Daniel Richter’s newest paintings – a series of four, comparatively modest, small-format works from 2009 – look as though they’re in disguise. Along with the apparent disappearance of ‘Blueman’, the masked and helpless superhero who once appeared in many of the German artist’s paintings, the super-contrived and visually violent parts of Richter’s previous work have been replaced by the picturesque. No wonder these frank and humble reflections on the fall of the Berlin Wall feel almost disingenuous. But perhaps Richter’s latest shift toward muted colours and more direct representation is to be expected: since the early 1990s, he has loped methodically through abstraction, pattern and gesture. In this frothy but concentrated exhibition of 20 pieces, drawn in part from the Essl Collection, his early works look florid and aggressive. In the later figurative paintings that dominated, however, most striking were Richter’s oscillations between specificity and ambiguity, directness and subversion, in his use of motifs and references.
In Amsterdam (2001), a barely clad prostitute stands in what could be a garden plot or a construction site. She peers out obliviously over the johns assembled in her yard, who barely seem aware of one another. Like Richter’s earlier abstract work, the composition is less perspectival than layered: the foreground doesn’t work spatially; it’s a seamless collage of disparate, interchangeable elements. Like much of Richter’s figurative work, the setting and motifs are anchored in the specific and recognizable. The effect, however, is a layer of moods: angst, paranoia, confusion, isolation, grief and ecstasy – thanks to gorgeous, apocalyptic swathes of colour more than any definite narrative or conclusion. Compare this to the clear moral reproach of Flash (2002), where refugees are drowning in the sea: a boat is flaming orange, the water is a black galaxy and the passengers are rendered with spectral bodies and the faces of apes.
Richter’s subsequent works become increasingly arbitrary in their references, the information in the images sinking into more remote layers. Halli Galli Polly (2004) initially attracts on a superficial level – what Richter calls the ‘Hello, here is a painting, look at me!’ effect. Domesticated birds and beasts of prey in visceral neon pinks and oranges attack a horse that is rearing up on its hind legs. Then follows a stratum of symbols: an anomalous red Soviet star hangs in the corner, while Wisdom flees the scene in the form of a superhero with two owls perched on his hands. Richter has said that the scenario is based on the collapse of the Soviet Union. The painting’s title alludes to the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey during World War I. And, not least, halli galli in German means ‘a big to-do’. Obviously, none of this needs to register in order for the viewer to understand the terrible scene, but it’s the arbitrary nature of Richter’s references that lends the painting a take-it-or-leave-it quality. Suspicion is cast on the image itself as well as its references.
In his most recent works, Richter seems to have come full-circle, embracing painting in the pre-modern sense. His imagery has become more realistic, loyal to actual details – so much so that it almost seems universal. The border between East and West Germany in Die Grenze o. A. S. (The Border, 2009) could be a landscape painting of any border. In this way, it’s similar to Phienox (1999), his painting of the Berlin Wall ten years ago. Though not included in the show, Phienox is partly a historical painting: Richter’s infrared figures are clambering over the wall. It’s also based on a news photo of the then-recent bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. The newer painting, Die Grenze o. A. S., however, is flat, the paint thickly applied with a spatula. Close observation reveals that the watchtower depicted has curtains but no roof. There’s also a hole in the forest that is the same colour as the sky, vaguely shaped like the profile of a kneeling figure. Taken together, these gestures gently evoke longing and doubt, in contrast with the brash, allegorical quality of Phienox.
Which is the more authentic way for the artist to depict his environment? You decide, Richter seems to say. In what feels like an act of resignation, he appears to be trusting viewers increasingly to make what they will of the painting, instead of pointing the way with intricate and explicit references. Codes and symbols themselves change over time, and perhaps Richter is now giving more sway to direct experience than to the distortions of analogy and metaphor.