by Robert J. Hughes
Desolation is a primary color.
At least it is in the saturated tints of Daniel Richter's universe.
The paintings that make up "Voyage, Voyage," at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, evoke, as do so many works featuring solitary figures in vast landscapes, the enigmatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich. But here the effect is indeed desolate rather than pastoral, anguished rather than contemplative. Richter's paintings at Thaddaeus Ropac have a similar Friedrichian sense of scale – but they don't convey grandeur as much as fear.
The colors of the paintings often feature molten yellows, reverberant blues and penumbral violets, as in an untitled canvas in which a mustard-color figure walks across what could be a glacial formation of jaundiced gold spanning a blue ravine piercing indigo mountains under a purple sky.
The figure is carrying a stick, like some 19th-century wanderer inhaling the glories of nature. But it's just a bright anthropomorphic shape in a tense study of triangles – the gorge, the mountains, the patch of sky – that conveys determination, isolation, a plodding humanity forging through a horrified, benighted wilderness.
Daniel Richter, Voyage, voyage, 2012, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 x 4 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac - Paris.
In the painting titled Voyage, Voyage, two figures, one perched atop the other, are poised at the point of a somber promontory jutting out into the perilous air over a gorge. A yellow sky ascends over the mountain range in this fraught crepuscular twilight. Richter evokes distance, spatial relationships, and the fragility, even the temporality, of life in relation to the foreboding solidity of a jagged earth.
One striking work, Dorothea hadn't thought of Copley for a very long time now, shows a nude woman from the back, her legs stretched across another gulley, balanced between falling and remaining, peering into the abyss. Her head is bright yellow, like a rising sun, her orange-hued skin gleaming toward the viewer under her luminous skull. The deep blue of the sky, and the flesh-colored earth that rise to become teal mountains, frame her.
Even without the evocative title, the painting seems "about" something, in the manner of representational art. But Richter positions figures against and amid almost-abstract backgrounds, as if these two pictorial approaches were more alike than not. And, for the viewer, it's a balance between oblivion and thereness, a careful juxtaposition of choice between memory, realization, forgetting and regret.
Daniel Richter, D.O.A.XL 2010, 2012, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 x 4 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac - Paris.
And then we have some garish and frightening paintings, such as D.O.A.XL 2010, whose title could mean, perhaps, dead on arrival, extra large. Regardless, this work shimmers with danger, as two figures bearing arms, with glowing radioactive eyes, stride through a brutal field of explosive colors – garish greens, lurid reds, blasts of white, dripping cobalt. This picture conveys a sense of a grim armed battle in the feverish aftermath of a detonation.
For all of their fearsome energy, these paintings bear long regard. They have a luminosity that helps one tolerate the anguish and menace of the scenes. Perhaps horrors are more bearable if we can interpret them through their depiction on a two-dimensional plane. Or perhaps they become real only through the eyes of someone who sees the malignancy beneath the surface of the visual world and forces us to look, not look away, and consider our place in a world we have made and a world we cannot control.
—Robert J. Hughes
(Image on top: Daniel Richter, Rubykomm, 2012, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 x 4 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac - Paris.)