Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern
The somewhat rushed filmed interview you see here with curator Mark Godfrey is, on reflection, a rather inadequate response to the complex questions presented by this huge exhibition of Richter’s work. What’s more, I confess that up until a week or so before the interview was filmed Richter had hardly been on my radar as a meaningful abstract painter. He wasn’t serious, was he? A parodist? A tongue-in-cheek artist who spread himself across a range of different (appropriated) genres and styles, from Warhol-esque death-and-disaster pictures to anodyne landscapes, from inscrutable Duchampian object-sculptures to ironically inexpressive abstract expressionism? And all with the same degree of detachment, a steadfast and deadpan refusal to be seen to be either discriminating or ‘communicative’.
If that seems a harsh and unconsidered judgment, if not outrightly prejudiced, let me say that one of the foremost authorities on Richter, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh no less, who gave a lecture on Richter at Tate last night (5th Oct) himself freely admitted that he had always thought, until recently, that Richter’s abstract paintings were parodical. For him, eminent intellectual that he is, this was not of course a problem, but only served to deepen his interest in Richter, to give him yet more academic grist to the interpretative mill that perpetually grinds around the output of this artist. I think he was not a little disappointed that, after arguments with the artist himself, who insists that the works have genuine painterly ambition, he has been forced to change his mind. A case of the artist’s intentions overwhelming a perceived quality of the work? Actually, in Buchloh’s case, probably not.
At the end of Buchloh’s extraordinarily obtuse lecture, which derived from a chapter of a book he has been writing on Richter for the last fifteen years (!), his views were met with a question from the audience (from T. J. Clark, as it happened) that for me seemed to want to tease out the very heart of the dilemma about Richter. Despite the acreages of literature on the artist (I noticed nine large books on his work in a London bookshop recently – it’s practically an industry. How many are there on, for example, John Hoyland?), the real question comes down to just this – are the abstract paintings any good? And if they are good, how good? It would – surprisingly – appear to be the case that it is a question even the artist would like answered.
Have I changed my evaluation of the artist since seeing the show? The issue has certainly become more complex. Who is he comparable with? Disturbingly, whatever answer I come up with at the moment seems to lead to further questions about the achievements of all other abstract painting to date; because even if you can’t rate Richter very highly, it’s impossible to rate him very lowly. I can think of at least one positive in Richter’s abstract work – the refreshing absence of an overweening exercise in aesthetics or good taste. Whether this exonerates his seeming inability to nail the structure of a painting to anything stronger than, in the case of the ‘Cage’ paintings, a kind of orthogonal texturing, is highly debatable; but it does need debating. I suspect that he might be both derivative and conservative to some degree – those squeegeed late paintings look not only a little familiar but also a little spatially inactive – but that doesn’t rule him out. A lot of abstract painting around at the moment by po-faced and serious abstract painters is both familiar and dull. He’s at least as good as quite a lot of people.
That’s more than enough for now. In order to open a debate about Richter, abstractcritical would very much like to hear from you, either as comments added to this article, or as separate essays.