The world is divided into those who think painting is dead, and those who continue to do it anyway. German master painter Gerhard Richter is defiantly in the latter camp, and Tate Modern’s extensive survey of his fifty-year career at the easel shows this in spades.
From the range of painterly concerns on show in Panorama, it seems that Richer has never let up. He continues to experiment with the application of paint and to question painterly representation, moving from his distinctive blurred photograph paintings through giant bright rugged abstracts, traditional pensive still lifes and portraiture, and stark colour grids. Panorama sometimes feels like a group show from one person’s multiple painter personalities.
But this diversity doesn’t signify a lack of focus, in fact it’s how we focus that’s at question here. There’s a thread running through Richter’s work that questions representation, most famously in his meticulously rendered copies of black and white photographs with their feather-light blurring. Endlessly reproducible tabloid imagery gets fixed in oil paint, while old family photos of relatives lost to war gain extra distance and poignancy as they fade into gentle grey smudges.
Though he’s devoted to paint, Richter uses a camera a great deal, painting from photographs more often than not. He even photographed a painting repeatedly from different angles, capturing the brushstrokes and paint like landscapes. There are also abstracts which are in fact based on photos of the artist’s paint smudges, so in fact not abstract at all but representational, albeit of something rather abstract in the first place...
Sometimes obfuscation acts to make viewers look at things afresh. Richter’s paintings are analogous - his abstracts shimmer with shapes and colour combinations that could be read as images, while his approach to photorealism makes us question what the term actually means. As a lesson in what painting is, what it can be, and how it relates to the world we live in, Panorama is essential.
-- Laura Bushell
All images courtesy the artist and Tate Modern
Images: Gerhard Richter, Mustang Squadron 1964, Private Collection © Gerhard Richter; Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting 1990, Tate. Purchased 1992 © Gerhard Richter . Photo: Lucy Dawkins