During Art Basel week recently I went to pay a visit to Fondation Beyeler, Switzerland’s most visited art museum, for the widely talked about Gerhard Richter exhibition, Pictures/Series. Put together by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in collaboration with the artist, it is the largest ever exhibition in Switzerland dedicated to the German-born artist’s work. And it’s pretty fantastic.
Beyeler director, Sam Keller, wasn’t exactly overstating it when he called the notoriously reclusive Richer, “the most influential artist of our time.” Today Richter is one of the most sought after and expensive living artists, commanding auction record-breaking prices for his works (surpassed only by Jeff Koons) and clocking up a dizzying number of exhibitions.
Unlike his 2011-2012 retrospective Panorama – a chronological survey of the artist’s work which travelled from Tate Modern in London to Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and then to Centre Pompidou in Paris –- this exhibition focuses for the first time on the artist’s series, cycles, and interior spaces. Although he has largely come to be associated with his large, abstract expressionist, colour-drenched squeegee paintings, throughout his long career Richter has resisted committing to and defining himself by one painting style. He has experimented constantly with new techniques, themes, and styles, challenging the limitations and categories imposed by the contemporary art market.
Obrist brings together this schizophrenic and diverse array of works from a career spanning sixty years. Over a hundred works–including portraits, still-lives, landscapes, colour charts, abstract paintings, two glass sculptures, and sixty-four over-painted photographs–are presented in the spacious and light-filled Renzo Piano-designed building, with each room telling a different story.
Dialogue with architecture and space is fundamental to this exhibition. In fact, it’s fundamental to the artist’s practice. “That is such a dream of mine — that the pictures will become an environment or become architecture,” Richter stated. Standing centre and dominating the first room is one of Richter’s sculptural sheet glass works, ‘7 Panes (House of Cards)’. It’s interesting to consider how some of the artist’s works relate to their architectural surroundings and space, and the glass works do this splendidly. Richter subverts the usual associations we have with glass–transparency, clarity–and instead employs it to create uncertainty. These angled reflective sheets of glass, stacked so that they resemble as the title suggests, a house of cards, play with the surrounding space and the viewer. They literally draw in the viewer and the space, reflecting back fractured, inverted, repeated, and indistinct mirror images. The effect produced is a reflection of a reflection, just as works like ‘Annunciation After Titian’ (1973), or ‘Man Shot Down 2’ (1988) are reproductions of reproductions, each incarnation losing more of its definition. Unlike a flat unbroken sheet of mirror or glass, the angled panes and the row of glass of ‘12 Panes (Row)’ (2013), which dissects another room, create a sense of confinement and confusion rather than open space.
Around ‘7 Panes’ the walls are hung with a series of glossy monochromatic ‘Grey’ (1975) paintings, each a different hue of grey, produced in the 1970s. These were painted when Richter had almost given up on painting. They seem cold and hard, emptiness contained beneath a glossy surface, yet at the same time they are heavy with meaning and the weight of history. Richter once said that the grey paintings were “the only way for me to paint concentration camps. It is impossible to paint the misery of life, except maybe in grey, to cover it.” Born in 1932, he was brought up under the Third Reich, and like other postwar German artists including Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke, Richter isn’t afraid of referencing Germany’s darker history and political transformation. It’s difficult to avoid that history as a German, much less a German artist. Mute with hopelessness and despair, the room of grey paintings provide a moment of silence and meditation before venturing further into the exhibition.
Walking on I find my favourite of Richter’s series, the artist’s legendary fifteen-part cycle, ‘October 18, 1977’ (1988), from New York’s Museum of Modern Art permanent collection. These are the iconic paintings of the joint suicide of the four founding Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) members, painted 11 years after the events they depict took place. Using a grisaille palette, Richter reproduces sections of the black and white photographs of the terrorist group and their prison cells that he took from newspaper archives. Richter blurs the images, creating an out-of-focus black and white photo effect. Hung together the result is funereal, a hazy memorial to the four members: in ‘Hanged’ (1988), we barely make out the ghostly blurry apparition of Gudrun Ensslin hanging from the bars in her cell; Andreas Baader lies dead in ‘Man Shot Down’ (1988), arm splayed with a gun in his hand; and in ‘Dead’ (1988), we see a close-ups of the head and upper body of Ulrike Meinhof, a dark line around her neck indicating death by hanging. The blurring device creates a distance between the viewer and the subject matter, both literally and figuratively. It forces the viewer to stand back to fully appreciate the details of the works, but it also a veil through which one can more dispassionately reflect on the horrific historic event and the group’s actions.
The blurring technique is employed again in ‘Annunciation after Titian’ (1973), this time to the point of abstraction. Painted after the artist saw the Titian painting in 1973, the first picture reproduces the painting clearly in Titian’s rich colour palette, while the second and subsequent paintings dissolve into a blur of colours. The series is “an example of how Richter’s series and cycles affirm the processual in art”, says Obrist. Like fading memories, where details are dulled and erased by the passage of time, each iteration of the painting loses more and more detail and definition. This series is a prelude to his famous abstract squeegee paintings where any figuration is eliminated altogether.
During the 1980s Richter began incorporating his squeegee technique more frequently into his work, dragging a perspex squeegee across or down wet paint on canvas in a demonstration of seemingly spontaneous and expressive paint handling. Although there is some room for chance in his abstract squeegee works–in the blurring of colour, the resultant texture of the paint, the marks made by the squeegee across the canvas– Richter is demanding of his paintings and they are executed with control and great understanding of paint’s properties. The paint is carefully dragged across the canvas creating a somewhat brutal result as layers of colours are blurred into one another in a process of erasure and destruction. There is nothing to be seen but layers of paint in works like his ‘Wald’ (2005) series, or his 1989 works ‘January’, ‘November’, and ‘December’, but figuration is not necessary to delight in these works. Unlike his ‘October 18, 1977’ series, Richter’s squeegee abstracts invite the viewer to take a closer look and examine the details of the painting’s surface. We happily comply and give ourselves over to the act of looking, getting lost in the texture and colour of the paint. Drawn in by the unpredictable and textured surface we analyse the marks made by the scrapings, the creases, and the streaks of colour on the canvas.
Paintings like the ‘Bach’ (1992) and ‘Cage’ (2006) series demonstrate more control and structure than many of Richter’s other squeegee paintings. Created while listing to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage, these works are not only shaped and guided by the music, they are the composers’ music become art, a synaesthesic transformation of musical notes into paint. Hanging in a room flooded with light, the ‘Bach’ series is a joyous symphony bursting with striations of colour, whereas ‘Cage’ seems to capture the white noise and silence of Cage’s music. This series is raw and scraped back so that the paintings look like gritty peeling billboards or flaking concrete. Richter and Cage would have made happy creative bedfellows; what Cage does with silence and ambient sound in his compositions, Richter does with space and colour in his.
The works in the exhibition are curated in series so that they interact with each other, but working in a series is also Richter’s preferred method of working, commenting in one interview that this way his pictures “learn from each other”. Hung as series, it is clear how the paintings refer to one other in colour, palette, size, style, and technique; they also invite comparison to one another, exposing their differences, and complete each other. The series format demands more of the viewer than an individual painting could; more time, more thought, and more engagement.
Pictures/Series is a feast for the eyes, room after room of paintings about space and colour, paintings that revel in their materiality, in their surface, and in their relationship with both the public and the personal. If you think that painting no longer has anything to offer, check this exhibition out.
Exhibition on until 7 September, 2014
CH-4125 Riehen / Basel