BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 01 MAY 11
Featured in
Issue 139

Gerhard Richter: Images of an Era | Out of Focus: After Gerhard Richter

Bucerius Kunst Forum & Hamburger Kunsthalle

BY Mark Prince in Reviews | 01 MAY 11

Gerhard Richter working on the “Stammheim” Cycle 18. Oktober 1977, 1988. All images courtesy: Motorboot and the artist. Photo: Timm Rautert.

Even inventors have their sources. ‘Gerhard Richter. Bilder einer Epoche’ (Gerhard Richter: Images of an Era), a selection of Richter’s paintings of photographs from the 1960s to the 1980s, begins with a coup: a vitrine containing original issues of the German magazines in which he found his images. They are pop chaff with an insistent death theme: the buxom secretary whose boss/lover murdered his wife; a grinning woman poisoned by pesticide; Lee Harvey Oswald with his hand raised like a smarmy politician. In Frau mit Schirm (Woman with Umbrella, 1964), Jackie Kennedy conceals her face, the painting’s title demonstrating how vigilantly Richter concealed his sources. He was aiming for pictorial anonymity while aspiring to compete with Andy Warhol’s transformation of the nascent celebrity circus into a new iconography of mortality. The contradiction was only resolved by relinquishing Pop Art’s graphic dynamism – white borders, bold headlines and captions half-cropped out – in order to hone in on the decontextualized photograph, alienated from its culture rather than representative of it.

Richter once disingenuously remarked – in the early ’60s when he delighted in provocative pronouncements – that there is no such thing as a blurred image. Showing concurrently with ‘Images of an Era’, the group exhibition ‘Unscharf. Nach Gerhard Richter’ (Out of Focus: After Gerhard Richter), at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, is a parochial attempt to qualify blurring as an artistic idiom, but it functions more as a reminder of Richter’s centrality to painting from the mid-1980s until the end of the ’90s, and how it waned in the last decade. This is, in fact, a very untimely show. Blur, for Richter, was just one side of a coin: a trope for illusion that he played against signs for painting’s materiality, or for its refusal to be reduced to a sign. The spatial background of Untitled (Stroke) (1966) foils a meaty swathe of darker paint that both activates and cancels it. This binary – photographic image/material abstraction – has been pervasive in recent painting from Luc Tuymans to Rudolf Stingel to Eberhard Havekost (none of whom are included here). A squeegeed swipe of green oil, obscuring a landscape idyll in Richter’s Krems (1986), qualifies one painterly metaphor for the instantaneous exposure of film with another. It may say, rhetorically, ‘This is not real: this is real’, but it leaves both positions in equilibrium.

On the limited evidence of ‘Out of Focus’, Richter’s inheritors mostly reduce these philosophical subtleties to a series of effects representing Modernistic speed, the kitsch of memory or ontological uncertainty. To retain your autonomy in the region of such a powerful magnetic force you need conceptual as well as technical distance. Ugo Rondinone’s concentric-circle diptych, SIXTHOFFEBRUARYTWOTHOUSANDANDTEN (2010), produces a blur that is hallucinogenic, uncanny and entirely incompatible with Richter’s strict moral universe. Centreing on two foggy cadmium-red discs, the canvases resemble narcotically bloodshot eyes refusing to focus. The forsaken bric-a-brac furnishing Paul Winstanley’s Corner of a Hotel Room (2008) is a British equivalent of Richter’s appropriations of the symbolic props of German Romantic painting. A copy of the arch miserabilist Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems (1988) lies on the sideboard by a chair that looks too old for the generic interior. Both suggest a perspective beyond all-pervasive mall modernity and its visual counterpart, digital imaging.

Richter would shun such wistfulness. When his paintings appear plaintive, look again, and he is probably representing an emotion in inverted commas. His landscape motifs – vague, unpicturesque corners of fields – are perceived not as lonely no-man’s lands but as universalized locations. Painting renders a mean image, a symbolic everyplace. In contrast, out-of-focus photography sacrifices content without a gain in materiality or universality. David Armstrong’s photographs, blurred to only the vaguest intimation of specific geography, are still too literal to suggest more than the arbitrariness of their views. Richter’s technique is a marvelously flexible invention, a gesture of neutralized subjectivity to which the camera – which it imitates – has no recourse. Memorializing its source image, it also distends, distorts and reinvents it.

Gerhard Richter, Zwei Fiat (Two Fiat), 1964. Oil on Canvas, 128.9 x 198.9 cm.

The advertisement on which Richter based Motorboot (1. Fassung) (Motor Boat [First Version], 1965) is a cliché of romantic bliss – a couple on a speedy joyride in the ocean – that the resulting painting imbues with full-bore eeriness, without deviating from its ostensible purpose of accurately rendering the original. The instant seems not to have been frozen, but slowed to a painfully grinding halt, the inane faces given a vertiginous torque as though they were also caught in the maelstrom of roaring surf. It is a callow version of the transformation Richter would later describe – commenting on ‘18. Oktober 1977’, his 1988 series of paintings of the events surrounding the deaths of the central members of the Baader Meinhof group – from the ‘horror’ of the press cuttings to the ‘grief’ of the paintings he made of them. Here are the young Richter’s entwined themes: death and eroticism. His version of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 depicts his first wife in a full-frontal nude parade as though the flesh had been put back on Duchamp’s cubist study of stick-figure movement (Ema [Akt auf einer Treppe], Ema [Nude on a Staircase], 1966). Klorolle (Toilet Paper, 1965) may also effect a tangential association with Duchamp – the urinal – but the painting remains local, even personal, irreducible to the safe house of cultural reference.

Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi, 1965) – Richter’s favourite uncle in his Nazi greatcoat – marks the beginning of a shift from global pop culture to national political trauma, which would culminate, 20 years later, in the ‘18. Oktober 1977’ cycle. Already, at the cusp of this transition, the public image is ceding to a personal dimension. Richter may have brushed out painting’s subjectivity but he still had to learn to personalize history in order to make it specific to his own art. ‘Images of an Era’ shows him briefly flirting with Warholian America before going on to define a territory of his own, a mustier European iconography of eros and alienation, precisely calibrated to measure its distance – yearning, fearful, awed – from the found image. Painting proves to be neither its source image nor the source of that image but, unlike both, is able to comprehend its inability to fully grasp either.

Mark Prince is an artist and writer living in Berlin.