There was something flat about this exhibition, why were the slightly separate exhibition of large squeegee paintings (the ‘Cage’) the most engaging works on show?
If, you decide early on that your model, your source material, will be photographs then you will be, of necessity, negotiating a narrow band of pictorial space. Noticeably, in this very large show full of some very large work, once young Gerhard had sorted out his methodology: the black and white photo; the brushed across technique; the careful grisaille in oil paint, it doesn’t change much. True there are colour works, some fully modulated, but the palette is often restricted; usually the red end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, I think we can say, after this big retrospective, that Richter’s focus is grey paintings made from flat, processed, monochromatic image. Note it’s not work about the processes of photography, unlike the Tacita Dean downstairs for example.
No matter how much he might play with it, the umbilical link between photo and manipulated image is always strong and unbroken. We see statements in paint, rather than development, no on-going narrative of the artist’s growth, none of the Romantic struggle that can make the weary viewer empathise with rooms of beautifully applied grisaille. That is why the ‘Cage’ paintings hold more interest; we can see Mr G responding to materials, each squeegee stroke depends on the paint layer below, how it adheres or how it pulls away. In these paintings, aesthetic or materials based decisions are made constantly, each one depending on the decisions made before; development, the narrative of the work and the artists’ relationship to it.
That development creates conceptual as well as narrative depth, ideas taking root in the layered surface, a form (very shallow I grant you) of pictorial depth. Whereas the photograph based work deliberately resists that form of entry, they are mirrors, literally so in one room, that reflect back your own shallowness. It is not that visual depth is denied, it wasn’t there in the first place. Is that flatness (a rather different form of flatness to the conceptually laden Greenbergian approach) therefore a suitable metaphor for approaching Richter’s work? Are we just looking at surface decoration? He vigorously refutes any meaningful depth to his Baader-Meinhoff paintings for example. Pursuing this further, in an interview with Nicholas Serota in Time Out Magazine Richter says:
“…art shows us how to see things that are constructive and good, and to be an active part of that.
NS: So it gives structure to the world?
GR: Yes, comfort, hope, so it makes sense to be a part of that”
Not far away from that other painter of the comforting decorative surface, Matisse and his armchair for tired businessmen. Can this really be the case? Do we just flatter our own reflections when we come to view Richter? Can Richter just be the new taupe? These were the questions I came away with, big retrospectives put artists work under severe scrutiny, Has Richter stood up to it?