Up front, I want to say that I decided to write about Gerhard Richter because I am in love with Motifs, the artist’s book he conceived to accompany the retrospective “Panorama”, now on view in Paris. Organized by the Tate Modern (London), the Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen (Berlin) and the Centre Pompidou, the show is intended to celebrate the 80th birthday of this German master by exploring the complexity of his oeuvre both chronologically and thematically. While I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve, I should also confess that I love the exhibition – and not because I am a die-hard fan of Richter’s, a “groupie” like some people I know.
It was, in fact, a challenge to bring me into the Gerhard Richter fold. I’ve never been convinced by the strident — and too narrow, from my point of view — arguments of my peers on his behalf. First there are the conceptual, indexical, archival types, who surround me in Manhattan of course, and who pontificate endlessly about Richter’s Atlas as if it was the Holy Grail of contemporary visual representation. Then there are those who swoon over Richter “L’Artiste,” the painter in the old, male tradition who provides the world with a constant supply of abstract works embellished by squeegees and splashes galore. It’s not that I don’t appreciate these pictures (and these positions), but they’ve never succeeded in explaining to me (as a famous French intellectual friend of mine recently said) “why I need to see the works of someone who continually reproduces the whole history of art.” The exhibition currently on view at the Centre Pompidou does, in fact, explain just that, by brilliantly linking the various aspects of Richter’s oeuvre — abstract paintings, photorealist works, glass sculptures and everything in between — in ways that emphasize and communicate this prolific artist’s overarching aims.
“I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no concern. I like the indefinite, the boundless. I like continual uncertainty.” This citation, used often throughout the show and its accompanying literature, becomes a rallying cry that allows the viewer to relax when confronted with such a diverse range of work. The decision to organize the oeuvre chronologically and thematically rather than into discrete formal units (sculptures, works based on photos, abstract paintings) allows meaning to circulate around and between objects, making it very clear that Richter’s ultimate aim is in fact to emphasize (continually, incessantly) that we humans always see the world through a glass darkly, a glass that can and will shift and change size, shape, perspective at any moment. The townscapes of Dresden – painted when the city had been rebuilt after the devastation of World War 2 – are described in such fluid strokes that the destruction seems to manifest itself again through the renovation. Picturesque landscapes of barns and forests and meadows in Italy or France — painted realistically, impressionistically, or with abstract strokes layered on top of representational depictions — are all described by the artist as dreams (“a type of yearning, a yearning for a whole a simple life, a little nostalgic”), while his layered abstractions are perceived as “more real… my presence, my reality, my problems.” Painted references to traditional religious symbols — skulls and candles and angels — take their place next to works mediated by public or private pictures of family, politics and war. Objects, places, people and paint strokes, photographed and projected, change scale; blown up, mirrored, juxtaposed, they morph into something else entirely. This is, in other words, a body of work bound together by Richter’s inability to believe what he sees, to believe in the ultimate and unchanging truth of the visual information he creates or receives through his eyes: whether those eyes are seeing a magazine, a political or iconographic sign, a loved one or the landscape around him. The blurs, the break-ups, the pictorial transformations are ways of visualizing this “continual uncertainty.” The mental images mediating our experience of the world and obsessively engaged by Richter are nothing more than the screens through which we perceive — and ascribe meaning to — the continually shifting shadows on the walls of Plato’s Cave.
One of my favorite such transformations, which involves some very contemporary working methods and media, resulted in the creation of Strip in 2011. In the process of making this work, paint moved through photographic reproduction into digitization – a movement in the opposite direction from many of Richter’s well-known canvases, like Betty or Aunt Marianne, where a photographic image is reproduced in oils. To produce Strip, Richter began with a photo of Abstract Painting (724-4) of 1990. This original image was then divided (using computer software) vertically in 2, then 4, then 8, 16 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048 and 4,096 bands. The process (comprised of 12 stages of division) produced 8,190 strips, each with the same height as the original image. At each new division, the bands became thinner and thinner, more and more minimal in detail. Eventually, these bands were used to create Strip, the huge, abstract laser print on paper that is one of the latest works on view in the exhibition.
Which brings me to the discussion of Motifs: Division, Mirror, Repetition, the bookwork Richter conceived as an accompaniment to the show. It is clear from the central importance of Atlas, and the existence of other volumes discussed in the catalog, that Richter enjoys working through ideas by making books, and these are often composed of photographs that are repeated, reversed or transformed. As the subtitle makes clear, Motifs is such a project, based on the transformation of Abstract Painting (724-4) into Strips. In the bookwork, the entire process of division is documented, and the bands produced by the 12 stages are mirrored and repeated in ways that give rise to the abstract motifs that are the central surprise of the book.
They are surprising for several reasons. First of all, as one flips through the 238 color images that comprise the volume, one watches subjective, expressionistic splashes and drips of paint, with all their physicality, transmute into cool, clean digital color bands. Expressionism and minimalism, handwork and computerized reproduction, no longer opposites, become part of a continuum that, once again, allows Richter to undermine the categories that define our ways of seeing. But the most beautiful surprises in the book are precisely the abstract motifs that emerge as the strips are mirrored, repeated and juxtaposed. In the center of the book, between expressionism and minimalism, these motifs propose another universe of forms. They echo the patterns of Tibetan painting, Islamic decoration, South American weaving and Indian metalwork; like jewels, like lace, like flowers they emerge from the fractured images of the painted surface, and echo the colors and forms of global culture. They are, in a word, wondrous — and from my point of view, they move Gerhard Richter’s work forward in more ways than one. The last room in the Pompidou exhibition is entitled “Continuing to Paint,” and the wall label discusses the paradox of painting in the digital age. Evidently, Richter has figured out a way to keep his medium relevant, and expansive. This master might be 80 years old, but it seems he is still standing in the vortex of contemporary expression — peering, as usual, through a glass darkly at the diverse shadows animating our visual environment.
© Shelley Rice 2012