Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Panorama au Centre Pompidou

Gerhard Richter, Cage I, 2006, 897-1
Having been really excited by the major retrospective at the Tate Modern, I anticipated disappointment when it moved to the Centre Pompidou. Indeed, in its new installation, the organization of Panorama is not only disappointing, but problematic. Though the exhibition begins in chronological order, by room 3 or 4, it becomes simultaneously chronological and thematic, thereby claiming that the Richter oeuvre develops thematically. For example, by the time we get to the large abstract paintings, the hanging of Panorama at the Centre Pompidou would want us to believe that in the late 1990s, Richter is only painting oversized abstract canvases. And as was the most resounding revelation of the hanging of the same exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, albeit with some variance in the paintings on display, this could not be further from the reality. In reality, Richter has always privileged the reinvention of painting. And he has done this via the interrogation of its interface with photography, with architecture, theatre, sculpture and other arts, on the uncertain relationship between representation (painting) and reality. In turn, these concerns have always been explored on multiple canvases at any one time, on canvases that are big or small, through abstraction and figuration, in vibrant color, in the subtlety of grey, with giant squeegee or brush, with all manner of variation. What matters for Richter is not whether the painting is abstract or figurative, large or small, red or grey, what matters is the problem of how to perpetuate painting.

Gerhard Richter, Cage II, 2006, 897-3

The hanging of one series of paintings in particular bothered me. I know Cage I-VI (2006) well having visited the six paintings numerous times in their home institution of the Tate Modern. In their exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Cage I-VI were placed in line along a single wall isolated from each other, as though they are happy to exist as discrete images. Simultaneouly, the space between them and the temporary viewing spaces opposite was crammed: it was virtually impossible for the viewer to stand back and be in conversation, or to establish a connection with each of the paintings. Like all of Richter’s series, Cage I-VI is a community of paintings, and perhaps more so than any series other than the Bach I-IV (1992), the Cage paintings behave something like a family.

Gerhard Richter, Cage III, 2006, 897-3
Their home institution of the Tate Modern exhibits Cage I-VI on the four walls of one room. When I stand surrounded by the Cage paintings in London, I am immersed in the middle of a community of paintings, and I watch them interact with each other, primarily on the level of their grey surfaces. I engage less with them individually, than I watch them engage with each other. Together, they create the tone and temperature of the room – cool, refreshing, light. As an ensemble, they make me feel light, bright, carefree.
Gerhard Richter, Cage I-VI, 2006 @ Tate Modern
In their current exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, they are quieter, more somber, somehow more intellectual in their progression from light to darkness. Their placement in line, on one wall underlines their aloofness and their refusal to be understood. When they line a single wall, the invitation to be immersed in the world they create is withdrawn, the symphonic rhythms and vibrations give way to a battle with what distracts our attention in the temporary exhibition spaces behind us. And as Cage I-VI withdraw, they lose their command over the viewer, their stoicism and resolve. In line on a wall, gone are their symphonic and atonal rhythms that I experience when they surround me in London. 

Gerhard Richter, Cage I-VI, 2006 @ Tate Modern
On my visits to Cage I-VI at the Tate Modern, the room has always been, appropriately, empty and silent. The crowds are usually upstairs at the temporary exhibition, drawn in by the publicity of the importance of the occasion, with no need to wander the halls of the permanent collection. At the Tate Modern, I am reminded of the pregnant silences and emptiness of the paintings’ namesake, and of the orchestral sounds they produce when they come together. The exhibition of Richter’s paintings in Paris has drawn big crowds, and their relationship with each other, as well as mine with them were interrupted, broken off by the movements, pauses and comments of the other visitors.

Gerhard Richter, Cage I, 2006, 897-4
As we walked to dinner afterwards, I hesitantly asked James what he thought of Richter’s paintings — not this exhibition, but the oeuvre itself. I knew James wouldn’t respond with a simple “it’s great” or “I liked it” which was why I asked him; I need to know that Richter continues to challenge and excite, especially for someone who is a relative newcomer to the oeuvre. And indeed, he asked me “where is the doubt in Richter’s paintings?” With a smile of relief I was able to reflect that this is what makes Richter great: as a painter, he has no doubt. He paints in the utmost confidence, without ambivalence and possessed by the knowledge that what he is doing matters. Moreover, Richter’s own certainty of his process and of what he is doing allows him and his paintings to embrace the uncertainty of what will be and is realized when he puts paint onto a canvas. There is so much in these paintings that cannot be controlled, but Richter’s confidence and mastery of the material enables him to sit comfortably with the unforeseen, the ineffable of a painted canvas, and the unpredictability of what will happen when we stand before that canvas.  
Gerhard Richter, Cage V, 2006, 897-5
So for all my doubts about the hanging of paintings such as the Cage series at the Centre Pompidou, James' question reinforces that clearly, it’s still worth going to Panormain its Paris installation. If the paintings still have the capacity to provoke such a question, then we still have much to learn from them, even in spite of how they are exhibited.

Gerhard Richter, Cage VI, 2006, 897-6

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