Thursday, 6 October 2011

Gerhard Richter, Tate Modern

I have a vague familiarity with Gerhard Richter's work: I was struck, visiting Tate Britain sometime back, by one of his blurred/reportage paintings Schwimmerinnen (1965), and I visited the Serpentine exhibition of new work three years back.

On that occasion I think I got out of bed on the wrong side and had no patience with Richter's intentions. This Tate Modern retrospective is a good, well-curated exhibition that shows Richter's consistency and overrides my previous dismissiveness.

There are three types of work, two that are on show in almost every single room. The first are the photo-reproductions, paintings that retain the realism of the photo image but cast it afresh in a mist of 'blurred' paint, as if the image was fixed just as it started to blur in memory. The second are out-and-out abstracts, in which one may also bracket not-photo images, which are often precipitated from the miasma of abstract paint, i.e. emerging from the mist of memory or imagination in the opposite direction to the blurred photo images. Finally there are a number of ready-made style installations, invariably made of glass.

Rather like the Benday dot cartoons of the Pop Art movement, so the brushed-metal blurring of the (invariably grey) paint palette in the photo images is designed to draw attention to the nature of paint and painting. It's interesting that in a piece such as Ferrari (1964, right) the German text printed under the original photograph redprodcued is left intact, sharply realised. It's the image in which Richter has his interest - it's ability not only to represent but also add value to the image, to represent the dynamic reality of the car or at least its potential. There are many other pictures of people, for whom the blulrred image suggests a vibrant quality: the bleached-colour picture Negroes (from the same year) could be a still from a VHS-taped news report from African, the rudimentary 24 frames a second unable to fix the dynamism of the figures sharply.

Inamongst these pictures are distributed a number of landscapes-turned-abstract; beach & sea-scapes whose density overburdens their own reality. I really liked the aerial pictures of urban areas, particularly the Townscapes, again fixed as if from Pathe footage of wartime bombing raids - or as it occurred to me refraction-warped versions of the Warner/Village Roadshow production ident that plays at the opening of feature films - the image of dreams (right).

The monochromaticism of the blurred photo images is the strongest link with the abstracts. Room 4 has a number of these pictures which, in the artist's words
...makes no statement whatsoever... Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference...
Still, there are also highly colourful abstracts in the same room, the colour charts which - in isolation at the Serpentine - I had found so pointless. Here, thecharting of the colour takes on its actual point, to disassociate each colour from its neighbour, to render the justapoisiotn of the colour without scheme, so that it becomes exhibited for its own sake. With this going on, the depth and tonal tide of the grey abstracts actually seem structurally rigorous, with one, Grey Streaks (1968) actually resonating in the manner of a Bridget Riley composition.

At the far end of the first thrid of the exhibition is a strange hiatus of a room, including a blurred photo recreation of Titian's Annunciation (1535 - so, a painting of a photo of a painting, a theme to recur later) and realist paintings of clouds, i.e. figures that are already abstracted by their own perpetual motion.

This stylistic ships-in-the-night has a moment of palette-fission and the great coup of the exhibition as, without warning, Room 5 explodes into the technicolour Twomblyism of Room 6. The pictures are almost unbearably noisy on the eye with both collisions of colour and techniques of paint application, like a volcano spitting a rainbow of magma. Versions of these paintings, which left me cold, persist until the end of exhibition with only the possibility of a figure buried in the wash of Abstract Painting (1990, right) and the explictly overpainted photographs of Room 11 marking technical islands in the kaleidoscope. As Richter says - with this consistency that wins me round, even when the straight-up aesthetic doesn't:
[the abstract paintings] visualise a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude to exist
Alongside these can be seen dogged version of the blurred photographs, sometimes, in the case of his daughter Betty or his wife Sabine (in Reader, 1994, right), where the blurring is replaced with compositional variation, the figures no longer posing for a photo lens but instead taking up a pose as if for a portrait by a master, such as Vermeer. A painting of a photo recreating a painting. This rigour in investigating the purpose of paint, photography and representation finds itself again technically exhausted in Room 11 where a tableau of close photographs of of the surface of a painting of a photograph are displayed to investigate the possibility of a figure remaining intact. It doesn't but I like the tenacity of the idea.

Throughout the exhibition, the counter-Duchamp readymade glass has pared down the idea of an installation as something that may convey meaning instead to something that may hold or rfelct it, when it is examined. The early angled windows have different quanities of light reflected - 100% more than the two panes in the subsequent Grey Abstracts room, as they are over-painted (one cannot have and eat cake). The mirror of Room 6 is another piece that I would have groaned at were it not consistent with this investigation, ending in the stacked panes of Room 12, producing their own, blurred reflection of the viewer.

By the final room I had found the logcial thread of viewing that allowed me to disregard the aesthetically opaque abstracts without concern and relish the painted reportage-reworking of the 9/11 attack picture September (2005, right), a work as searching but dispassionate as the Baader-Meinhof pictures of Room 9. This is a meticulously prepared and mounted exhibition of intense, rigorous painting that might not readily appeal to the eye by certainly rewards the mind.

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