Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Adore or not to Adore? When I see Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter,  Self-Portrait, Three Times, 22.1.1990

Last week when I dropped into Marian Goodman on my way home to see the latest exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work, I was under the impression that the vernissage was the night before. However, one look at all the women in silk dresses and heels told me I had come in time for the vernissage. One by one the who’s who of the Paris art world strolled across the courtyard of the Hotel Particulier that is home to Marian Goodman's Paris gallery. They picked up a glass of champagne and found each other in the small but light filled space of the ground floor gallery.

The work was somehow unrelated to what was going on around me. The fact that Richter had apparently made a radical departure from the trajectory of his celebrated oeuvre didn’t seem important. It was, or so I thought, just another vernissage, and as the space became very crowded I decided to leave and return on a less crowded day.
Gerhard Richter, Grey, 1968, CR 194-6
Then as I walked across the cobblestoned courtyard, a posse of photographers, and men in grey suits strode towards me. I can be forgiven for thinking I was witnessing the arrival of a famous rock star. The crowd at the drinks table suddenly went quiet, and with no attempt to disguise their fascination, turned around and strained to catch a glimpse of the slight, but energy-filled, Gerhard Richter. And from that moment on, the eyes of the crowd never left him, registering his every move and gesture with its photographic gaze. The only difference between Richter’s arrival and that of any other media personality was that the art world crowd maintained its poise and decorum. Though he wasn’t mobbed, he was, at all times, surrounded by admirers, seeming to tower above him: everyone had a book they wanted him to sign. 
Gerhard Richter, Cut, 2006, CR896-4 
I owe so much of my intellectual development to Gerhard Richter: even though I have published on the work of many others, his paintings have influenced and encapsulate everything about German art and film that has preoccupied me for the past 15 years. The engagement of even his abstract paintings with German history, and German memory, with the questions raised at the intersection of painting and photography, painting and cinema, with modernism and its relationship to the revolutions of modernity, and with paint, light, and the role of the painter as author of his self-exploration on a canvas, the representation of trauma and memory, and the ultimate failure of vision and visual representation, these are the issues that haunt all of my academic work. As I stood watching the fans getting autographs of their hero, it occurred to me that the paintings and the man whom the art world reveres have very little to do with each other.
Gerhard Richter, Self Portrait, 1996, CR836-2
The cult of the individual great artist, the man to be adored and annexed as something like the art world’s messiah is in fact in direct opposition to his oeuvre. His work has, since the 1960s, continued to develop at the edge, to create a space within artistic modernism where every certainty — of the passion and urgency of painting, of its persistence in a world that doubts it is even alive, and of a painter who has reached heroic status — is undone, challenged and negated in the moment of its articulation. Richter’s paintings question and problematize everything they touch. It is no coincidence that so much of his oeuvre, especially up until the 1990s, and again at the turn of the twenty-first century, is pursued in the vast possibilities of grey paint. For this is work that is ambiguous, dense with impossibility and never sits still. Like the eternal transformations of grey paint, Richter’s presence on the canvas is always shifting, often in the process of disappearing, sometimes erased, violated through scratching of the surface, blurred, or his image and images overpainted.
Gerhard Richter, Self Portrait, 1970, Atlas Sheet: 62
Of course, fans want his autograph, because there’s a desire in the world we live in that is underpinned by the logic of exchange. We want to own, to become an individual through our proximity to that which everyone else covets. But Richter’s autograph, at least in the various ways it is inscribed on his works, always awaits its erasure, it’s immanent disappearance. This, while he continues to represent himself over and over and over again. While a part of me wanted to join the line to get Richter’s autograph, to pay my homage to the master of contemporary painting, I left without speaking to him. In the moment, I just couldn’t bring myself to approach him, I realize that I had nothing to say to him, that I had no need or interest in the man’s autograph. Offered the invitation, I would, in a heartbeat, leave my self behind and forgo my identity for the unfathomable painted world of Gerhard Richter. These are paintings before which I am not only willing, but have often been tempted, to kneel down.
Gerhard Richter, Self-Portrait, Three Times, Standing (16.3.1991)
I say all this, and yet, when I got home, my heart was still beating, I was breathless and had to phone Georgia to tell her I had seen Gerhard Richter. And so, as I watch my intellectualization of the encounter begin to unravel, I simultaneously see what might just have been a case of being too star struck to gather the courage to speak to this prophet of modernist painting. As though standing before one of his paintings, my spiral into contradictions leaves me wondering if the man and his art ultimately do have more in common than I like to admit? 

All images copyright Gerhard Richter

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