Gerhard Richter

Musée d'Art et d'Industrie

This show, organized by a museum prominent in the French artistic scene, was significant not only because of the astonishing quality and presence of Gerhard Richter’s paintings but also because it made clear the continuity of a body of work that exists naturally in its own time and context, independent of fashion or any ephemeral ideological trend. Though Richter is well-known in France, no comprehensive critical overview of his work has been possible here; this is a legacy of the tendency in Paris in the early ’70s to allow on the one hand formalist painting and on the other photorealism to monopolize attention. Thus Richter’s show at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1977, with its catalogue essay by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, was not really understood by French artists and critics, who were able to consider Richter only as either a photorealist or a colorist. This recent show permitted a reestablishment of the perspective proper to Richter’s work and a reconsideration of his inquiry into the visible.

The show included 12 paintings from 1980–83, and presented extensive evidence of Richter’s concern with abstraction in a wide range of aspects and shapes. It was a concentrated, rigorous display whose esthetic wholeness concealed a strong polemical argument concerning the creation of visual discontinuity within the cultural given of the museum and the historical one of the art tradition. At the same time that Richter produces these abstract canvases he paints figurative representations of candles and skulls, in which the painterly element interferes with, or even opposes itself to, the photographic appearance of the image. None of these works was present here, and the isolation of the abstractions allowed a focus on their polemical content.

In what sense are Richter’s paintings “abstract”? Thematically, his work is closer to photography or to image-related art than to the direct meditation on perception in which abstract painting has always been involved. To an extent, “painting” in Richter’s work is what can be seen independently of photographic image or representational process. His abstractions not only pose an ideological and historical problem but directly participate in it insofar as they share its ambiguity.

What makes the work both abstract and radically distant from abstraction is Richter’s idea of painting and representation. Modernist abstraction is grounded in the opposition between the historical recognition of meaning and the phenomenological process of action. For Richter, history is pragmatically real, actual, while meaning, dependent as it is on viewer, place of viewing, and so on, is virtual. To indicate the ambiguous, contradictory interstice between action and its virtual meaning is to make paintings that are neither representational nor expressive, but that are the result of a pragmatic activity arguing the arbitrariness of technical and historical knowledge, and of existential consciousness. Richter takes painting into a different opposition, one between ideology, as evidenced by iconography and technique, and action, as the pragmatic, empirical disclosure of its own possibility. In this sense, his painting is not so much abstract as anti-iconographic.

With this show, however, Richter made it possible to consider painting not as an abstract discourse but as a reflection of a “will for abstraction” on the part of the artist. Such a will demands a concern with metaphysical questions—a quest for a primary evidence of being, to be determined as such not through its sociological or ideological content (as was mostly the case with historical avant-gardes, and in the northern Romantic tradition), but through its fundamental definition as an activity outside history. This is not to say that it does not deal with history, but that rather than making history into a discourse it makes of it a place for being, in which painting is one of its possibilities and instruments.

Denys Zacharopoulos