If anything links the diverse approaches seen in the work of Gerhard Richter currently on display in an extensive retrospective at Tate Modern it would be materiality, surface and illusion. One thing pretends to be another - a photograph is a painting - a sky is a sea. Seascape (Cloudy), (1969), offers a view it would be impossible to see, the horizon being below eye level. Some of the early work appears crude (Himalaya (1968), Folding Dryer (1962)), and the dry brush scraped over wet paint becomes a little tiresome. In the first few rooms there is a sense of relief when one comes upon a painting which uses colour – there is only so much grey one can take. And even the first colour chart is poorly executed (192 Colours (1966)). But the sheer variety of styles, often painted alongside each other, shows Richter to be a painter exploring all aspects of his chosen medium with the attention of a serious artist.
Richter is not an artist with clearly defined ‘periods’ depicting linear progression, he moves from one approach to another and back again with seeming ease, merely adding to his oeuvre over time – photo-realism, abstraction, abstract expressionism, figurative, landscape, and with his Grey paintings and colour charts the introduction of random processes. The colour charts improve with a switch to enamel paint (4096 Colours (1974)) where the surface becomes flatter and more pure. In Double Pane of Glass (1977) a change of surface (glass as opposed to canvas) transforms the quality of the paint (oil) and therefore the surface of the painting and the quality of the brushwork. A change of tool (roller as opposed to brush) does the same (Grey (1974)). Richter’s approach is that of a scientist changing a single parameter of an experiment to see the change in outcome. This is most clear in the Grey paintings.
There is something very clinical about even his ‘loosest’ paintings. The meticulous nature of the work makes the minor deficiencies more apparent, imperfections on the surface (cracks, blemishes, a thumb print, staples and folded canvas visible on the sides of unframed paintings) break the illusion momentarily, offering the work a fragility and impermanence that they otherwise seem to be denying. And across the two canvases of Moonscape II (1968) the colours are ever so slightly wrong.
By abstracting photographs almost beyond recognition as he does in Tourist (With 1 Lion) and Tourist (With 2 Lions) (both 1975) is Richter trivialising an event (the mauling of said tourist by lions), or guarding the viewer from the horrible reality, or does the fact you have to work harder to ‘see’ the image heighten the horror? Similar could be asked regarding his portraits of Nazis and the 18th October 1977 series.
The Cloud paintings of 1970 are beautiful and manage to avoid the slight frustration felt by his other smooth surfaced photo-realist paintings. Richter’s most iconic painting, Betty (1988), also achieves this. This painting, a portrait of his daughter, could be regarded as Richter’s Mona Lisa, except we are denied her beauty as she is facing away from us and once again all we can do is wonder at the surface, stepping closer in an effort to break the illusion. This is the one painting that looks no different to its often seen reproductions. This is the slight frustration of which I speak – the reproductions (photographs of paintings of photographs) are always smoother and flatter than the actual paintings and so the ‘real’ painting, being merely a painting, although a marvel, is almost always a slight disappointment.
The only work on display here where the audience isn’t aware of the surface is Mirror (1981) (which, as the title suggests, is a mirror hung in the place of a painting). Here the viewer looks beyond the surface to see only themselves. The relationship between viewer and work is made explicit in Mirror, the artist is saying look at my work, or indeed any work of art, and you will see only yourself.
In the 1980’s Richter, an artist always at odds with fashion, momentarily joins in with the popular style with his large brash abstracts. The abstract paintings have everything the majority of the photo-realist paintings lack – texture, thickness, and vibrant colour. Interestingly, Richter’s early abstracts (where he blows up and reproduces details of other paintings) retain the smooth surface of the rest of his oeuvre. His 1980’s landscapes however are a disappointment, well executed but uninteresting. They are reasonable paintings of badly taken photographs, neither good photographs nor good paintings.
In his 1990’s abstracts Richter starts to cut into the surface of his paintings, revealing other surfaces beneath, other potential paintings, partially revealing also the processes behind the work.
In the late 1980’s Richter, who has spent so much time replicating photography in paint, began a series of small scale works applying paint directly onto photographs, personal family snapshots and portraits obscured by often a single brush stroke. Providing respite from his monumental paintings these ‘sketches’ are simple, quick and intensely beautiful. There is an apparent casualness to them unseen anywhere else in his body of work, almost as if he simply picked up the photograph to wipe his brush clean (I know this is not the case and these pieces are far from casual, but they successfully give that impression). These pieces are direct, they contain less illusion than much of his work, they are not paintings manifesting as photographs, or vice versa, they are what they are, a photograph daubed with paint, the successful merging of two media Richter has spent so much time questioning and separating.
Maybe he finally realises the limits of painting with September (2005), in which he obscures a painting he had begun, depicting the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre as they were destroyed on September 11th 2001. It is a modest painting but it shows his failure. His painting of an atrocity fails to evoke any of the powerful emotions - dread, fear, awe - that the photographs of the event so successfully induce. Why did he abandon this painting, deface it and then choose to exhibit the defacement? Is he, after a lifetimes work pushing at the limits of painting, acknowledging his failure? Is there nowhere else to go? Is the photograph of the painting, no matter how wonderful the paining is, always going to be better than the painting itself? This, ultimately, is the question we always return to with Richter’s work.