Gerhard Richter seems to be quite the darling of the London art world lately. The much-lauded German painter has enjoyed high profile exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery and the Serpentine in recent years, and this autumn Tate Modern marks his eightieth year with a mammoth retrospective. Yet it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I entered the exhibition: excitement at the prospect of Tate finally doing justice to one of my favourite artists; but trepidation after my disappointment at those two previous exhibitions. Could the Tate’s attempt live up to my, admittedly high, expectations?
Certainly the Tate Modern’s recent run of superb single-artist exhibitions, such as the wonderful Miró and Gauguin retrospectives, boded well. And then there’s the curatorial team for the Richter exhibition, headed by the main man himself, Sir Nicholas Serota. It is therefore of little surprise – but much relief – that Gerhard Richter: Panorama is a huge success.
…the exhibition is well-paced…
As indicated by the subtitle Panorama, this is an overview of the vast scope of Richter’s work. While the order of the show is roughly chronological, each room is focused on a key moment in his career. The 4th floor exhibition space at the Tate Modern can sometimes seem cavernous, but by dividing the galleries into 14 smaller rooms, the exhibition is well-paced and provides the necessary intimacy to allow visitors to really engage with the artworks
The exhibition begins by focusing on the development of Richter’s trademark ‘photo-realistic’ style in the 1960s, and one is immediately struck by the artist’s love of paint. Richter’s concern with exploring the limits of paint as an artistic medium is evident throughout the exhibition, and while works in other media, such as glass, mirrors and photographs are included, they are invariably used to comment upon painting. Yet despite this singularity of focus, the range of his output is impressively varied.
…challenging our perceptions and questioning our categorisations of art…
His position as a saviour of painting is discussed early on, as Room 2 explores how his career has countered Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that painting is dead, and his debt to Germany’s Romantic traditions is repeatedly expressed. But he manages to remain contemporary and pioneering, constantly challenging our perceptions and questioning our categorisations of art.
No exhibition about Gerhard Richter would be complete without discussing his engagement with 20th-century history. Richter is credited as one of the first German artists to reflect upon the country’s Nazi past and throughout his career he has juxtaposed personal and wider social narratives to comment on large-scale political events. The most famous example of his political commentary is 18 October 1977, Richter’s series of 15 paintings chronicling the arrest, imprisonment and death of the Baader Meinhof Group. That the Tate has secured the full series from MoMA in New York is a massive coup and marks the high point of the exhibition. This series is the apotheosis of Richter’s style: his ability to capture both the transience and reverberation of a moment, to distil the full emotional range of a challenging history into a single image, to juxtapose the unknown and the familiar. The subjects appear at once ethereal and palpably human, and overall the effect is breathtaking
Despite his eighty years, Gerhard Richter is still going strong and using his art to make a valuable comment on contemporary events, such as his evocative depiction of the September 11 attacks, September (2005). This exhibition perfectly captures the essence of Richter as a wonderfully intelligent and knowledgeable artist, and his unwillingness to compromise on his love of paint marks him out as an equally great man.
The exhibition continues until 8 January 2012.
Images courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Fisher Collection- San Francisco, Gerhard Richter and Lucy Dawkins