This small, very focused exhibition of 40 odd works by Gerhard Richter is the privilege of a museum able to exhibit the local talent. Though Richter was born in East Germany and trained in Dusseldorf, his residential status in Cologne qualifies him as a local artist for the Museum Ludwig. It is rare to see such a small, concentrated collection of works by one of the world’s greatest living artists on display in a major museum. More typical would be to exhibit the modern master on a grand scale as did New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2002. The Museum Ludwig’s selection of abstract paintings from between 1968 and 2008, invites the audience to study Richter’s ongoing love of paint and color in close up. That is, without the distraction of his concerns for technology, photography, politics and history, and so on. This is an exhibition in which Richter’s lifelong commitment to the exploration of color and its behavior on the canvas is the sole, endlessly fascinating subject.
The exhibition is deliberately organized according to the patterns and rhythms of Richter’s abstract oeuvre, rather than chronologically. The result is that we are able to focus on the surfaces and depths of his paintings, rather than on his development as an artist. The works are arranged in series, or what I prefer to call, communities of works. Thus, the Wald series from 2005 fills the first main room of the exhibition, and as we go through we are greeted by, for example, the six Cage canvases from 2006, and Bach I-IV (1992). These works belong together, and it is a rare treat to see them together, to move close to them, away from them, between them and back again, all the time being caught up in the intensity of the emotion and ideas they excite. Thus, in the world of the forest of the Wald series, immersed in the strength and resolve of the vertical gray brushstrokes, we are swept up by the anger and fortitude of paint on canvas. Likewise, the cool world of the Cage canvases takes us into the depths of the minimalist nothingness of John Cage’s music.
While all of these are indeed abstract paintings, we can’t help looking for the representational in the varied and intensely colored canvases. Never before have I seen so much nature —fire, earth, water, trees, sky — raging on the surface of canvases that are definitively abstract. There are other characteristics of the works that, despite the abstraction, give them — or make us want to give them — a representational value. For example, Richter’s continued concern with the history of art is everywhere present on the surfaces and in the air that surrounds the abstract paintings. We are reminded, for example, of Monet’s use of color for the representation of light at different times of the day. And in a work such as St Gallen (1989) the grey of what appears like reflections on water in the final stages of dusk, as day turns into night, take us back to the German Romantic obsession with the longing and melancholia of the loss of the day, and with it, the loss of insight into the world. There are also more obvious references to artists through the titling of some canvases. For example, in the single canvas, Courbet (1986), the vibrancy and energy of Courbet’s seascapes comes alive in the bold intensity and movement of Richter’s reds, blues and yellows. This is a painting that has none of the carefully conceived rhythms of the Cage series, or the definitive claims of the Wald series. Because of course, the randomness and unpredictably of color echoes the outbursts of Courbet’s canvases.
Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors will see the newer work of Salem (2008). The title cards for these paired works claim them to be lacquer behind glass. However, they are in fact lacquer fused with glass. This is Richter’s most recent pushing of the parameters of painting. No longer do paint and support endure two separate identities, but here, the glass support has become fused with paint in a way that 60s artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein only ever dreamed of.
Richter’s reputation as one of the great artists of the twentieth century is so clearly confirmed in this exhibition of abstract paintings. Not only because of the quiet perfection with which he continues to push the parameters of painting almost forty years after it was declared dead by artists and art historians alike. But if you really believe that painting has nothing left to say to this world, go to the Museum Ludwig and experience the simultaneously aggressive and sentimental, doubting and convincing, the melancholic and the energetic, the stasis and motion of being in the presence of Gerhard Richter’s painting. For it is in the capacity to engage us emotionally, physically, and intellectually that the brilliance of Richter’s painting can still be found.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder, October 18, 2008 - February 1, 2009; Museum Ludwig, Abstraktes Bild, 1987, oil on canvas, 300 x 300 cm, courtesy of the Artist, collection Froehlich. Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder, October 18, 2008 - February 1, 2009; Museum Ludwig, Wald, 2005, oil on canvas, 197 x 132 cm, courtesy of the Artist, Collection of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg , a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder, October 18, 2008 - February 1, 2009; Museum Ludwig, Cage (2), 2006, 300 x 300 cm, courtesy of the Artist. Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder, October 18, 2008 - February 1, 2009; Museum Ludwig, Bach, 1992, oil on canvas, 300 x 300 cm, courtesy of the Artist and Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gerhard Richter, Abstrakte Bilder, October 18, 2008 - February 1, 2009; Museum Ludwig, Lack hinter Glas (905 - 1, 905 - 2), 2008, 100 pieces each 30 x 24 cm, courtesy of the Artist.)