For anyone reading this who hasn't been in Paris during the month of August it is hard to describe just how dead the city is. In the quarters outside the main tourist areas, cafes and shops are shut, the streets are quiet, the galleries closed. It is almost impossible to see a dentist.
I was left with the Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Pompidou. There are worse things in the world certainly; however at the same time it proves difficult to tackle for purposes of review. Produced in conjunction with the Tate Modern in London, and the Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, this is a BIG show -- a monumental centrepiece of European high culture by an artist whom it's difficult to judge against the criteria to which we hold most other artists. Richter, perhaps along with his contemporary Anselm Kiefer, has the profile of someone who will stand up to art's most rigorous judgement: that of history. As such, any approach to him becomes coloured by considerations of not only his work as it is, but also this very specific status that it has achieved, which is now in a way 'fixed' through our collective appreciation of it. It is the question as to how he might be considered in the future: essentially what his work says about us here at this moment. It is art performing its most elevated function, acting as a mirror of ourselves and of the world in which we live.
Gerhard Richter, Gelbgrün, 1982, oil on canvas, 260 x 400 cm; Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, © Gerhard Richter, 2012.
Not an easy thing to talk about, but acknowledged in the title of the show, there is a panorama - of his career as a painter, of a range of the different approaches and tactics that painting has used over the last fifty years, of our history in Europe, and perhaps even this view of ourselves. We might also see a bathetic nod to the context -- there is a wonderful view over Paris. It's difficult to call it anything other than a wild success. It was a success even before it started and it would be interesting to know just how many people view the show as it tours through the three cities, if for no other reason than to be able to congratulate these three public institutions for performing the function for which we have them.
It is also with this point that we can address a question that a show like this raises. I was sitting on a bench, as I often do in galleries, and overhead a conversation between a couple where they agreed on their preference for his representational pictures over his abstraction. The gentleman's comment was: 'It seems like he ran out of ideas.'
While not wanting to ponder this comment specifically (every individual being entitled to their own opinion), it does however illustrate a problem: that the experience of actually being in the show is not necessarily either pleasant, or conducive to being able to really enter into a work (something, to give the man his credit, that is perhaps more difficult with an abstract work). It is an intractable problem but one that institutions seem to try and resolve with a didactic approach, and this show was no different; it feels like we were here to 'learn' about the career of Richter. The problem with this is that it can be bewildering and also easy to miss 'the art' behind 'the art history', even if there is something in both the remit of the institution and the pleasure of visiting a gallery that is educational.
Gerhard Richter, S. mit Kind, 1995, oil on canvas, 41 x 36 cm; Hambourg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, © Gerhard Richter, 2012.
The thing is that if you really want to engage the masses in art then surely there is something to be said for focusing on exposing them to the experiential realities of a confrontation with an art object; this is after all how Richter gained his reputation, where his power as an artist comes from. The problem is that this perhaps pulls in the opposite direction to the idea of education since, theoretically at least, this conflict between the raw aesthetic experience and all its renditions as something 'safe' -- its presentation in a gallery, its place as a historical or commercial object -- is without solution. The reality of this relationship being that the two elements interact with one another and are not mutually exclusive. It's easy to see though how, for a large institution, the 'safe' option is just that, and how a less mediated approach could open them up to all kinds of criticism. It would however be nice to see more risks taken in this sense.
Nevertheless, if there is only one show in town it is good that it's a show such as this, because, after all, Richter is fantastic.
(Image at top: Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1977, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 cm; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Private Collection, © Gerhard Richter, 2012)