|Gerhard Richter, Abdu, 2009|
I nearly didn’t go to see the latest Richter exhibition at Gagosian while I was in London last weekend. I had limited time and there were a number of exhibitions of artists whose work I don’t know or haven’t seen for a long time. Surely, I thought, Richter can’t be doing anything I haven’t seen before. Standing in the light drenched store front gallery on Davies Street, I saw that he had proved me wrong yet again.
|Gerhard Richter, Iblan, 2009|
If great painting breaks all the rules, social rules, cultural rules, the rules of art and life, then Richter is still a great painter. In the four tapestries — yes, he’s making tapestries — Abdu, Iblan, Musa, and Yusuf (all 2009), Richter brings together painting and weaving, paint and wool, modern art and traditional crafts, the East and the West. I have recently been thinking about what makes Richter’s work political, how it resonates and affects the world outside the frame, how it brings that world into the frame and critiques the world simply through translating it into painting. For an artist whose work is always ambiguous, always slipping just out of our grasp, it’s difficult to reconcile the ephemerality and perpetual motion with the seeming intransigence of reified politics.
|Gerhard Richter, Yusuf, 2009|
The titles of these four tapestries alone convince of their political relevance, and apparent urgency: Abdu, Iblan, Musa, and Yusuf are common Arab names. There’s no need to explain why tapestries titled with Arab names would be a radical gesture by a German artist in 2009. To be sure, Richter is breaking the rules: he gives each work a name, an identity, an individuality. He gives each tapestry an Arab name, an Arab identity. The four enormous tapestries do more than provoke with their titles. In a typical Richter strategy, they bring the past and present together on one surface: the ancient Arab art of carpet weaving is brought together with the technological sophistication of the modern world.
|Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting, CR 724-4, 1990|
The process of production is difficult to grasp: again in a familiar Richter strategy, he begins with one of his own paintings, Abstract Painting, 1990, CR 724-4, the same painting that is the springboard to his strip paintings from 2011. Rather than dividing the painting vertically, first in two, then again up to four thousand and ninety six times, he digitally transferred a quarter of the painting to the memory of a mechanical Jacquard loom. That is to say, I assume the transfer is done digitally, though we will have to wait for the catalogue to appear to have this confirmed. The loom then weaves the digitally transferred painting fragment and produces a Rorschach-like pattern that iterates the original Abstract Painting. How did he even imagine this, I wonder? In usual Richter style, everything about the work is controlled, perfect, and yet, it is a perfection that is imbued with aleatory and unforeseen possibilities.
|Gerhard Ricther, Musa, 2009|
In the same way that the paintings made with a squeegee will throw up unanticipated colours thanks to the process of application by the doctor knife, so the woven tapestries in this digitally determined process produce colours that surprise. The stretching and pulling of greys, whites, cobalt blue, yellow and red creates mirages, mirrors, and ricochets emanating from the central core. The visual effects, together with the colours are beautiful, the colours of the Mediterranean in one, of ancient Persian carpets, or tribal art and Richter’s own mirror images in others. And all at the same time, Richter is engaging with his favorite concerns of repetition, of translation between media – how one medium can tell us everything we need to know about another.
I sometimes wonder if Gerhard Richter will ever run out of ideas – I guess if he can still reinvent painting at 81 years old, decades after it was pronounced dead and gone, the answer is probably, not in this lifetime. For Richter, painting is an endless, unfathomable and ineffable reality, even as it is realized in woollen tapestries.
Copyright of all Images. Gerhard Richter