Gerhard Richter

Städtische Richter

Gerhard Richter has exhibited his work so infrequently in the past that this retrospective has of necessity turned into an art-world event. For months the art public has focused its attention on this show, and it will undoubtedly continue to do so, as the exhibition is scheduled to travel to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Kunsthalle Bern, and the Museum moderner Kunst in Vienna as well.

It is a unique accomplishment of this exhibit (for which Richter was consulted) that a balance has been struck between chronological documentation and a presentation of important highlights. Of the 191 selected works, the earliest in date is Richter’s seminal photo/painting Tisch (Table, 1962) and the most recent, one of the “Abstrakte Bilder” (Abstract pictures, 1976–) from 1985. We are looking at a period of creativity, then, that begins at the point when Richter began to fundamentally accept his own work, a point that more or less coincides with his emigration from Dresden to Düsseldorf in 1961 and his encounter with the antiart of the Western avant-garde (Pop, Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme).

From a formal standpoint, Richter’s work is more disparate than that of any other artist working today. The Photorealists have claimed him as one of their own, as have the analytical painters; and most recently the neo-Expressionists have tried hard to swallow his brash, glowing abstractions. Is Richter a chameleon who shatters the boundaries of the allowable in art, or a Romantic who counters the decay of culture with the most perfectly wish-fulfilled pictures imaginable?

At the intersection of the exhibition rooms, Richter’s illusionistic Doppelglasscheibe (Double glass pane, 1977) and 4 Glasscheiben (4 Glass panes, 1967) stood opposite Spiegel (Mirror, 1981). The reflection and refraction of the installation focused our attention on the questions of what is real, what is perception, and what is representation.

In a characteristically quiet, unforced way, Richter’s central concern came to full expression here. In an age of image overkill, which is simultaneously the age of lost images, Richter has continued to seek the convincing image. The central exhibition hall became the stage for a grand memory play, whereon the “Achtundvierzig Portraits” (Forty-eight portraits, 1971–72), Richter’s series of paintings after photographs of cultural heroes, functioned as a narrative frieze, uniting his illusionistic cityscapes and landscapes and the nonrepresentational but equally sentimental “Graue Bilder” (Gray pictures, 1968–76). All of Richter’s paintings—the consciously imitated images as well as the more mediated borrowings—reflect a disturbing search for security and beauty amid the disparate. Nothing is really what it claims to be, neither the objective image of reality (the photograph) from which Richter borrows, nor his illusionistic representation of it. From the disparate parts a whole evolves that claims wholeness only as something diffuse, as something refracted in a mirror.

From the “Farbtafeln” (Color charts, 1966–74), and the most radical rejection of any suggestion of representation, to the radically flat abstract paintings, Richter’s stance of rejection is the refracted yet unflinching self-assertion of painting as a search for the beautiful, the true, the real. Classically trained and strongly influenced by Socialist Realism, Richter experienced the depths of falseness in an overly idealized image of reality. Swept up by the flood of images produced by the Western media, he confronted the arbitrariness of art. Between these extremes lay painting as a vision. If, as this exhibition has shown, Richter’s paintings do not rely on tangible painterly qualities or experienceable content, then his work becomes an attempt to move closer to what was rejected, to what lies concealed. It is an attempt to move toward the point where the illusionistic veil that lies over his dissipated, “say-nothing” images might be lifted and reality revealed.

Annelie Pohlen