I hadn’t intended to go to the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate: I’d not heard of him at all before I turned up at the Tate Modern for an entirely different exhibition that was actually being held at the Tate Britain. Whoops. But no matter, because it was a happy accident that led me to check out something completely unfamiliar and unexpected, which in many ways is the best way to approach any artistic exhibition.
And what a weird mix Richter indeed proved to be. I’ve rarely come across an artist with a less defined specific personal style, or such a wide mix of different types of output. The exhibition starts with his 1960s paintings featuring a series of World War 2 aerial scenes based on photographs with a sort of “motion blur” smearing of the the grey palette of paints. There’s a scattering of more commercial illustration work that Richter did around this time for the advertising industry, before we’re quickly into a series of paintings which again are worked from photographs but now seek to make abstract works of macro scenes such as the sky and the sea, or an overhead abstracted view of a bombed-out city centre.
Then there’s some severe all-grey abstract block works akin to the likes of Rothko, before a sudden shift to his “colour chart’ stage where the works are full of colour panels resembling a Dulux paint catalogue, and also evoking the feeling of Bridget Riley’s later experiments relating to the effect of the interplay of colour with the eye of the beholder. There’s more micro/macro experiments, from triptychs of puffy white clouds to black and white brutal close-ups of the texture of canvases and the layering of paints on some of Richter’s own earlier works blown up to huge size and looking like alien landscapes; and some installation pieces involving glass plates.
With most artists, you can see them moving through specific phases and styles; and then, feeling that the particular avenue has been deserted, they move on to the next thing. But there’s no such separation with Richter. In the last decade he’s used more raw photographs but then also produced a full blown abstract set of six paintings named after American avant-garde composer John Cage. At the same time he has also been producing somewhat more traditional portraits of people and figures with a romantic “soft glow” blur effect that harks back to his earliest work but now with a lush colourful palette contrasting the greyness of the wartime scenes, almost achieving a ‘chocolate box’ effect. But then the all-grey WW2 style is returned to again for a set of paintings unflinchingly depicting subjects related to the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in the 1970s, a hugely controversial subject for a contemporary German artist to cover and which provoked much outrage and discussion at the time.
In many ways it’s like a handy overview of the predominant styles and artists of the second half of the twentieth century; but I struggled to get a sense of what was uniquely Richter in all of this. It’s as though he has been restlessly seeking ways of depicting subjects in a way that says what he wants and needs them to, but in each case he finds the approach wanting and so moves on to another, round and round his portfolio of styles eternally searching but never quite appearing happy or satisfied that any one of the approaches really does the job as completely or as in-depth as he is seeking. It’s as if the abstracts are appropriately complex and deep but too open to misinterpretation to accurately convey his intent; but the more traditional works are too obvious and superficial to satisfy him, even though they are more successfully accessible to the audience.
I’ll be honest and admit that this was the first exhibition I’ve seen at the Tate where not a single work has appealed to me personally, from the point of view of being something that I would be happy to have hanging on my wall. That’s not to say that I actively disliked what I was seeing, just that there was nothing that I connected with. The feeling that I got of the artist’s questing dissatisfaction left me feeling similarly distanced from the works as well.
However, I will add that I admired his Baader-Meinhof work in terms of its desire to stir up people from political apathy. It’s a reminder of the sort of provocation that has always been important for art to achieve through the ages, but which is all too easily forgotten centuries later when the original controversies are forgotten and all that modern audiences see is an inoffensive pretty picture on the wall. Richter’s work here reminds us that art should be difficult and dangerous at times and dare to prick civilised sensibilities and spark anger where necessary.