Tate Triumph as Serota Leads the Way – Gerhard Richter’s incredible Panorama

5 Oct

The last large-scale Gerhard Richter exhibition was held at Tate in 1991.  Although we have seen his works in many other exhibitions since, and he is considered as the world’s most important living artist, this exhibition looks at his whole career, presenting his oeuvre as an unbroken panorama.

Richter is an artist who examines reality from a very particular point of view, using different languages (whether that is expressed through painting, 3D works on works on paper) for different moments in his career.  The exhibition, curated in part by Nicholas Serota, is a collaboration with the artist and maybe this is one of the reasons why it is so wonderful.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Broadly speaking this exhibition is a chronological hang, although each of the 14 rooms has a specific concern or theme so this isn’t always strict.  The curators had two ambitions: to rethink Richter’s abstraction versus figuration and to bring together his wide-ranging media including amazing new glass sculptures that lose and transform our reflections, in a similar way to his figures that become lost in veils of paint.  Richter never wished to differentiate between abstract and image or figure-based paintings and we frequently see these two, supposedly opposite, practices coming together in harmony.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern.  Own photograph.

Gerhard Richter is amazing – I was able to hear him speak yesterday (if you can term his extremely brief replies as conversation) and he was wonderful (there are going to be a lot of superlative adjectives in this post as I’m smitten with him and the exhibition).  For an artist of his calibre, fame and renown, he comes across as completely down-to-earth, ordinary and, dare I say, loveable.  When questioned on an upcoming auction estimate for one his works, predicted to sell for several million pounds, he said he finds it absurd.  He seems so well-grounded.

Gerhard Richter in conversation with Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey. Own photograph.

The exhibition curators, as ever, were reading far more into Richter’s work than he does himself, but that is the way he likes it.  Richter believes that his most successful paintings are the ones that remain incomprehensible which is, perhaps, why he is so reluctant to talk about the works – he doesn’t want to ruin them.  He said that he wants to leave the explaining up to experts, his job is to create them. It is not that Richter has nothing to say but that he says it through his paintings.  There is no need for him to speak and explain the works to us.  That is our job.

Well, Tate has explained it perfectly and this exhibition is sensational.  A brilliantly lit show (on white walls!!) that is cleverly devised and presents some incredible works – Tate has hit the nail on the head.

It is hard to pick individual exhibition highlights as I’d say the entire exhibition is the highlight of the year.  Room 2 looks at Richter’s conversation with the works of Marcel Duchamp – most engagingly, his painting of a toilet roll in dialogue with Duchamp’s Fountain and his 4 Panes of Glass, his first glass sculpture, which empties Duchamp’s The Large Glass of imagery, instead focusing on purity and the importance of media in its own right.

Gerhard Richter, 4 Panes of Glass, 1967. Own photograph.

Richter was one of the first German artists to reflect on the history of National Socialism, creating works of family members who had been members, as well as victims, of the Nazi party.  In room 3, we find Richter’s Townscape Works, a series of paintings documenting the reconstruction of an area damaged by bombing during the war.  Townscape Paris shows densely packed buildings, presented in a claustrophobic way with thick, abstracted paint.  The colours smear into each other but Richter does not attempt to blend and unify these.  Instead, he leaves the contrast, working with strokes of different widths.  From varied distances, the images look different – sometimes a recognisable city, sometimes a devastated mess, like the rubble after a bomb has hit.  His paintings often confront disastrous events in history such as his September 11th work.

Gerhard Richter, Townscape Paris, 1968. Own photograph.

Room 5 explores Richter’s interest in chance and randomness – one of the motifs that led him to depict clouds.  The clouds are all painted in varying shades of grey through which it is sometimes possible to see the ordered countryside below.  It is impossible to pin down the cloud as it is a constantly changing entity and it is this that captures Richter’s imagination.

Room 5 at the Gerhard Richter exhibition. Own photograph.

In contrast to the greyness of these works, his squeegee abstractions present an amazing array of colour with deep layers of paint revealing the history of the works’ creation.  Richter has never been shy of dominant colours, often working boldly with only the primaries.

Richter has always had a unique relationship with photography and is known for his paintings based on photographs, scrutinising their use and place in today’s culture.  Room 11 shows War Cut where the artist combined close-ups of a 1987 painting with texts derived from German newspapers about the Iraq war.  Here, Richter is reversing his usual relationship with photography in a fascinating and unorthodox way.  The smaller-scale works in this room are more intimate – his style just keeps on changing like an ever-rotating cog.

Room 11 at the Gerhard Richter exhibition showing War Cut, 2004. Own photograph.

The final room is, regrettably, on the other side of the espresso bar but there was little alternative with a show of this size.  This, room 14, shows his Cage Paintings from 2006.  Painted while listening to the music of John Cage, Richter has used several layers of painting and erasure to create more of his animated, textured surfaces.

Detail of one of Gerhard Richter’s Cage Paintings, 2006. Own photograph.

Richter’s works are diverse, but there is continuity across his whole career, and this diversity is to be celebrated as Tate does here.  His works can be found on opposite ends of the spectrum, his practice defined by a series of contradictions and oppositions which present the poignant versus the banal in a very moving way.  His practice is better outlined in the beautiful catalogue that accompanies the show, which no doubt will become the definitive Richter book for many years to come.

I don’t seek to tell you about every room in the exhibition or discuss his work in detail as this is a show you must see for yourself.  His works are absorbing.  This exhibition and, for me, Richter’s works are beyond criticism.

Gerhard Richter’s Panorama at Tate Modern. Own photograph.

Over the years Richter feels that art has turned into just another form of entertainment.  There is no doubt that some art is entertaining but Richter’s surpasses anything of this ilk – his paintings can provoke passion or sadness and, often, joy.  He once said that “art is the highest form of hope” – a comment that he still believes to this day.  Certainly, we felt hopeful as we left the exhibition.  The exhibition coincides with Richter’s 80th birthday and is the most wonderful birthday gift to him from Tate (and from him to us), showcasing decades of excellence and genius.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama opens tomorrow, 6th October 2011, until 8th January 2012 at Tate Modern, www.tate.org.uk.

2 Responses to “Tate Triumph as Serota Leads the Way – Gerhard Richter’s incredible Panorama”

  1. Conrad Bo September 28, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    Thank you for this great article on Gerhard Richter.
    Conrad Bo
    The Superstroke Art Movement

    • chloenelkin September 28, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

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