes and Portraits) and placing these in 13 themed, interlinking rooms. It is an effective arrangement, allowing the viewer to wander back and forth with Richter between these moments, rather than offering a more linear tour.
The collection of Richter’s early, monochromatic photopaintings is particularly striking. These works become short-circuited when viewed in reproduction; the images swim readily back through glass lenses or off into digital code. In the flesh one is confronted by a breathless hybridity – here, images displaced lie gasping in the materiality of paint. The photopaintings are incongruously large, a decision which, through a heightened physicality, draws attention to their skins of feathered striations.
Initially Richter assigned the photograph as a readymade ‘model’ and regarded the neutrality of his rendering as ‘moronic and inartistic’, in negation of the kinds of aggregative gestures of Abstract Expressionism. Conceptually, set out in this way, the early photo-works afford Richter (the painter) a degree of subjective freedom. Their rendering is a perfunctory affair, reminiscent perhaps of a tattoo artist – meticulously transcribed with a kind authorial nonchalance, situated on the painless side of a painful procedure.
In his notes on the early photopaintings, Richter describes the ‘fortuitous rightness’ of photographic composition, likening its authority to a winning sequence of Lotto numbers over any other combination: ‘the sequence that emerges after the numbers are drawn seems entirely right and creditable in every way’. The early paintings, when seen collectively, bear this out through the tangential dissociations of tigers, toilet paper and photo-erotica. The ambivalence of these works as divested representational paintings gives way to a fascination with paint as skin, and Richter’s authorial agency manifests itself in testing the properties of the medium.
Having established a conceptual basis in photopainting, Richter gradually moves to reinvest himself as author and commentator. From the late 1960s the photopaintings site his practice as constituent to a wider socio-political conversation. Richter paints family photographs that address the crisis of identity faced in post-war Germany (such as Uncle Rudi, 1965, painted in full Wehrmacht uniform), and portray tenderness (such as Betty, 1977, where Richter depicts his daughter turning away from the viewer, a counterpoint to the Baader Meinhof series of the same period).
The limits of paint as skin are probed throughout Panorama – most emphatically in the series of Grey Paintings made between 1968 and 1975. Having achieved authorial negation in terms of subject, Richter turns to grey paint as a material equivalent. He cites grey as being synonymous with ‘indifference’ and his selection of the material as a removal of commitment or opinion. Indeed, the first grey paintings were, through the over-painting of failed works, acts of destruction, redaction and cancellation. Whilst the grey works are often considered as a form of withdrawal, it is not from but to where, that is most interesting. In these paintings, grey isolation affords a quantum visibility of paint as paint – even the slightest gestures are registered loud in this otherwise silent arena. In Grey, 1974, thick ridges and peaks ascend and descend the tall rectangle, the result of thick oil paint being applied by a large roller. This texture, coupled with the oil-imparted sheen of the paint, results in a surface that appears wet or active, a continuation of its own past some 40 years after creation. The much smaller canvas, Grey Beams, 1968, charts the structural motion of paint traversing the canvas, through the centre-point, from all directions. The resulting rotary pile of brush strokes are stacked in sequence, ending much as they began; their history complete and traceable – a top-down view of a Modernist, teleological account of painting.
Other high-points in Panorama are Richter’s works that either exist on the borderlines or escape entirely from the medium of paint. In the room ‘Art after Duchamp’, 4 Planes of Glass, 1967, is posited as a response to Duchamp’s Large Glass. These rotating glass panes, pivoting on horizontal axes housed in sparse steel supports, pre-figure comparable structures made by Daniel Buren and Liam Gillick. Double Pane of Glass, 1977, sees Richter treat glass as canvas, its textured grey surface rendered flawlessly flat when viewed from the reverse. Similarly, the large mirror pieces see Richter return to Duchampian territory, the pieces relaying and refracting images of paintings and denuded spectatorship. In Kugel III, 1992, the mirror is reformed into a small, polished stainless steel ball. Its title alludes to a bullet projectile, lying spent on the gallery floor, while photopaintings of gunshot victims Ensslin and Baader (as depicted in the Man Shot Down 1 and 2, 1988) hang motionless on the walls. Numerous, vast squeegee works drag membranes of oil paint beyond its limits – the snapping viscosity of paint leaving stuttering traces, and voids through which previous layers of process are left uncovered.
Panorama presents a body of work of remarkable scope and depth, embedded in moments of significance, art historically, and in terms of wider cultural and political discourse. Just as Richter moves between the poles of abstraction and figuration, affirmation and negation, as first indicated in Table, 1962, it can also be said that his practice pulsates between an internal logic of painting as thinking and an external desire for something more transformative and outwardly connected.
‘One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy’.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama was on view at Tate Modern, 6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012. It travels to Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, opening there on 12 February 2012.