Gerhard Richter, “Frau Niepenberg”, oil on canvas, 140 cm x 100 cm, 1965.
GERHARD RICHTER: FORTY YEARS OF PAINTING
by Anthony Torres
Currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, a rare treat of an exhibition that is the most comprehensive presentation of the German artist’s work to date. The exhibition features approximately 140 works from every phase of the artist’s career from 1962 to the present. On exhibit are diverse genres that include portraiture, landscapes, images derived from photography, and gestural abstraction.
Born in 1932 in Dresden, Richter grew up under the Third Reich’s National Socialism and East German Communism, which left him deeply distrustful of ideologies of all kinds. This seems to condition his artistic production, which is situated and moves between categories of painting and photography.
Richter’s painting over the last forty years has traversed a range of painterly styles and this is reflected in a wide variety of work on display: photo-realist portraiture and Pop art images of everyday artifacts from the 1960s, gray gestural paintings from the 1970s, photo-based still lifes and landscapes from the 1980s, and some incredibly beautiful portraits and lush abstract paintings executed over the last decade.
Sprinkled throughout this diverse body of work are also images of historical periods and events rendered through depictions of people, such as the artist’s Uncle Rudy in a Nazi uniform, Jackie Kennedy in mourning, and images of revolutionary idealist-turned-terrorist members of the Baader-Mienhof, who died under suspicious circumstances while incarcerated in Germany.
These paintings appear to be derived from snapshot photography and photo-journalism, which is significant in positioning Richter’s work between painting and photography. The post-modern challenge of modernism’s insistence on the primacy of medium, which rendered distinctions between media suspect, points to a historical conjuncture of art and photography that conditions many of the images in the current exhibition. If the art historical significance of photography is that, by freeing art from the mimetic it served as the catalyst for a range of artistic practices and movements we now associate with modernism, then Picasso’s comment to his friend Brassai that photography liberated “painting from all literature, from the anecdote, and even from the subject” and that with photography we can now know “everything painting is not,” has particular relevance here. In pointing out this distinction, Picasso makes a connection to the interrelationship between art and photography that resulted in their mutual expansion and development. This can be traced through the many founders of photography who were trained as painters (Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre, Gustave de Gray, Henri Le Secq, Roger Fenton) and the use of photography by other artists (from Courbet and Degas to A. Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann and Man Ray).
This connection may explain many of the images on display that are constituted from a collection of “types” of photographic images — portraiture, documentary, fashion, and photojournalism — which, when used by Richter to render landscapes, urban sites, and everyday objects, blur hierarchical and teleological notions of media autonomy often associated with classic modernism.
Entering the exhibition, one encounters on the left a series of grey-scale portraits of dead people high on the wall, who include Jose Ortega y Gassett (1883-1955), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), etc.
The portraits are so finely rendered that at first glance they appear to be photographs, and given the volume, range, and historicity of the figures represented, one assumes they developed from photographs.
This dialogue with photography continues through several paintings, for example, Tote (Dead) (1963) depicts the lower half of a man sprawled on the ground beneath a white block mass, an image that was taken from a newspaper report of an industrial accident in which a worker was crushed beneath a large chunk of ice. Here, the language of photo-journalism, which includes text, is undermined by the nebulous pictorial rendering of the incident, one so out of focus that it is difficult see the details one would expect with a newspaper photograph, thus subverting the visual reporting and utility expected from a press image.
In other cases, buildings, street scenes, and city boulevards are presented in painterly modes that are clearly as concerned with the medium of painting as with relating a particular place or architectural site, evidenced by paintings such as Cathedral Square, Milan (1968), and Townscape Madrid (1968).
Richter addresses and interrogates the relation of painting to photography by manipulating codes for constructing objects embedded in each medium, which conditions the areas that constitute his oeuvre — household objects, portraits, landscapes and abstractions — as well as, the conditions that inform lines of demarcation between types of paintings.
While the exhibition is too expansive to be adequately addressed here in detail, what seems critical is the recognition that the construction, decoding and critique of the cultural and historical discourses that give meaning to the language of images forms the playing field of Richter’s concern. His paintings call into question the nature of photographs as “texts” made up of readable messages that are part of a convention that people assume is natural, objective or value-free, and the interrelationship that gave rise to the distinct “languages” of photography and painting. In particular, he challenges the basic premise that photography is an objective representation of truth, a maxim he investigates through a wide-ranging project that seems focused on exposing and demystifying concealed historical and cultural meanings of the ambiguously fractured narratives of both photography and painting. The works in this exhibition can thus be said to function in opposition to “official” histories that create distorted records, by positing an alternate narrative that not only recognizes a symbiotic relationship between media, but does so in order to question ideologies of photographic and painterly convention, achieved through ironic parody and painterly virtuosity.
This essay first appeared in The New Fillmore, November 2002.