The German painter Gerhard Richter has made an essential contribution to contemporary art in recalibrating painting as a conceptual art. He marks his 80th birthday this year, and Tate Modern has organized an impressive salute curated by Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey that surveys 50 years of work. The exhibition, “Panorama,” closes in London this weekend, but it moves to the Nationalgalerie in Berlin in February and then to Paris’ Centre Pompidou in June. The three venues have created a year-long window to appreciate his achievement.
In 2002, the US curator Robert Storr organized a similar survey for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. At the time, you could hear sounds of construction for the new MoMA through the walls of the galleries, which set a context for thinking of Storr’s effort—it tracked a 40-year dialogue between abstraction and representation in Richter’s work—as a story parallel to that of MoMA, an institution with an identity built on the emergence of abstraction from late 19th- and early 20th-century modern art. Richter’s oscillations from one genre to the other collapsed MoMA’s history into a meta-exhibition re-embracing the European roots of modernism. The sounds coming from behind the walls spoke hopefully for MoMA rebuilding its story for the 21st century. On the walls, however, Richter was already off to a head start.
The Tate’s Richter show doesn’t carry an institutional backstory, though the setting does have an impact on the exhibition’s effect. There is something matter-of-fact about Tate Modern that lends directness to its shows. The staging apparatus of the gallery tends to fall away. There is a utilitarian mood generated in seeing well-placed works on large walls, with galleries linked by impressively tall escalators that rise and fall between floors. The Tate experience is linear, with a layout akin to that of the London Tube system. As a result, the museum functions an assembly line for seeing art, moving large crowds past works that acquire a connective energy between them.
In Richter’s “Panorama” exhibition, the curators have pared a five-decade history of painting down to a series of thematically installed galleries that chart a fresh departure from the usual story of Richter forging a tasteful armistice in the 20th-century cold war between abstraction and representation. In Serota and Godfrey’s show, photography comes first—literally. The first two galleries are titled “Photo Paintings,” and they pull together a representative selection of Richter’s works from the 1960s and early 1970s that rely on personal and media-industry source photos that bring a new pop-related, democratic subject matter to painting. Richter being Richter, there’s no celebration in this appropriation, only a sober distancing enhanced by a dry-brush “unpainting” technique that fuses the image with the texture of the paint. It’s hard to tell what’s what sometimes, and the result is a canny ambivalence towards the subject matter that allows Richter to bury violent or disturbing histories behind the beauties of artfully smeared grey-scales or atmospherically soft colours. The source images are from newspapers, magazines, history books, family photos—all authoritative in their own way—but are now undone in their clarity, so that there is a struggle to see what is embedded in the apprehension of the paintings.
This grand start to a career, where painting’s image capacity is usurped by camera sources, which is in turn usurped by the factual materiality of paint, is rich territory that Richter mines throughout his career. The Tate show attests to a restless mind that never strays far from the complicated interactions of images and paint. Richter’s photographic Atlas is not part of the exhibition, but even without it, it is clear that for Richter, every image is a rabbit hole that opens to evasions of truth and to a false security about the stability of representational space. His art has been an evolution of paintings and objects that attest to the varieties of uncertainty embedded in contemporary consciousness. The muted aspect and lower contrast of the more recent works in the show, including a remarkable series of blurred yellow flowers and a room-sized installation of six large abstract paintings from 2006 titled Cage, suggests a touching accommodation with entropy. But it is an entropy that is still full of passion for showing what we think we know in the face of what we can’t quite see. Richter’s predilection for unpainting paintings is part of a well-explored reality principle that has yielded great depths from the unavoidable surfaces of things.