For most of the 1990s Daniel Richter's work looked as if someone had locked a bunch of Abstract Expressionists in a studio and forced them to paint over each other's marks on the same canvas. His paintings from this period are mostly small-format - painterly gestures compressed to the point of implosion. The idea was to create a kind of visual feedback, to let every single smudge and splash resonate with the history of abstract painting.
Then around 1999 - three years after polemically stating that he painted abstractions because art had 'produced so many suffering bodies, so many pathetic, idiotic pseudo-protests it makes you sick' - Richter began painting monumental figurative scenes drawn from images of social struggle, a kind of post-socialist, late capitalist history painting, while continuing to saturate everything in a broad range of painterly strokes.
One problem with Richter's earlier approach was an almost literal heavy-handedness, the deliberate ugliness of shapes and colours gripping each other in a headlock. This aspect of the artist's work has largely been explained - or rather explained away - by referring to his éducation sentimentale in Hamburg's leftist squatter scene in the late 1980s, and to the visual language of Hip-Hop graffiti and Punk collage connected with it. In preference to this direct and biographical understanding of his work Richter now prefers to offer a more elaborate, allusive way of approaching it, as if offering a selection of tapas to those who want to avoid the heavy main course.
At Richter's recent show 'Grünspan' (Verdigris), in the vast basement of K21 (Dusseldorf's latest museum-size contemporary art space), a few books and records were displayed in two vitrines. These objects spanned a personal 20th-century history of dissidence, from communist writer Franz Jung through British noise-radicals Throbbing Gristle to the legendary writer and ethnologist Hubert Fichte (1936-85), whose poetic radar stretched from Hamburg's bohemian underground of the 1960s and 1970s to syncretist religions in Africa and the Americas. The show's title and that of the painting Grünspan (fertig ist die Möhre) (Verdigris, the Carrot Is Done, 2002) are taken from Fichte's 1971 novel Deltlevs Imitationen 'Grünspan' (Detlev's Imitations 'Verdigris') a semi-autobiographical, polyphonic book tracing the life of a half-Jewish boy from the horrific 1943 air raids on Hamburg, which he lived through, to his gay experiences in the student revolt of 1968. 1
But these personal resonances don't themselves explain the shift in Richter's approach to painting. The K21 show comprised 25 large-format paintings, all executed within the last three years and measuring up to 3 by 4 metres. They depict groups of ghostly, hunched figures emerging from the canvas, grimacing like gargoyles, with the screaming mouths and shiny button eyes of lemurs. Whether it is Alsatian dogs, hawk-faced policemen in combat gear (Dog Planet, 2002) or grinning men swinging clubs over a Guernica horse amid empty box files in a forest (Das Recht, The Law, 2001), almost all the creatures look as if they have been picked up on infra-red cameras. The juxtaposition of the coldness of surveillance with the heat of physical affliction is a rhetorical hint at the connection between law-and-order politics and lawless outbursts of male violence.
'To transform the murderous into grace is what artistry is about', Fichte said in a 1981 radio interview, and if Richter is now adopting this maxim he can hardly be accused of taking the easy way out. Apparently he is now attempting to juggle three approaches to painting: the conflict-ridden, dissonant urgency of early Georg Baselitz; Gerhard Richter's cool mimesis of visual culture, laying bare history by blurring it; and Jörg Immendorff's canvas theatre of Brechtian political rhetoric. And as if this confident attempt to carry a heavy load wasn't enough, he now suffuses his work with myriad allusions to other cultural sources.
Take Gedion (Gideon, 2002), for example. The title fuses the Gideon bible (Gideon was the poor farmer who became the saviour of the Israelites through sheer faith in God) with Marvin Gaye's sensual 'Let's Get It On' (1973) - and with Armageddon. The painting has a Judgement Day feel: a group of people stare up at something outside the frame, at some unnamed horror that seems to have turned their faces into ghostly masks. They are standing in front of a Modernist grid façade similar to that of the German department store chain Horten. It is possible to make out the shop's logo, but it has been altered into a fragment of the demand 'Hört auf' (Stop) - a nod to Immendorff's famous Hört auf zu Malen (Stop Painting, 1966), the Expressionist work that called for painting to cease unless it was motivated by political commitment. Two protagonists, a naked man wearing a Napoleon hat and a little girl in a red dress, are direct quotes from works by Vassily Surikow, the 19th-century Russian painter who mixed genre and history painting in an attempt to be understood by 'ordinary' people. For Richter, Immendorff's demand to take a political stand is still valid, but it is tempered by self-confessed feelings of paranoia and paralysis.
The question is why the works need so many coded allusions and painterly pirouettes to make their point. They are like a skilled debater, who could win you over to their cause if it weren't for the way they insisted on drowning out all objections in a rasping, hectoring voice.
As if to confirm that what ultimately matters to a painter is not the literary reference itself but its visual connotation, the cover of Richter's Dusseldorf catalogue is a detailed copy of the first edition of Fichte's Grünspan, which was designed by the writer himself: a dense ornamental carpet of glowing yellow, intense red and venomous green. Richter's palette favours precisely these colours: as if a whole set of traffic lights were illuminated simultaneously, making you accelerate and brake at the same time. Considering that so many painters take you on a boringly smooth ride, this is certainly a compliment.
1. Hubert Fichte, Detlevs Imitationen 'Grünspan', Reinbek, Rowohlt, 1971, p. 86; translated by Martin Chalmers as Detlev's Imitations (Mask), London, Serpent's Tail, 1992.