Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, UK
It appears that Gerhard Richter has been drinking his own urine. The brew is now so concentrated that it might have rendered a less self-reliant man senseless. He has stated that ‘nature knows no meaning, no sympathy and is absolutely mindless and inhuman. Its stupidity is absolute. The beauty in landscape, its enchanting colour and magnificence, is our own perception, which if switched off reveals appalling horror and ugliness’. He is always, it seems, outside of nature. Caspar David Friedrich’s God, embodied in the landscape, is dead. To create things of beauty then, Richter must get drunk. The Übermensch must suck on his own aesthetic supply, at once intense, acrid and divine.
Two large Seascape paintings (both 1998), and the work Waterfall (1997) form the heart of this exhibition. But it is small abstract paintings that populate this exhibition most heavily. Looking at them is like looking at the earth. I began to doubt their intense beauty. The Baroque detail in every crevice takes our breath away. Irregular scoured grids and deep angry lines of intent make us wonder what, if anything, the paintings tell us about the artist, the artist doing battle with nature. The magma tries to follow its sedimentary ways - alluvial deposits form crusts, but ‘higher beings’ must have their way. Striation lines drag and torment the layered paint. The creative and destructive pressure of the squeegee dominates.
The largest, darkest, paintings have flesh wounds. Irregular patches of removed skin reveal an ugly history of long-term abuse. The regal orange of five rhomboid paintings glows with warm rectitude, covering darker moments. Perhaps Richter can find redemption in the monarchical reign of colour. The rhomboid is a shape that, like purple, should only be worn by emperors and popes. These different forms of Richter’s abstract powers show us what he has always excelled at: chance encounters. A surprise flaw or mistake in an understood process forms a branch that he then investigates with a controlled series of accidents. When this abstraction has the drama of Turner, the violence of Soutine and the camp richness of Boucher, how much responsibility does he take? Perhaps this is the captured material nature of paint? But if nature is ‘without meaning, ugly and cruel’ this cannot be.
In 1991 Richter exhibited Betty (1989) for the second time in London. To advertise the exhibition the Tate gallery produced a poster of the painting. Although the original was stunning, the poster (a lithograph of a photograph of his painting of a photograph of his daughter with her back towards us, facing a grey Richter monochrome) had the power to make you weep. In 1995, Richter exhibited a photographic edition of his painting Klorolle (1965). In this show he has made a photographic edition of Cathedral Corner (1987). Herein lies the romantic spirit of German painting, shamefully placed below stairs.
Two rhomboid photographs in the same room look like enlarged, colourful mixes of paint. I don’t know if they are palettes, paintings, or made solely as objects to be photographed. I suspect the latter, though it is rare in Richter’s work that concept outweighs aesthetics.
One steel and one solid-gold cross hang high on the gallery wall, symbols that reflect the exhibition as they allude to images of the crucified Christ, which have dominated European painting. But where in Richter’s imagery is Christ? There is no God in this painted valley, in the water or in the sky. Richter has stated that art itself is the only thing that can replace a bankrupt Christian faith. In this Totenlandschaft he declares a world that is traumatised because it has lost its religion, which is like mourning the death of a parent whom you never met, while denying their importance to you.
I asked if Richter had hung the show, but was told he was too ill to come. He was at his home, which is built in the shape of a cross. Many artists have crucifixion fantasies, though usually played out a little less literally. Friedrich, on principal, never painted Jesus, only mountain-top implications of him. The Richter who paints sublime abstracts may be in danger of filling the cross with himself.
What Richter does brilliantly is paint without drawing. Sigmar Polke defines form over form with the drawn and fluid structure of Cézanne, the man with X-ray eyes. Richter is more late Monet; a hopeless romantic with failing eyesight. If the viewer wishes to read Richter’s grids, or his photographic library, or the scars in the abstract paintings as a kind of drawing, then that is up to them. But while drawing according to Polke is about revelation through dissection, Richter works by devout disbelief. There was a grin on the faces of the higher beings that made Polke paint flamingos when he wanted to paint flowers. Richter’s refusal to draw denies him this wise humour. I can understand his political ambivalence, although I’m not sure I can say the same about his lack of irony. The alchemic abstraction employed by these two Shamans of ‘Capitalist Realism’ will, without satire, begin to pall.