words Charles Holland
At the press conference that marked the opening of Panorama, Tate Modern’s epic Gerhard Richter retrospective, an embarrassed silence filled the room as one journalist after another attempted to grill the artist about his work. Richter greeted each question with a bemused shrug, leaving the gallery’s director Nicholas Serota to fill the void with theories and justifications.
Richter has reached a level of fame in the art world that means he no longer has to play ball with mere journalists. But there is something else, too: a genuine desire to avoid too much explanation and leave the words to others. This doesn’t reflect an anti-intellectual bias; more an acknowledgement that making and criticising art – even in these interdisciplinary times – are still significantly different activities.
Richter’s art does tend to generate an awful lot of words. His paintings refer both to big themes – the legacy of Nazism and political terrorism in post-war Germany, most obviously – and to the activity of painting itself. It is often said that his pictures are about the death of painting – or, at least, the viability of painting as a current art form. Following the German philosopher Theodor Adorno’s statement that there can be “no poetry after Auschwitz”, Richter’s work suggests an internal critique of the motivations behind painting after the cataclysmic events of the Second World War.
Panorama follows a more or less chronological path through Richter’s diverse oeuvre, with occasional jump-cuts across time to establish themes and connections. This ranges from his early 1960s paintings taken directly from photographs, through large grey abstracts and vast neo-psychedelic paintings to his recent semi-abstract works with their hints of terrorist atrocities, including 9/11. In between are occasional figurative outbursts, such as the portraits of his daughter Betty and his famous “momento mori” images of skulls and candles.
The exhibition suggests that Richter has no single style or signature. But it also shows him returning again and again to the technique of blurring. Sometimes this blurring is more like camera shake, feathering the edges of otherwise figurative pictures based on found photographs. At other times it involves dragging a squeegee across the surface of a painting to reveal other paintings hidden below. This blurring creates a deliberate ambiguity – a space where the images lose their solidity and firmness of meaning. His paintings also move from figuration to abstraction, often within a single picture, encouraging an oscillation between apparently didactic meaning and more ineffable themes.
Despite his attempts at effacing both images and clear meaning, Richter’s work acts as a series of monuments memorialising the effects of war. It also suggests a deep pessimism about the future of art and painting. The overriding emotion the work conjures up is intense doubt, both about the subjects being memoralised and the point of attempting to mark them in the first place.
This makes his work an interesting counterpoint to more traditional, physical forms of memorial. Most contemporary examples – such as the monument in Hyde Park to victims of the 7/7 London bombings – adopt the language of high-art abstraction, avoiding figurative or direct reference. Richter’s work moves continuously between the two, suggesting a simultaneous desire for a more direct form of communication and a recognition that such things are no longer possible.
The impossibility of clarity seems to hang over the paintings like a fog of abstraction through which you can occasionally discern something recognisable. They suggest that we have not only lost something, but also lost the ability to effectively mark the loss. The multiple genres he takes on are also a series of multiple dead-ends and the paintings a series of exquisite memorials to futility and loss.