Gerhard Richter is a painter of methods, not manners. A number of rules define his painterly process, not least to negate – and to sometimes literally cross through or scrape across – any idea of a signature style. The incessant way in which he has done this over the course of 50 years has turned two of his methods – his blurring of photographic-based canvases, and his smearing of abstractions by moving a giant squeegee across their surface – into signatures in their own right; an irony Richter seems happy to live and work with. Together with his occasional explorations of other painterly techniques, as well as sculpture and photography, these paintings form a vast oeuvre, the entirety of which this retrospective seeks to convey. Titled ‘Panorama’, it travels to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, where it will open on12 February (three days after Richter’s 80th birthday), before moving to the Centre Pompidou in Paris in June.
Collaboratively conceived by these three institutions, the London leg of the show was curated by Mark Godfrey and Tate director Nicholas Serota, and hung densely – maybe too densely. As can be seen in installation shots from the 1970s included in the catalogue, Richter has never put as much emphasis on the conceptual underpinnings of installing exhibitions as some of his Dusseldorf contemporaries did, from Blinky Palermo to Imi Knoebel. In fact, Richter often simply distributed paintings evenly across the available walls. Nevertheless you wonder why the curators didn’t, as they did in 2007 for the Gilbert & George retrospective, devote an entire floor to the artist.
That said, the idea of a ‘panoramic’survey is bolstered by the fact that the exhibition follows a roughly chronological route highlighting the succession, but even more so the simultaneous existence of sharply contrasting strands in Richter’s oeuvre. In the first small space, which is filled with paintings from the early to mid-1960s, there is already a pronounced juxtaposition of the banal and the traumatic. For example, Faltbarer Trockner (Folding Dryer, 1962) – which is based on a newspaper advert of a housewife placing a blanket on a dryer, blown up and cropped to include parts of the accompanying text – next to Bomber (Bombers, 1963), a World War II carpet-bombing scene. That period’s grey palette allows only occasional tints and hints of colour: this is a founding moment of what would become the ‘Capitalist Realism’ movement that Richter initiated with fellow artists Sigmar Polke, Manfred Kuttner (both of whom, like Richter, had come to West Germany from the GDR) and Konrad Lueg. They countered the cool and colourful optimism of British and American Pop with a sense of ironic black and white bleakness, in a country where, after the reign of fascism, the very idea of the ‘popular’ had turned into a minefield.
Klorolle (Toilet Paper Roll, 1965) is one among a number of works from the mid-60s that collectively comprise Richter’s long kiss goodbye to the ironic referencing of art history or, rather, to irony itself. This is where Richter and Polke parted company: while Polke went on to experiment with irony and the grotesque as major ingredients of his painterly alchemy, Richter abandoned such timbres, which could have relativized the capturing of the sublime, the beautiful and the traumatic.
Tante Marianne (Aunt Marianne, 1965) – based on a 1932 photograph of Richter’s 12-year-old aunt Marianne Schönfelder with baby Gerhard – has only in recent years been revealed by journalist Jürgen Schreiber to actually be the portrait of an assumedly schizophrenic victim of the Nazis’ eugenics programme, who was first sterilized and later murdered. In 1965 Richter apparently only vaguely knew about his aunt’s fate, but that same year he also painted Herr Heyde (Mr. Heyde, 1965), which was based on a newspaper cutting of the 1959arrest of the psychiatrist who led that very programme. Whatever Richter did or didn’t know, concealment and disclosure become part of the same iconographic complex, even more so as Schreiber also revealed that the father of Richter’s first wife Ema, Heinrich Eufinger, had also been an SS gynaecologist involved in the programmes of compulsory sterilization.
Gerhard Richter Tante Marianne (Aunt Marianne), 1965, oil on canvas
It is against the background of such a specific family history that it becomes virtually impossible to read Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe) (Ema [Nude on a Staircase], 1966), or any of Richter’s other family-related paintings of the following decades, as merely art-referential statements about the possibilities of painting – in the case of Ema, as merely a witty reclaiming of the painterly motif of the moving nude supposedly cordoned off once and for all by Marcel Duchamp in 1912. Ema, naked, descends what looks like the staircase of a 1950s apartment building, her body partly translucent and radiating a ghostly light. The hard shadow behind Ema indicates a camera flash (this is Richter’s first painting based on a photograph he took himself), yet the scene – with its strange mixture of shame and grace, cruelty and tenderness – still has a dream-like quality (that typical dream of being naked in the wrong place), much closer to Freud than to Duchamp.
That said, Richter is pronouncedly not a surrealist, and never seems to have drawn images from the unconscious, or even from visual memory in a roving sense (this may be part of the reason why drawing is not his strongest suit). Nevertheless, the doubt and uncertainty of dreams permeates not only his imagery but his painterly process itself: the micro-movement of blurring the photograph-based works with a soft brush performs doubt as tremor – and the macro-movement of scraping the squeegee’s rubber flap across the abstract canvas performs doubt as negation. From the late 1960s – well before the first squeegeed paintings were realized in the early 1980s – Richter had methodically exhausted the possibilities of gestural abstraction: from the brushy strokes and dabs forming a grisaille aerial view of Paris (Stadtbild Paris, Townscape Paris, 1968), through the ‘Vermalungen’ (Inpaintings, 1971–3) – in which blobs of paint are spread until the entire canvas is covered in doodles – to his ‘Graue Bilder’ (Grey Pictures, 1969–75) – the entropy of the grey monochrome. In contrast, the squeegeed paintings push abstraction away from entropy, towards ever-new accumulations and fragmentations of colour and form. Still, it’s striking how they reflect the art of their time: just like the early 1970s grey pictures feel like a response to Minimalism, the early 1980s paintings such as Gelbgrün (Yellow–Green) or Hecke (Hedge, both 1982), with their sharp angles and glaring greens and reds and yellows, are surprisingly close in palette and format to the ‘Neue Wilde’ painters that were dominating the German art world at the time – while rejecting their brash figurativeness.
There are too many of the squeegee abstractions on display at Tate Modern (they have become more elegant and subdued in recent years), but still they provide a startling counterpoint, effected by the chronological hang, to two modestly sized portraits – from 1977 and ’88 – of Richter’s daughter Betty. They are the closest we’ll ever get in contemporary art to a Mona Lisa effect: despite endless reproduction and circulation, and even as they are impregnated with redemptive comprehensibility, they continue to be enigmatic and touching. This may be because they make the question of who looks at whom – daughter looks at father but tilted sideways; father looks at daughter but she is turned away, looking at one of his paintings – feel eternally unresolved, reflecting both family bond and generational discontent. And just as in postwar Germany the very idea of ‘popular’ had become guilt-ridden, so it was the case with ‘parents and their children’, from Nazi fathers to terrorist sons and daughters: as demonstrated by the ‘18. Oktober 1977’ cycle (1988) based on images of the deaths of imprisoned Red Army Faction members – all of whom had come from bourgeois, middle-class families.
In his lecture ‘The Art of the Novel’ (1940), Thomas Mann defined ‘true’ irony as involving not mockery but a ‘serene gaze onto the whole’, an attitude of ‘dispassion unfettered by moralism’. Mann’s definition resonates with Richter (even when it remains to be asked whether it captures all facets of irony, or whether the ‘Oktober’ cycle really is dispassionate). Maybe Richter is to late-20th-century art what the author of Buddenbrooks (1901), The Magic Mountain (1924) and Doctor Faustus (1947) is to early-20th-century literature: a pre-eminent painter of cultivation and decay, a painter of the bourgeois sublime. ‘Sublime’ because even in the manifestation of a tender gaze there is always the lurking sense of a traumatic void; ‘bourgeois’ because these very manifestations are following rules that have to do with the guarding of privacy, the coded display of hierarchies and the impossibility of unabashed displays of emotion. Just asin literature Mann would be unbearable without the existence of very different artistic spirits – say, from Alfred Jarry to Sylvia Plath – in painting, the late Sigmar Polke inevitably keeps coming to mind as the greatest counter-model to Richter. Any assessment of Richter’s long-term historical importance will have to take that into account.