Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is ‘the most complicated of painters’, observes the art critic Adrian Searle. For over half a century, the German painter has been a compelling if elusive presence in the art world, confounding audiences with his transitions between styles and techniques.
Standing before a number of Richter’s realist and abstract pictures from the 1980s — a decade the critic describes as ‘one of the most contradictory periods in the artist’s career’ — Searle explains that ‘even though they look like they’ve been done by 10 different artists, you always know a Richter’. This, he says, is chiefly because of their psychological power.
In the early 1980s, Richter began making vibrant abstract paintings in acidic colours. This excursion into abstraction seemed like a radical departure, especially after his blurred photorealist pictures such as the haunting Kerze (Candle) from 1982, which sold at Christie’s for more than £10 million in 2011.
Not so, says Searle, who reveals that at the heart of the artist’s practice is a deep-seated suspicion of absolutes: ‘He makes art in so many different ways. He moves between figuration, portrait painting, landscape, monochrome painting and geometric abstraction.’
To unravel the significance of these different painting techniques requires an understanding of the artist’s background. Born in 1932 during the Nazi era, Richter grew up in East Germany and studied art before escaping to the west in 1961, just before the Berlin Wall was built. As a result, he got to live under three political systems (two of them totalitarian) at an early age, an experience that left him with an enduring wariness of ideology.
Richter confirmed as much in a 2012 interview with the BBC. ‘In the Sixties all artists had a style, like a marketing sign,’ he said, ‘but I always had a feeling that style was like a diktat, an ideological thing. I have a special fear of diktats, I am very sceptical about my plans and ideas.’
The artist’s refusal to choose between representation and abstraction can be seen as a statement of neutrality. In Wiese (Meadow), a sister painting to Scheune (Barn), which is held in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Searle observes that the landscape looks as if it’s been seen ‘in a flash from the window of a passing train, fleeting and unforgettable.’ At the same time, the critic asks, ‘Can one ever look out of the window of a train in Germany and not think of what happened in that country over the last century?’
Richter’s landscapes have consistently referred back to previous notions of history and landscape painting. But unlike romanticists such as Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), explains Searle, he is not idealising nature. ‘He knows that a painting is a construct, and our view of nature too — the way we try to idealise it and tame it — is also a construction.’
Painted in 1983, Wiese was featured in the 1998 retrospective Landschaften (Landscapes) at the Sprengel museum in Hanover, along with other out-of-focus pictures mimicking the blurred effects of the camera. In these works it is as if Richter is giving the audience information and obliterating it at the same time.
A similar tension exists in his abstract pictures. Abstraktes Bild (1984), above, was produced for the artist’s landmark 1984 exhibition in Dusseldorf, Von hier aus — Zwei Monate neue deutsche Kunst (Here Now — Two Months of New German Art).
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The work consists of layers of different techniques starting with a soft, atmospheric background which is then overpainted with fierce brushstrokes. ‘You can see the musculature of the painter working with his wrist and his arm,’ Searle observes. The image is then wiped with a giant squeegee, creating an imperfect surface on which traces of the earlier processes are revealed.
‘There’s something very contrapuntal about the way he works,’ the critic says of the way Richter moves right across the surface and back again before ‘whatever was going on underneath starts to come through, [and] what seems to be background becomes foreground’. In essence, Searle concludes, these pictures are ‘object lessons in what painting can be, can’t be, might be and could be.’
This exceptional group of Gerhard Richter works from the UniCredit Group will be offered as a highlight of Frieze Week at Christie’s in London. The proceeds will be used primarily to support the further roll-out of the group’s Social Impact Banking initiatives.