December 2017 – January 2018

Arts & Letters

Arresting time

By Sebastian Smee
Gerhard Richter’s GOMA exhibition finds beauty in banality, meaning in the arbitrary

The abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter – which make up about a third of an engrossing Richter show at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art (until 4 February 2018) – achieve incandescent beauty on a regular basis, but by a process that can feel coldly rote. The artist makes them by pushing a long rubber squeegee attached to what looks like a steel girder across large canvases pre-loaded with paint.

The effects are extraordinary. A sense of velocity inheres in the paint, which at times resembles rainbow-coloured cake icing applied by a frenetic, motorised spatula. Its smoothed-out striations are studded with rips and tears, like stockings or thin rubber stretched past its stress point, each hole in the fabric revealing effulgent harmonies of colour and riveting textures beneath. The paintings themselves blush, and shimmer. But their trembling gorgeousness appears to have been arrived at by accident, and feels oddly interchangeable with the beauty of their neighbours.

This is part of Richter’s ploy (one almost wants to say his “point”). But it’s confusing. We like to think of beauty as somehow rare or inimitable and, at its best, specifically directed: the fresh flower that is a harbinger of spring; the coy smile that feels like a personalised promise of happiness. But just look at Richter’s abstracts: how, other than by fluky effect, could anyone produce such complex patterns of colour and texture?

Certainly it is paint you recognise on their rich surfaces: paint with all its inherited prestige, its singular, luxuriant pleasures. These are not copies, not magnified photographs, nor are they spat out by a colour printer obeying some dizzying computer algorithm.

But then, what are they?

The mind scrambles for answers. Your eyes register their jewel-like layering of colour and texture, which can evoke everything from sumptuous Ottoman silks to Arctic fox pelts. You note, too, the way their surfaces shimmer with light effects that can conjure undulating water one moment, digital screens or distant galaxies the next. And yet you detect scant evidence of a human hand holding a brush, or indeed of any artistic decision at all.

“Somehow the tools do what they want,” Richter said, smiling, in a 2011 documentary. “I would have done it differently.” What little agency the artist can claim doesn’t go far beyond the brute business of forcing a squeegee across a canvas, like a child (or like Andy Warhol!) pushing paint through a silk screen.

Well, of course, Richter’s abstracts have more art behind them than I’m making out. But the suggestion of arbitrariness – of an image arrived at by accident – persists, and is both the bravely beating heart and the shameful canker at the core of Richter’s 60-year enterprise.

“The Life of Images” – which is the title curator Rosemary Hawker has given the show – could as easily have been dropped, you feel, in favour of “The Long, Drawn-Out Death of Images”, or, perhaps, “The Inexorable Leaking Away of Enchantment and Truth from our Moribund Late-Capitalist Visual Environment and the Dread-Infused Implications of This for Our Social, Political and Private Lives”. Neither option probably had the zing the organisers sought.

Instead, they have talked up Richter’s status as, in the eyes of many, the “world’s greatest living artist”. The claim may be reflex and glib, but if greatness is to be measured, at least in part, by breadth and depth of influence, it’s difficult to refute. Not too many major artists of the past few decades, working either in photography or painting, have managed to avoid grappling with Richter, and with what his work appears to say about the relationship between images, intimacy and the engulfing roar of history.

I say “appears” because Richter – unlike, say, Sigmar Polke, his brilliant, anarchic former friend – is one of those fastidious beings who states nothing without careful qualification. He is a painter, and likes to claim no more, but he is deeply thoughtful about existential questions in a way that perhaps only a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Hitler’s Germany could be.

Richter was born in Dresden in 1932. His father and two uncles both fought in World War Two. His father, Horst, was captured, and came home at the end of the war defeated and filled with shame. Richter has noted that as a paternal role model Horst was less than ideal, although probably no different from most of Germany’s other surviving fathers at the time. Richter’s uncle Rudi, a bigger influence on Richter than his father, was killed in combat, fighting for the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his aunt Marianne, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was first sterilised and then starved to death as part of Hitler’s “euthanasia” program aimed at the mentally ill.

As a young boy, Richter was obliged to join the Pimpfen, a feeder organisation for the Hitler Youth. He was on the cusp of puberty when Dresden was firebombed in 1945 (he was living at the time in a village about 100 kilometres away), and was given his first camera that same year. Already, image-making and history were united in his psyche.

After the war, living in East Germany, he witnessed the spy state and its inhuman ideology ruthlessly encroach on intimate life. He fled to West Germany and its booming capitalist, image-spewing economies in 1961, settling in Dusseldorf.

All through this time, Richter, like everyone else, watched and wrestled with the slow, barely comprehensible revelations – disseminated as often as not through small, grainy photographic images – of what had so recently been perpetrated by the Nazis. So it’s probably no surprise that his image-making has been concerned not only with the basic question of how we are to be in the world but also with how we should act as witnesses to what happens in it – not only in our wider relationship with history and crime but up close, in the innocent, over-brimming present, and in our most intimate relations with lovers, children, uncles and aunts.

The Brisbane show includes, on the one side of the ledger, Richter’s blurred, photorealist renderings of Egyptian pyramids, advancing fighter jets, a city seen from above, stylish celebrities, a hooded prisoner, and a passenger plane ploughing into a downtown skyscraper. But in a more intimate vein, we see paintings of Richter’s infant son, his daughter, his wife, and himself (in one case as an infant in the arms of his ill-fated Aunt Marianne). In both cases what you sense more than anything are the absent, original subjects trying to occupy – to fill out – the blurry, hesitant image of them thus presented.

Trying, and failing, or falling short – short of truth, short of beauty, short of “all ye need to know”. To look, for instance, at his famous painting of “Betty” turning away (shown here as a print) is to glimpse one of the many meanings behind Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’ in The Trial: “This door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

The photorealist paintings are based on photographs selected from Richter’s own archive, which he calls Atlas. Displayed here in a long gallery, the Atlas images include family snapshots as well as photographs, both trite and horrific, taken from magazines, newspapers and advertisements. The paintings developed from them are lent shifting degrees of blur by an almost mechanical act of effacement or veiling: Richter simply drags a dry brush across the surface of the still wet paint, so that formerly firm outlines now appear feathered, approximate.

By this simple technique, everything in the image is made to feel less substantial, as if struggling to come into being or longing to disappear, to fall back into the category of the blessedly unseen. The blur can also evoke a yearning on the part of consciousness to dissolve into the present (thereby evading the claws of history). Or it might be a compulsive expression of Richter’s hesitation or doubt. Or … it might just be blur, a vowel sound away from blah.

In any case, the degree of pressure applied by the dry brush corresponds to the degree of blur. And, of course, this act of semi-effacement – a mechanical act very similar to the squeegee Richter drags across the canvas to make his abstracts – can, with enough pressure, become total blur, total effacement, as in the series of four paintings called Birkenau.

These four deeply troubling works, which Richter made in 2014 and which he has not sold, are given a room to themselves in Brisbane. They are based on four photographs taken with what was probably a German Leica by a Greek-born Jew who worked in a Sonderkommando unit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He and his fellow Sonderkommando members were granted a reprieve from death in exchange for performing the desperate tasks of ushering others to their fates, cleaning up in the gas chambers after each round of mass murder, and dragging naked bodies into massive fire pits.

Richter’s Birkenau paintings are entirely abstract. The original images, which were taken under the most extreme duress and smuggled out of the concentration camp in a tube of toothpaste, are entirely veiled by his mechanical, squeegee method. Are they thereby generalised? Gussied up into “art”? Made falsely, reprehensibly beautiful? (Despite their mostly grey palette, they are indeed beautiful – although in the same apparently arbitrary way that all his abstracts are.) Or is Richter’s blur-as-effacement a form of bowing to the silence to which this extraordinary act of witnessing reduces us?

Whatever you decide, the dynamic underlying not only these works but also the rest of Richter’s oeuvre should at least be clear.

Beguiling as the photorealist paintings are, Richter’s oeuvre would seem unremarkable without his abstracts, which he has been making since the mid 1970s. Ravishing in themselves, they nonetheless pull the photorealist paintings into the vortex of what cannot be shown, explained or adequately processed.

Is this underlying dynamic too pat and predictable? Does it get too repetitive? I have sometimes felt so. But what keeps Richter’s work alive for me is the ongoing tension between the beauty of the paint and the banality, the fungibility, of the images based on photographs, no matter what their subject. Yes, this one over here of the woman reading is very beautiful, “a Vermeer for our time” and so forth. But these other ones – the candles burning, the large-scale pyramids, the fighter jets in formation – are the optical equivalent of ashes in your mouth. You look at them and some far-off flame is instantly extinguished. Absolutely nothing comes back.

Richter’s fascination with photography dates back decades, and was influenced, most obviously, by Andy Warhol. Much of his work is almost unimaginable without the precedent of Warhol’s early, grey, deadpan investigations into the arbitrariness and interchangeability of images in the worlds of advertising, celebrity culture and news media.

Richter has said that his paintings are attempts not to imitate photographs but to make them. “If I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to the light,” he has said, “then I am practising photography by other means.”

His abstracts, I often think, are like traces of an incredibly fast action that somehow achieves an almost lake-like stillness and serenity. Or is it rather (since ambivalence inheres in everything he does) that they achieve a kind of stupor? In any case, it’s in this sense that the abstracts are analogous to photographs, rather than being merely in opposition to them. After all, what are photographs if not a static record of two extremely fast processes: light travelling at 1080 million kilometres per hour, let in through a lens by the rapid-fire opening and closing of a shutter?

The camera approaches magic when it freezes fleeting phenomena: the shiver of leaves in the forest, the wind-wrinkled surface of water, the supersonic fighter jet. The tension between the speed and multiplicity of these phenomena and the stillness, the innocence, the quiet endurance, of the photograph itself will always beguile us. The unyielding world, so dauntingly manifold and objective, appears temporarily tamed into something subjective, something we can hold in our hands, share, shoot to a friend or exchange on social media.

Richter wonders, I think, about this taming, and about how it affects our ability to live inside truth. Photographs arrest motion. Might they also slow history, bring it to a shuddering, wheel-screeching halt, just in the nick of time? We instinctively toy with the idea when we see photographs of loved ones in moments that predate disaster. The disaster might be Auschwitz or Dresden or September 11 – or it might simply be that other disaster, the one that befalls us all. But the hope that we might slow it, stop it or even undo it is always, of course, an illusion.

I suspect that for Richter photographs do continue to carry traces of truth, beauty and perhaps even something sacred – even if only in the same way that ashes carry the memory of the guttering flame. Amid the particular ashes Richter investigates, there remain a few scattered embers that continue to emit their unconsoling warmth.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for the Boston Globe and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

@SebastianSmee

Gerhard Richter, September (Ed. 139) 2009, print between glass, 66 x 89.8cm. Collection: Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), Dallas, USA, Lay Family Acquisition Fund © Gerhard Richter 2017

December 2017 – January 2018

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