Gerhard Richter celebrated his 80th birthday on February 9, 2012. In tribute to one of the most important artists of the present day, declared the ‘Picasso of the 21st century’ in 2004 by The Guardian, the Nationalgalerie Berlin is holding a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work. The exhibition, entitled Gerhard Richter: Panorama, is organized in conjunction with Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The term ‘panorama’ is taken from the Greek and is formed by the combination of the words ‘all’ and ‘seeing’. In English it has come to mean an unbroken view of an entire area. In a panorama, the expanse reveals itself to the viewer as you shift your gaze over time and through space. There is no one single view, rather a series of many views that combine to form a seamless whole. Correspondingly, the exhibition on the upper floor of the Neue Nationalgalerie has been conceived as a broad cyclorama that gradually unfolds in a series of expansive, open rooms. Around 130 paintings and five sculptures, selected in close cooperation with the artist himself, provide an insight into Richter’s manifold body of work, amassed over the course of five decades.
The exhibition has a chronological structure that gives viewers a very palpable sense of the singular nature of Gerhard Richter’s work. What makes it so singular is the much-discussed contemporaneity of abstract and figurative works and the constant interplay of repetition and change, whose mechanisms are laid bare in the chronological sequence of the works on display. It was thus a very conscientious decision not to hang the works according to theme or style. Such a concept would obscure the singular nature of Richter’s work, as it would separate the stylistically and thematically disparate even when they had in fact arisen at the same time. Instead of this, the panorama that opens itself up to you presents figurative paintings alongside abstract experiments in colour, landscapes that echo old masters, sea pictures and portraits alongside town views, which, broken down into a series of gestures, are now hardly recognizable as such. Traditional vanitas motives like the candle and skull stand in immediate proximity to expressively dense and complex abstracts.
There is, however, one distinct break in the chronology: when entering the gallery, the first thing you see is not Table from 1962 ( the first painting listed in Richter’s catalogue raisonné ). Instead you are initially surrounded by the large-scale abstract squeegee paintings that characterize Richter’s most recent period. Our panorama of the artistic processes starts in the present day, before delving deeper into the past and finally reemerging in the present.
Born in Dresden in 1932, Gerhard Richter studied wall painting at the art academy in his home city and very soon began receiving his first commissions in the still nascent GDR, or East Germany. In 1959 he visited the international art fair, documenta II, in Kassel, orchestrated by Werner Haftmann. It was a decisive moment for the young artist. Abstract works by Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana left a deep impression on him. Looking back at the event in 1986, Richter reflects: ‘Their sheer impudence! I was deeply fascinated and moved by it. I could almost say that these pictures were the real reason why I left the GDR. I realized that something was wrong with the way I thought.’ In spring 1961, just months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Richter left the GDR together with his wife Ema via West Berlin and finally settled in Düsseldorf. Contrary to what one might expect, however, Richter did not fall in line with prevalent trends in the West; in fact he defied them, just as he would again later during his time as professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1971 to 1993. Richter did not embark down a similar path to the radicalism he so admired in Pollock and Fontana or in the artistic approach developed by the Fluxus movement at the time. He countered the progressive tendencies towards ‘liberating’ art with the medium of painting, a medium laden with tradition. He would remain true to painting even when pushing its boundaries to the limit. Great artists were treated with an equal degree of irreverence and respect, as seen, for instance, in Richter’s answer to Marcel Duchamp’s famous analysis of painting from 1912, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), with his own work: Ema ( Nude on a Staircase ) from 1966.
Richter’s reaction to the increasing dominance of photography in contemporary art production was similarly unique. Even by the early 1960s he had begun creating the photo paintings that have become the hallmark of his work. The basis for these works is always a photograph, culled mostly from magazines or family albums, which is then enlarged by the artist and transferred to canvas, before finally becoming blurred by smudging the oil paints while they are still wet. As if shrouded beneath a veil and rendered in a restricted palette mostly of shades of grey, Richter’s subjects have the look and feel of memories. Take, for example, the artist’s own Aunt Marianne who, suffering from schizophrenia, perished in an institution for the mentally ill under the Nazi’s euthanasia programme, or Mr. Heyde, a doctor who actually served in the euthanasia programme and hanged himself in his prison cell in 1964. Instead of capturing or even critically evaluating their motives, Richter renders his source material in a way that points to the conditional and constrained nature of visual depiction itself, as well as to its inherent inability to convey the full truth. This idea on the cultural conditions and meanings of pictures underpins all his art and is the inner thread holding together Richter’s oeuvre. Beneath its diverse array of forms, it is, in essence, a profound inquiry into the means of producing art today and a critical review of its possibilities. In Richter’s own words it is the ‘attempt to probe the possibilities of what painting today still can achieve and may achieve.’
One of the questions that has occupied Richter throughout the many years of his career is painting’s relationship to reality. Besides the figurative paintings mentioned above, since the 1960s he has also produced non-figurative works, initially colour field paintings that were inspired by the colour charts found in art supplies stores. These lead to chance arrangements of coloured squares, as seen for instance in Richter’s window design for Cologne cathedral and the work 4900 Colours. There are eleven versions of this work in total and Version I has been completed for the first time for today’s exhibition in Berlin. It forms a ring around the entire show, a huge ribbon comprising 196 square enamel boxes, arranged in random order.
Richter’s intense study of the colour grey in all its shades is also not limited to his figurative photo paintings, but led in the early 1970s to a versatile exploration of monochrome painting. The 1980s saw Richter liberate himself from a restricted palette. The decade gave rise to brightly coloured, gestural, abstract canvases, usually large in size which the artist created through the ever more frequent use of a giant squeegee, which he would draw across the surface of the picture before the paint had had a chance to dry. The resulting pictures are composed of several layers that are bound together as the various layers of paint applied on top of each other are smudged, dragged and scraped open, in a process over which the artist only has partial control.
The inquiry into the medium of painting that Richter has now conducted for more than five decades is not the starting point or goal of his work. Rather, it provides the conceptual framework for it. The exhibition Gerhard Richter: Panorama makes this clear and it also vividly reveals how the artist’s probing of the medium of painting has led to consistent transgressions of its traditions and definitions. The idea of the picture as a surface, as a window, as a view onto a scene has led to Richter’s exploration of mirrors and panes of glass. Together with his deceivingly illusionistic paintings of curtains and clouds on show here, they strike up a dialogue with the architecture around them. Just to look at Mies van der Rohe’s building is to see through it. These works also revolve around the question of an artwork’s front and behind, of where the outside stops and the inside begins. Comparable to the white canvas that Richter deems the perfect picture, his panes of glass and mirrors point to the infinitive possibilities and simultaneous limitation of the depictable.
In addition to the retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Gerhard Richter’s most famous cycle of paintings is on show in the Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museum Island: the fifteen-part work October 18, 1977 from 1988. Here embedded in 19th-century history painting, this series recalls the terrorist activities of the RAF ( Red Army Faction ) that culminated in the events of the ‘Deutscher Herbst’ ( German Autumn ), and the deep state of domestic crisis that West Germany found itself in during this time. The date to which the title refers marked the crucial turning point in a series of hijackings and kidnappings, in which three key RAF members were found dead in their cells at Stuttgart-Stammheim prison, where they were facing life sentences. However, by depicting the protagonists largely in death, along with some of the clues to the events of that night, Richter not merely evokes the memory of October 18, 1977, some ten years after that night, but outlines the complexity of the social situation for the entire country in which the drama of the terrorism took place. By doing so, he highlights the young democracy’s paralysis in the face of an internal threat. Lastly, Richter draws our attention to the sheer impossibility of capturing this drama on canvas. His cycle is about failure – including the failure of the painter and of painting.