Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 102 3/8 x 78 3/4".

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 102 3/8 x 78 3/4".

Gerhard Richter

Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA)

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 102 3/8 x 78 3/4".

For an institution with a reputation for blockbuster exhibitions and kid-friendly programming, the Gallery of Modern Art made an unusual choice when it decided to mount a Gerhard Richter retrospective—his first in Australia. This was a measured affair, in contrast with the almost concurrent survey of the works of Yayoi Kusama, whose loud colors and easy interactivity were more faithful to the GoMA brand. Centering on the idea that Richter’s fascination with the iconographic resonance of painting and photography has itself become iconic, “The Life of Images” shows how Richter has spent a lifetime scrutinizing the easy dissemination and apparent autonomy of the image. His wrestling with the mechanics of picture making—including its impact on personal and political memory—is key to the development of a post-1960s mode of painting that absorbs the effects of reproducibility while asserting the primacy of firsthand experience.

Given Australia’s sheer distance from most of the major private and public collections of Richter’s works, the exhibition was surprisingly comprehensive—enough to be forgiven for some obvious omissions, such as the seminal series “October 18 1977,” 1988, or the “Farbtafeln” (Color Charts) paintings that date back to the second half of the 1960s and the early ’70s, his first significant venture into abstraction after an association with West German Pop. Spanning 1962 to 2016, the show featured more than ninety works, including some of his best known, such as Uncle Rudi, 1965; Two Candles, 1982; Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) (Ema [Nude on a Staircase]), 1992; September, 2009; key “Abstraktes Bild” (Abstract Painting) pieces; and the trauma-laden four-panel painting Birkenau, 2014—Richter’s response to historical photographs (brought to light by Georges Didi-Huberman) covertly documenting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Richter originally translated the grainy images onto the four canvases before developing them into abstracted palimpsests (as he did with many of his works). He used somber, but not gloomy, black and white, with subtle red and green smears, recalling Didi-Huberman’s account of the “lacunary necessity” informing the historical readability of images.

Unable to compete with the more far-reaching and authoritative Richter retrospectives such as “Panorama,” 2011–12, at Tate Modern, London, and “Forty Years of Painting,” 2002, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, this one put particular emphasis on the productive role of documentation in his practice, signaled by works from series such as “Museum Visit,” 2011 (which uses photographs of the Tate retrospective as a painting surface), and by the prominent positioning of Atlas, 1962– (his ongoing part-artwork, part-exegetical project). The Brisbane retrospective marked the first time that a large portion of Atlas was exhibited as framed photographic panels (now titled Atlas Overview), installed with impressive effect in a long corridor adjacent to the exhibition rooms, as if a physical footnote.

Although the catalogue lacks the art-historical breadth and diversity of voices expected from a survey exhibition of such a renowned artist, principal curator and local art historian Rosemary Hawker convincingly argues that paradox is key to understanding Richter’s work, which can seem at once self-referential and removed, monothematic and indiscriminate. Instead of pigeonholing his career, Hawker focused the exhibition on the eighty-six-year-old artist’s relentless inquisitiveness, which she aligned with the contemporary promiscuity of images.

Against a sunny, subtropical Brisbane backdrop—and counterpointed by Kusama’s bright Pop next door—the exhibition made the weight of post–World War II German history palpable. Despite this, any gloominess was offset by a sense of Richter’s propensity for experimentation—his expectant search for the perfect process that might, as if by chance, reveal both the fullness and the emptiness that affords iconic objects their status. Exemplary in this regard was the dizzying digital print Strip, 2012. Composed of countless colored lines sampled from a digital image of an earlier abstract painting, the work compels close inspection of its hybrid appearance only to invoke an affective power—a luminousness—that derives from somewhere else.

Wes Hill