Gerhard Richter

Anthony D'Offay

Gerhard Richter made his first mirror painting a decade ago. It is a conventionally silvered square of glass, framed with thin wooden battens, which lie flush with the mirror’s surface. As with many abstract paintings, the frame functions less as a decorative border than as a means of protecting the edges without interfering in the dialogue between physical fact and surface illusion. As both an undiscerning reflector of arbitrary truths and the specific site of the viewer’s reflection on the possibility of meaning, the work ties in closely with Richter’s abiding preoccupation with the relationship between photography and painting.

The 1981 mirror was one of three earlier works included in this show as reference points, pulling together a series of abstract paintings and various works on paper made last year, as well as a group of mirror paintings from this year, into something more than just a show of some recent work. By extending its scope back through Mirror and Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (297–3), 1971, to the Four Panes of Glass (160), 1967, the exhibition provided a context for the recent work that allowed it to be understood less as the product of individual artistic obsession and more as a general meditation on problems of representation. There was one figurative painting in this show, Betty, 1988, a portrait of Richter’s daughter that shows her seated and, with a marked contraposto twist of the torso, turning her head away from the viewer. It is this painting that Mirror 485–1, 1981, reflects in the catalogue reproduction. As installed, another work entitled Two Sculptures was caught between the original Mirror and a gray mirror painting of identical dimensions. The two bronze busts of the artists faced one another atop their marble pillars, a double (self-) reflexiveness reflected in an ever-murkier infinity. In the next gallery, the movable Four Panes of Glass offered endless possible angles on reality. Not only Picasso, but also Velázquez, and Duchamp.

The mirrors made this year are all monochrome paintings in which dense, unmodulated pigment has been applied to the back side of a sheet of glass. Some are unframed, such as the small gray one in the same room as the original Mirror, and a larger one, Mirror Painting (Blood Red), 1991, which put an emotional gloss on the indistinct picture of the room’s contents visible within it.

The related abstract paintings continue to use Richter’s characteristic technique of pulling a large, heavily loaded spatula across the canvas and, as with previous works, involve considerable overpainting and revision. This time, though, earlier layers and incidents are visible through a dragged surface that is much more continuous than previously. Set next to the mirror paintings, they animate a perennial point of inquiry for Richter: how pigment, which has its own, entirely separate operational logic, can present the idea of abstraction as a kind of blurred and distorted form of representation.

Lack of clarity featured, too, in some of the small-scale works. These were all paint on photographs or lithographs and included two series of self-portraits, as well as a number of landscape studies. One, the “Misty Self-Portraits,” 1990, used deliberately indistinct images of the artist as grounds. The other, more successful sequence, “Self-Portrait, Three Times,” 1990, consists of a number of treatments of the same triple-exposed image of Richter sitting in three different positions in his studio. The skeins of paint on the surface echo the three faint snaking trails of the shutter-release cable across the floor leading to the insubstantial artist. The effect is of a glazed space into which people outside and behind the camera are being reflected. To the left, a clearly defined, empty chair sits in a strongly lit space in front of an abstract painting. On the floor in front of it rests a small steel sphere—a world reflecting a world.

Michael Archer