Abstract Critical

Is Richter for Real?

Written by Robin Greenwood

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.



  1. Robert Linsley said…

    I’m with you on a lot of this, especially striking out for freedom. Rothko is weak, Mitchell and Pollock are strong. Mitchell gets better all the time in my view. Also share your frustration with “the dominant two-dimensional mode.” But I think there’s some moments between painting and sculpture that are worth pondering, and may also be the place from which to start on a new sculptural adventure.
    Been puzzling about this particular question for a while now, and thinking of Gego, Morellet, Gedi Sibony, Lygia Pape, Sandback, Accardi, Marisa Merz and lots of other people. Also Caro is pretty interesting still.

  2. Robin Greenwood said…

    It’s been an interesting few weeks since I saw Richter’s show and these exchanges commenced. Complex… I feel a little chastened. If anything, my anxiety about modernism has increased slightly; but so perhaps has my ability to be relaxed working within that anxiety, to feel it as a natural condition for an artist now. How could it be any different? Perhaps this is Richter’s insight. I have enjoyed thinking about his show.
    I still can’t get into any sort of relationship with photo-painting. What’s the point? If there is any interest in the subject-matter, I would rather look at the photo itself, in its original form and context (with the accompanying news article). Copying it in paint adds nothing that I can see, even if you smudge it. This is, in part, my answer to John Holland’s last question – why the faith in the future of abstract painting? – because all avenues of figurative painting are unprogressive, if not closed altogether. I agree with the other kinds of dead-ends John mentions too. But I realise none of this really answers for why the faith in the future of abstract…
    My interest in Richter still centres around the three big abstract paintings in the middle of the show; ‘Hedge’, 1982; ‘June’, 1983; and ‘Yellow-Green’, 1982, any of which I would rather have hanging on my wall than many another abstract painting. I return to asking what else we directly compare these works with. Surely their unpredictability counts for something. I think I backtrack on what I said previously about the faux-innocent excitement of them being ‘easy’. It is perhaps easier still to fall in with the aesthetics of the later squeegee works (Cage series etc); maybe the harder thing was for Richter to leave this more conventional path alone for a spell in the eighties, and chuck in a lot of unresolved stuff. What does unresolved mean anyway? There has got to be good ‘unresolved’ and bad ‘unresolved’, and good and bad ‘unity’ or ‘synthesis’. See Minimalism. Read Pissarro. So I find (at the moment) I like these three Richter paintings better than: Newman, Rothko, Olitski, Noland – sacrilege! Not as good as Hofmann, Pollock, Mitchell, maybe. I’m really sticking my neck out here. Maybe I’m just bored with Newman and Rothko (though was not the Late Rothko Tate show such an absolute, abominable bore? No, really!) Because these three Richter’s (along with a few others maybe from this batch of work, to judge from reproduction) are somehow a little liberated from mainstream aesthetic expectation. Painting, like anything else, is in part political, and these works strike out a little for freedom.
    I don’t think abstraction and modernism are so totally synonymous (John) and you make the link sound somewhat contrived, but I nevertheless take your point, and would agree that the decoupling of abstract art and modernism is a really exciting prospect. If you remove the parts of modernism that are dogmatic about painting, say – and let’s agree that modernism spans a huge territory, from anarchism to high order – you might end up in a position similar to the one Richter adopted, for whatever ulterior motives, in the eighties.
    With reference to Sam’s mention of Manet, I find it ever so hard to see Manet in Greenberg’s terms of flatness, but the flatness/picture plane thing is undoubtedly so engrained in the methodology and critique of modernist painting that at times we can seem to talk of nothing else, even when we don’t actually mention it outright (talking about colour relations in isolation from form, for example, in painting, assumes being addressed by a set of planes conjoined to the picture-plane). That is one reason (and I’m really going off-piste now) why the case for looking for a new abstract sculpture (thanks, Robert, for bringing that up) is so compelling. To quote Bill Tucker, from the ‘Condition of Sculpture’ catalogue, 1975, ‘Modernism, born and nurtured in painting, generates its deepest energy from the idea of the plane. From such a view, the free-standing of sculpture is an intolerable anomaly.’
    A bit violent, perhaps, but we get the point. Thinking three-dimensionally immediately starts to banish the plane: if you banish the plane, you begin to unravel the beautiful simplistic aesthetics that has dominated modernist visual art (painting mostly, but abstract sculpture has been in thrall to painting anyway, thanks in no small part to Greenberg) and is such a deeply seductive, self-reflecting shallowness. Such a dismantling of the dominant two-dimensional mode, or should we say the positive invention of a more imaginative three-dimensional view, the re-imagination of a fully three-dimensional world of abstract form (what nightmare might that be! You can sense the surreal monsters ready to ambush already, no?) may be a way onward; and does not Richter, at moments, in his eighties paintings, make a small contribution to that? Though, one must say immediately, most defiantly, not in his stupid, stupid glass sculptures and mirrors.

    • ahab said…

      I’ve been wanting to comment for a while on this foraying thread, but no direct access to Richters’ body of work has kept me from claiming this or that about it. Where I can’t hold back, though, is at the point that the strawman of modernism is puppeted. Plus, someone mentioned sculpture…

      Need it be said? Modernism did not commence with painting, nor with abstraction in painting; it is a beast whose form varies dramatically within the human activities and production of the last 100-and-however-many years (social, cultural, commercial, etc.). But making modernist practice out to be a fallen warhorse that artists are even now pinned beneath is akin to saddling Greenberg with ‘terms of flatness’. Both are quite seriously mistaken, if I may be so bald.

      Modernism, relative to art, is merely an attitude, an approach that presumes to disallow any rule about what should be experienced in any given thing, except to experience it and to hope it tastes at least as good as is known to be possible. Modernism allows, in that moment of appreciation, that I’ve my sense of the thing and you yours. Simple enough, really… at least until our tastes diverge and we distractedly set them up in a dialectical opposition of their own.

      Other modernist endeavours demand that one opinion prevail, and while we’re still contemporary, thank you very much. If two water particles can occupy different states simultaneously and in proximity to one another, then I’m not very bothered that someone might have a different take on a Richter-effect than I. Inside of a modernist approach, which expects only to authentically experience it each time anew, one of us will eventually come around.

      But truly, a modernism of visual art (a collective thirst for the best eye-experiences) hasn’t thrived for decades — bare traces of it exist in only the most provincial of global outposts. Such a thing as ‘making good art’ has lost its credibility (not to mention fashionability) as a progessive mode, and those few modernist enclaves still in operation around the world don’t generally bet successful studio careers on its viability. Even just describing our sensory experiences is a fraught business, but the modernist attitude insists we try then try again for better expressions rather than subscribe to definitive dictates.

      Perhaps we’d best throw out ‘modernism’ altogether and simply thrill in this casting about for new and less-clichéd expressions. Besides, the term and its proponents have been co-opted, seconded to service as art-historical touchstones, or set up as cautionary tales and trompe l’oeil museum displays of “how it used to be done”. Art academicians and administrators the world over have generally, tacitly, and with enthusiastic euthanasy, agreed upon modernism’s anachronicity.

      Anyhow, whew… all leading up to say that Greenberg’s ‘flatness’ is of that same sort of disinformation. He did not drive painting into the cul-de-sac of flat, as is commonly held. He only ever described what he could see in a piece, never what he thought he should see. (I know this from speaking with artists whose studios he visited in the day.)

      Who looks up ‘flat’ in the dictionary? I just did and was shocked to find that dictionary.com lists fifty-one (51!) definitions for it. Surely we can do better than to rely on such a traitorous word as more than four-letter expletive.

      Never mind that only theoretically, abstractly, can a plane — Tucker’s “idea of the plane” — be understood to be two-dimensional. Anything that can be said to be planar must be, by our mobile relation to it, a three-dimensional and material thing. The illusory planes of Cezanne and subsequent cubisms do not unmake our relationship to the object, but instances of flatness can be either in-keeping or out-of-synch with the overall thing — whether painting or sculpture. Even those exhibitors working with light as their medium rely upon our species’ ultra-fine sensory appreciation of the facet-cues that imply/inform spatiality.

      Which is not to say that articulation in three dimensions is, needs be, a sculptural articulation. At what microscopic point must we stop measuring the depth of a thing that has appreciable height and width before agreeing to call it flat?

      I hold sculpture to be a special category of object that has less to do with its dimensionality than with its variably-perceivable-variability (if you can parse that). Profiles and contours, volumes and masses of a material make themselves and their medium known, but not in a primarily graphical or pictorial manner; new visual information is only gained by moving oneself around the thing that I call a sculpture.

      And there’s no dilemma in sculpture proper about extreme bas relief turning a sculpture into a picture. It’s simply understood. Let the semantics lay, I say, and allow paint to come as far off the canvas as you dare (James Walsh, e.g.) without burying painting as its own special but dead category of object.

      Which is all the very (very!) longest way around to saying that I can appreciate that ‘abstraction’ is a great way into protracted discussions about art. Yet, I think, the most poignant comments in this thread, and others, are those that have been honed to describe whether a given artwork (and not its artist, note) hits the commentor’s ulterior, pleasure-seeking ‘good-button’. And how.

      • Robert Linsley said…

        I’ve come to enjoy this site because it’s full of opinionated polemicists who are not shy about telling it as they see it. What a relief from art criticism. But the best part is that they can take it as well as dish it out; I haven’t seen any defensive name calling. Here opinions are strong because it seems to be mostly a conversation between artists, who all naturally believe that their position is the right one, but who also listen.

        I like ahab’s insistence on talking about artworks rather than artists, and, in that spirit, his singling out of Robin’s singling out of three good Richters. Maybe this is the last comment we need to make on Richter. I agree that there’s no point in generalities about modernism, or about any other general topic, but there may be a point in talking about artists. But even that’s too general a topic to bother to work out theoretically.

        But then I notice that everyone on this thread, including ahab, has, at moments, a curmudgeonly attitude toward the contemporary art world. But then that’s also a general attitude, a kind of abstract theorizing. Let’s take it that the thing we know the least about, by definition, is the new, so we tend to have the strongest convictions about what we know least about. Maybe there’s even an inverse relation – the less we know the more convinced we are. So let me also propose a general theory, to wit, the default mode in contemporary art is conceptualism, meaning works that present an idea, a pre-existing, pre-formulated idea. Neither invention nor perception is much found in current art, instead, the norm is presentation of an idea that precedes the work. So am I guilty of abstract theorizing myself? Not really, because I’ve come up with an objective measure that can be applied to any art, including my own. Artworks are better to the extent that they offer concrete experiences and not abstract ideas, so some are better than others, and some of the better ones are better still. Likewise, even conceptualist work may have bits of experience in it, so can be measured as well. As an abstract artist I am self critical of any tendency to fall back on ideas, even if they are expressed formally. Ideas about what modern art is supposed to be like, ready-made structures such as grids etc. That’s why I pick up on Richter’s generalizations, and I ask if they are conceptual or if they have a necessity. Sometimes the latter is the case. When the former is the case why bother even thinking about it?

      • ahab said…

        I guess Robert’s correct — being called an opinionated polemicist doesn’t particularly hurt my feelings. Heh.

        As a short addendum to the individually-judged, case-by-case art-modernism I was proposing, I’d like to fold in an earlier comment about essentials, universality, and abstraction.

        In my studio, at least, the search for aesthetic experience is a sort of rummaging about for pleasing instances of synchronicity between micro-information and macro-knowledge — where the specific italicizes the general. With blinking realization, it now seems to me that the abstract lay just where nanobits are metaphorically linked to megabytes.

        Perhaps we should say of art that specificities and generalities are “abstractically linked” (were it acceptable usage). As though abstraction were a sort of structure unto itself, and the very point of relationship between any appreciable whole and its apprehendable parts.

        I’ve offered this disclaimer before: speaking aloud is a good way to test what I think. Typing pedantically may be even more so.

  3. John Holland said…

    Is the problem the synonimity of abstraction and Modernism?
    It was evolved to serve a set of ideals, a specific project that now feels very distant. Universality was a part of the project, and a reduction to essences. It’s a very difficult task to disentangle abstraction from these historically specific tasks.

    Structural complexity in abstract painting usually manifests as either complicatedness, in the sense of an essentially chaotic lack of form, or as an abstraction from figuration- figuration seen through a squint. Both of these options are a dead-end, I think.

    I am interested, Robin, given all you have said about the shortcomings of abstraction to date, at least in comparison to the impossible richness of the last 800 years of non-abstract art, in the reasons for your faith, or hope, in it now. I make abstract work myself, so I guess I share your hope; though maybe this is outside the scope of this thread.

  4. Sam Cornish said…

    I agree with Robert in that I think perhaps we are going to get too far off the subject of Richter if we go down the effect / form; ambiguity / particularity track in general terms. I’ve just read back through my own last couple of posts (relating to Motherwell / Rothko & Newman) and certainly feel that they are insufficient. The ease with which I dismissed Richter for not conforming to certain standards (of Newman / Rothko) really hides how increasingly unsettling I find the paintings. Even if I wanted an art that had more as Robin puts it ‘human content’ (and I do), dismissing Richter because he seems to deliberately block this is what is really not good enough. The pictures are strong enough (or at least some of them are) to dismiss (or at least delay or complicate) the call for a tempering with humanity or a snatching of (structural) meaning out of meaninglessness.

    I think I am coming back round to what Robert has said about generality of the abstract, though I am not quite sure how this makes an appearance in Richter’s work. I would however really like to avoid thinking about this in terms of a over-arching poetic or stratergy, a kind of conceptual tying up which runs above the pictures. Not that Richter does not attempt this: the sculptures for example clearly do and are nearly as glib as the similar works Pistoletto recently showed at the Serpentine. Instead it seems much more productive to think about the individual images themselves; as it is their actual qualities rather than their position in a strategy that is unsettling.

    Have I got much to add beyond what has already been said about photographic atmospheres, speeding trains and various kinds of screen? Not really except to note a relation between Richter and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Both in the abstractions and in the portraits (particularly of his wife descending the stairs). In the sense of a trapped vividness, a glossly flatness, melancholy. Of course Manet is also a master at providing us with specific spatial relations, structure. It is interesting that Greenberg put Manet’s flatness at the beginning of a lineage that revealed a particular approach to the picture plane. Richter could be seen to subvert / parody / impersonate this tradition, but perhaps he is more profitably seen as finding another route away from the source this lineage sprung from?

  5. Robert Linsley said…

    Robin, my caution would be not to talk about abstract art in general, because there may be work of the complexity you desire that you haven’t heard about, or things you think you know well that are more complex than you realize. But having said that I agree that flatness/shallow space, a too severe limitation of content/subject matter (although I know this is not exactly what you are saying), too much reliance on a priori concepts and structures, grids and so on, and a tendency to arrive at general effects at the expense of the expressive detail, are besetting weaknesses of abstract painting. Not necessarily of abstract sculpture. I might also add brushwork, because even though in principle a paint brush is as good a tool as any, I find that it’s easy to get stuck in a morass of repetitions and cliches. Someone else might do much better at it than I. In any case, I naturally want to make work that avoids these faults, and it can be done.
    Don’t have much more to say about Richter right now. Clark as always has brilliant insights, and as always arrives at the same conclusion. Criticism as lament.

  6. Robin Greenwood said…

    My thoughts about ambiguity/particularity in abstract art turn mostly around the notion that abstract artists to date have either been uninventive in the forms they use (an over-reliance on geometries, formats and/or processes – as per Richter’s colour charts and squeegee work) or, when they have been formally inventive, have too easily given up on trying to resolve the structural issues that arise from using complex form (which I think is where Richter’s 80′s work gets to, an state of inventive irresolution).
    This is from an essay ‘High Abstract’, published a year ago:
    ‘Abstract art … has not yet taken upon itself anything like the formal and spatial complexities that the best figurative painting of the past has so potently transformed into ‘human content’. It has not yet become either complex or specific, instead boasting of the modernity of its simplifications, and citing its generalities and its ambiguities as proofs of a high-minded universality.’
    You can read the rest at:

  7. Robin Greenwood said…

    I don’t think we are quite finished with this yet, but I wanted to say thanks to all for several very good contributions. It would be nice to hear from Seamus again too, if you are still out there. I will have a little more to say on the subject of the ‘specific’ in abstract art, but meantime how about this great review of Richter by T. J. Clark?

  8. Robert Linsley said…

    Sam, I think you are right that a new thread or a new topic would be good. It is a very interesting problem that has a much broader importance. Perhaps you can come up with the right way to start.

  9. Sam Cornish said…

    The beauty of effect vs the beauty of form is something which would warrant a lot of expansion upon in Abcrit; perhaps without it being tied so tightly to Richter (where the concurrent argument about a strategic / poetic arbitrariness might be less distracting).

    Could the opposition effect vs form also be called the general vs the specific or the absolute vs the particular? Effect / generality / the absolute have been constantly tilted at in abstract art. Rothko and Newman are two obvious examples (and it is also obvious that Richter’s scale works in the wake of Abstract Expresionism). This is a bit provisional but perhaps we could say that they succeed and Richter ultimately fails because he is unable to temper effect / generality / the absolute with form / the specific / the particular. Newman (for me more than Rothko) is able to tie his grand statements to direct and concrete structure; it is possible to visually engage with this structure, to measure and weigh it; the absolute is made human, graspable. If we search beyond the Richter’s effects (even at their most vivid) we find very little at all.

    Perhaps a Richter apologist would want to explain the above by arguing that Richter is allegorizing a contemporary condition. That he shows us the banality (randomness / arbitrariness) brought about by the rise of mass-media or the end of ideology. I think it is certainly arguable that it is Richter’s touching on this banality that makes his effects disturbing; the vivid photographic screen is too close to comfort to allow an easy dismissal of what could otherwise be called decorative or simply badly painted. But this is not good enough, as it is far too reductive; people still feel and they still have bodies. A genuine – pictorial – confrontation with an inhuman situation – as Rothko and Newman recognized – must necessarily find a space for a human presence.

  10. Robert Linsley said…

    John, at the risk of becoming tedious with these reprinted blog posts I’ll offer one more – I just can’t bring myself to rewrite over and over:

    The random is whatever we don’t know the cause of. Strictly speaking nothing is random, or ever can be random; every event has a proximate cause and more distant causes. When we talk about randomness we simply mean that we can’t sort out all the causes in some particular case. In art as in everything else, randomness is only apparent.

    The arbitrary is a selection from a finite number of possibilities, all of which are equally good. All art is arbitrary in its origins, but I at least hope that it proceeds toward the necessary, toward one single best outcome.

    The best word to describe the character of the forms that an “informel” or open-ended, moving abstraction makes is…I don’t know. Neither of the above.

  11. Robert Linsley said…

    II wouldn’t say that abstraction is in principle arbitrary, because that strikes me as too abstract and theoretical a way to think. There is a real arbitrariness that one can see and feel in particular works, and that arbitrariness (arbitrary is not the right word-and I don’t know what is) is the moving edge, the forward looking, future oriented aspect that gives abstraction it’s freshness and glamour. At least so I think. I like very much the ‘self-defined construct,’ so I think we are on the same track, but I don’t see how there can be any final answer to the questions you are asking the work, so at base the work must be entirely arbitrary (bad word). But isn’t that freedom, autonomy, self-definition? How do you answer those questions anyway?

  12. John Holland said…

    Do you mean that abstraction is intrinsically arbitary because it does not have to follow the intractable visual facts of the external, ‘real’, world- because it’s not tied to representing the recognisable?

    In some ways, I think that might make abstraction less, not more, arbitary, inasmuch as it requires every aesthetic decision to justify itself within a wholly self-defined construct, without the perceived ‘facts’ of contingent reality as an alibi.
    Every element, therefore (in theory), can answer to the question- ‘why this, and not that?’ Precisely the question, of course, that Richter regards as no longer viable, which is why I think his paintings are, ultimately, a very well-contrived and elegant cop-out.

  13. Robert Linsley said…

    I agree, but I also feel that Richter’s “conceptualism” in the large groupings I was talking about, and here perhaps I run out of words because these works are not really conceptual, is something else. It’s not a general effect, but a poetics of abstract form, understanding that the “form” of abstraction is the series. Responding to Mr. Cornish, there is an arbitrariness on the level of the detail, and also now on the level of the individual work, that is intrinsic to abstraction. So there is a sense in which the generic is valid. It’s not as if we can choose it to be otherwise, and if we want to intervene and make something good we have to face the facts.
    I appreciate being able to hash these things out.

  14. Robert Linsley said…

    I agree.

  15. john holland said…

    I think your phrase about the beauty of effects, as opposed to the beauty of forms, is apposite, and the ‘effect’ is perhaps the dominant mode of contempory painting.
    It’s something that needs to be superceded somehow.

  16. Robert Linsley said…

    Just to add one more point, again lifted from my blog:

    General effects
    Posted on October 29, 2011 by Robert Linsley
    I’ve been trying to make a distinction between a gesture rich in suggestion, allusion and possibilities and an easy ambiguity that is really a failure to signify, and been finding it  difficult. Not difficult to believe in but difficult to specify. I’ll try again, but first move away from my ambivalent critique of ambiguity to something firmer and more concrete, namely the specific failure of general effects.

    I believe that abstraction really fails when it is an effect—an overall, general sensation which one doesn’t have to feel too deeply or give much attention to. In a way this is related to conceptuality; a viewer can register the concept of a work without experiencing it, likewise a viewer can get the feel of a work from a distance, not necessarily a physical distance, but an experiential one that doesn’t require any accounting for particulars. But then at least it’s a feel; at the best something like late romantic orchestration, at the worst like a punk band. A kind of sameness produced through the accumulation of many particulars, none of which matter much in themselves, but a feel nevertheless. Pollock might be to blame on some level, but his work does turn in another direction as well. For me Rothko is paradigmatic for what is now a general problem in the art world, and in all kinds of painting. Gerhard Richter provides some good examples. A squeegied picture gives a general effect, and at bottom is completely arbitrary. So there is the beauty of effects, and the beauty of ambiguity, but what I want is the beauty of forms. I think that makes me unusual.

  17. John Holland said…

    It’s interesting that your essential criticism of Richter’s abstracts- that they tend to aim for a generic, unindividuated equality of effects- is mitigated, or even finds its justification for you, when he takes this characteristic to its logical conclusion by (it sounds to me, though I don’t know the series in question) removing compositional decision-making from the process altogether. Purifying it, in a sense.

    Now that few people have a truly clear idea of what art should be for, and how it should be going about it, there is a lot of faith put in the overwhelming importance of an artist’s self-reflexivity, the sense that whatever the artist is producing, they are fully aware of its ontological and ideological status. The worst mistake they can commit is to step out of the zone of knowing unjudgeability; the content is essentially arbitary, the hyper self-awareness is the litmus test, the brand you can trust.

    This usually results in a genericised response to art, a profound mistrust (or fear of) the individuated confrontation with a particular artwork, as opposed to an evaluation of a supposedly rigourous but generic tactic. It feels to me as though your preference for Richter’s most schematic (or self-reflexive) works, as a way around his compositional shortcomings, is a retreat into the comforts of the contempory weakness for judgement as ‘posture evaluation’; i.e., ‘he has a problem with genericism, but it’s ok if he foregrounds it by accentuating it’. That has all the hallmarks of an easy cop-out on everybody’s part, surely.

    Again, more about your idea of the Achille’s heal of abstraction would be interesting.

    • Robert Linsley said…

      There’s a lot to talk about, but just to stay on Richter, I guess I feel that the distance that he takes, and which all the commenters here have mentioned, has a truth, and that it responds to something real in abstraction. Personally, I advocate a non-conceptual art, and I want to experience pictures, not classify them according to concepts, but I still have to give him his due. Here’s another bit from the blog that you might agree with:

      The following words by Gerhard Richter give a sense of what he means by “rightness:”

      “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”

      He is referring to his blurred figure paintings, but the abstractions are also often blurred, and the use of a squeegee has the same effect, to make everything equally important, as I have already discussed. But nothing is actually explained because the definition of “rightness” is postponed, substituted by “perfect.” What, after all, does that mean? And lurking behind that are “important” and “unimportant.” How are these supposed to be determined? Despite my admiration for Richter’s work, in negative moments I suspect that his felt sense of “rightness” is just conformity to a general taste. But then how can any artist escape that? The heroic abstract expressionist attitude was to reject general taste on principal, so one would deliberately eliminate anything that felt “right.” But then all dissonances become consonances and then conventions anyway, and every artist knows this from experience, an experience registered in every work.

      Sorry for the long post. I would like to say let’s leave the paradoxes of taste and notice that the works I mentioned (which you may or may not know), the Sindbad group and the edition for Parkett, are doing some interesting work on the format of the series. The series is usually unquestioned in abstraction, and what Richter is doing with it is not conceptual nor a gimmick to appeal to curators, but is a kind of poetic form on a level one notch higher than the individual work. I like that a lot.

  18. Robert Linsley said…

    I’ve just discovered this site and this discussion, and I would like to add some recent posts from my own blog. I haven’t seen the show, but have seen others, and have been puzzling about Richter for a long time.
    First:A form means a decision, or a choice, and consequently a risk. An artist such as Richter takes it that the logic of abstraction is the look of art without any particular or necessary articulation. He says that he tries for a feeling of “rightness,” which means generality; all particulars are eccentricities in need of justification and defense, and tend to bring about an unfortunate hierarchy of forms. If one part of the picture stands out, too many questions arise; better to avoid that outcome. Notice that the work does have imagery, it does have parts, it does have a composition, but a felt aesthetic decorum demands that the parts be tamed, restrained, put into a harmony ruled by the overall effect. Scrapers or squeegees are perfect tools to realize this feeling; they are on a level above the surface, physically and conceptually. Even in a narrative figure painting—the Baader Meinhof works provide good examples—wiping keeps it general and generality marks the truth of art in a world in which particular forms, like particular people, are interchangeable. But one can only love a particular form.
    Second (with illustrations in the original):I’m critical of Richter for his achievement of generalized effects, but I have to admit that when he deliberately foregrounds the generic, in other words when he is a bit more of a conceptualist, he has made some very strong works. One example is an edition for Parkett, of a hundred or so paintings. They all had the same size, format and orientation, and the same colors and technique, but each was unique. It may not be absolutely original but it’s an important moment in the history of printmaking, and of painting, in my view. Similarly, in a recent show at Marion Goodman, he showed an arrangement of 48 small abstractions, all made the same way, with the same colors.

    Gerhard Richter, installation of Sindbad (905 1-49) 2008, Marian Goodman Gallery

    They are grouped in pairs, and may have been painted that way, though they don’t exactly match up. They seem to be made by an automatic method, perhaps something to do with squeezing paint between sheets of glass.
    The arbitrariness of abstract forms is corrected by the form of the installation. This is much better than Robert Motherwell’s “Lyric Suite”, with 565 drawings, some recently shown at the AGO. Motherwell’s productivity exposes the Achilles heel of abstraction, but finds no way to cover it up again.

    Interesting that one of artcritical’s contributors was recently writing about the Lyric Suite.

    • Sam Cornish said…


      I agree with John (though he put it much better than I was going to); it is very strange that the problem you have with abstraction is generality but Richter wins by taking generality to an extreme, or by making it a theme of his work; as I said earlier in this thread tying up intention and result is surely not what an understanding / appreciation of art should aim at.

      I don’t think I have fully understood the rest of your post – like John I’m waiting on more on the Achilles heel of abstraction: is the problem that abstract forms can never be specific but are always arbitrary? I think you are half onto something here: abstraction, particularly of the sort practiced by Motherwell and taken to an extreme in the Lyric Suite, does contain the arbitrary or at least flirts with it. But the point is surely that out of that this arbitrariness meaning is snatched, that (at least when the drawings succeed) compelling structures are created?

      Would abstraction have been a richer force (a Richter force?) if it had just skipped the attempts by Motherwell and many others to create a variety of meaningful structures and moved straight onto what I think you suggest is Richter’s neatly-tied up demonstration of the meaninglessness of abstraction?

      Sam C

  19. Emyr Williams said…

    For picture plane I meant the spatial, colour sensation of the surface as opposed to the physical surface itself. Even though those others use crockery and straw, the space that results is erratic, clunky or plain atmospheric. The colour forces have not been unified so to speak to actually “do” anything – to inform us about our own palpable experience of felt and seen space rather than merely ‘viewed’ single lens space. Value kicks in and disrupts things. (I completely agree that art that does not deal with this issue is not by default, vacuous – just maybe compromised in some way, and great technique and skill (Lippi as you mention) minimise the compromise to the point that we still revel in the result). I enjoy your terminology about Richter too by the way, though I am not convinced that they are about the picture plane at all, as loading up or kicking about the surface doesn’t mean that to me. Poons does that yet he is able to hold things together and create a better plane as he is more ambitious and because he wants too I guess. Olitski who has a similar pictorial space to Richter’s squeegeed ones (in to out) has a far superior grasp of colour and paint handling. If Richter’s paintings were more concerned with the mechanics of colour and its potential instead of relying on slightly tasteful tonal shifts then I feel he would get much more out of his painting. Having said that though what is heavily implied and lucidly put in previous comments by yourself , is he seems to be actively “dis” interested in doing so. I would therefore conclude that this is ultimately pointless to even bring up. Imagine someone running the hundred metres sideways – it would redefine the nature of the event I’m sure, but would end up as a sideshow to the real race. Apologies for any confusing remarks. Is he for real? – yes he is no doubt – do I enjoy his reality? no, I’m afraid I don’t, though I would stop short of asking for my money back, as it is sort of engaging.

  20. John Holland said…

    I’m confused by quite a lot of what you say, but particularly by your talk of Richter’s (lack of) engagement with the picture plane. Lots of painting has no great interest in the picture plane per se; I’m not sure it was a central concern of, say, Filippo Lippi’s, and I wouldn’t dismiss his work as particularly vacuous because of it. Besides, it seems to me that Richter’s pictures ARE concerned with the picture plane, albeit in a very deliberately frustrating and self-limiting way; the painting tends to form a kind of meniscus, or profilactic barrier.
    I’m surprised you say Kiefer and Schnabel have no concern either with this, either; both tend to make paintings that rather hit one over the head with their awareness of it, with their imagery struggling through very literal planes of plates, straw, and hanging objects of various kinds.

  21. Emyr Williams said…

    It’s the space that (in this case oil not acrylic) paint put on in this way creates. It is more about value than colour and as such has a photographic weighting. it is very difficult to get away from a centrifugal weight when making any kind of gestural work – you really have to bear down on the colour and make it work. He is creating spaces that are atmospheric and this for me is the drawback. The ‘atmospheres’ have the same spatial sensations as the photo paintings. I like the materiality at times but so much more could be done if the colour didn’t rely on value to drive it.

  22. Emyr Williams said…

    I don’t think the picture plane issue is of a time though – just in the same way as athletes still try to run as fast as they can over 100m – that is the problem to deal with whatever approach you take. Much abstract painting is made with acrylic paints. Acrylics are fluid due to the role of water in extending them; it is very difficult to really handle them well without them dissolving into fictive pools, so often artists drop a format onto them to reign this in or even utilise this new swimming space. Colour wants to move away from our eyes. It disrupts and dislocates the plane.

    I was not really talking about my work per se. It is not that he is irrelevant to my approach – I was merely making an analogy – his work does not seem to have gone through any “fire”. It feels devoid of any real synthesis. ( I would even hazard a guess that that’s why his work is often talked about as a whole – there are no high points and no real lows because its all the same) . As to meaning , I am not sure my work has any meaning outside of its own physicality. How can it, or maybe I am misunderstanding the term “meaning”? (happy to concede that too) I could , I guess aim for one and suggest that in trying to get the colour to close the virtual gap between viewer and surface I am trying to get as much humanity into the work as possible, but that would only be my – misguided maybe- opinion. My eyes just say yes or no and that is good enough for me. All I’m left with when a work is finished is coloured glues on a support. Richter’s coloured glues feel like they do try to mean something – ironically nihilistic – and in doing so have squeezed the potential art to the periphery. They leave me cold to be frank – put them with a Poons or an Olitski and they get even chillier. I would compare them with Kiefer or Schnabel even – kind of big , generalised and ultimately vacuous. (because they don’t deal with the picture plane, and are too busy dealing with other meanings, they can’t realise themselves as paint on canvas as well as paint on canvas can potentially be realised. Look at Matisse’s work from 1947 – the 2 women in a room series ; the paint has finally become a shimmering membrane that is taut, and the colours add up to something more than their parts. He spent his life getting to that point. Continually adjusting elements and colours to get the surface to hold that membrane with no heavy area. I make no apologies for using these works as a litmus test for any painting. We can move the goal posts as much as we like, but I can’t see how this issue can be avoided and that is an issue that Richter seems blissfully indifferent to.

  23. Seamus Green said…

    Sorry Robin, I didn’t mean to get off subject… does anyone feel the titles are an issue? I don’t think the numbering helps because maybe it adds to a sense of factory production?
    I think like John Pluthero said, like an x-factor winner (what a fantastic analogy) I can’t help but tap my feet, but its everything that is wrong with the industry.

  24. Robin Greenwood said…

    Have any of you guys been to the Richter show yet? Get a grip, stop talking about yourselves, and go look at the work. Its probably better than yours. Emyr, I’m sorry to hear your paintings are without meaning…
    Let’s get back to the subject, if poss.

  25. Emyr Williams said…

    I never consider “issues” when making a painting – I am not interested in meaning, composition, subject matter, symbolism, narrative, or anything that could be considered extraneous to art. I have made ‘figurative’ work at times – as an end in itself though – and I have no interest in any link with it in my painting – which is abstract (that should be a protected term). The top is the top and not a point the leads to a sky; gravity is arrived at merely as a by-product of our visual perception and not as a goal. In fact if I suddenly notice a scene or a person or an atmosphere creep up on me when viewing someone’s apparently abstract work , I feel down right angry and cheated – resentful even; why are they wasting my time, so to speak?

    I am only interested in colour and revealing colour through the control of surface – the goal I seek is one of closeness. Degrees of closeness equal degrees of humanity to my mind. Can I put a coloured surface together in a way that maintains the integrity of the picture plane and maximises the work’s perceived spatial closeness to a viewer? – that’s it – that’s all I believe in, that’s all I feel art can do – get close to the viewer through the sum total of colour forces tempered into a resultant colour experience. Painting can only “be” rather than be something. This is not an issue to me, it is simply a physical fact – put a colour onto a surface and see what happens, see what your eye does – it goes wild, jumping like a maniac into gear, the fight or flight reflex is in there somewhere – what is this?, where is this?, how is this?

    Having this take on art, you would think things would therefore be straightforward, uncluttered by issues , easy even to make a painting, but that’s the frustrating irony in the whole damn pursuit – You simply can’t expect to make the work feel close, you have no guarantees of getting the picture plane to remain intact, or to avoid the colour ending up looking swampy, or the surface to look trite, dull, devoid of interest and merely dragged about, with no finesse, no drawing, no real touch. It seems you have to practice till your hair feels as if it’s being pulled out, till your cries seem futile and your heart hints at stopping – Question, challenge and graft and even then, there is not necessarily a payoff. Your art may end up looking cold, unchallenging, banal and inhumane even.

    You have to love it really – what else can spin dry your emotions, exhaust you, frustrate and humiliate you? yet back I go into the studio for more, like some sado-masochist yearning for the pain of it all. Once in a while.. once in a while, there is clear air, light, a glimpse of freedom, colour, the colour is working – ah give a week and it looks bad again, on we go, once more round the block, you never know what tomorrow brings.

    Oh I nearly forgot – Richter………hmmm.

    • Sam Cornish said…

      Hi Emyr, This seems a slightly unfortunate comment in terms of AbCrit. I see your point – that Richter is irrelevant to the particular type of abstraction you practice, that despite the superficial resemble his parodies / deadpan impersonations (or however we describe them) have to abstract painting, they ultimately fails to be meaningful, to engage with the nitty-gritty of what abstract painting is about. And you will – rightly – go on painting regardless.

      This is all well and good – I personally have a great fondness for the approach to painting which you describe, and find that a great many artists have got a lot out of adherence to the diktats of the picture plane or attempts to give their pictures forceful immediate reality. I also find the very widespread trend for contemporary abstract artists to add vague figuration to the mix almost always disappointing, timid rather than bold.

      However I also think that ultimately a strong abstract painting (a desire for which prompted the establishment of AbCrit) will not evolve / re-emerge out of a continual return to the same old formulas, even if these formulas produced much of the best painting of the twentieth century and many individual artists can still produce strong work based upon them. What it might come out of I have no idea. Perhaps it will be arrived at through painting which takes little notice of the abstract / figurative divide. Not in the way that many abstract artists now introduce it; as a vacillation or a hesitant ambiguity, an either/or that eventually half-resolves as an unsatisfying neither. But as a both/and, something bold and undeniably new.

      I was going to bring that back to Richter but seem to have got a little carried away.


      • Seamus Green said…


        I think that is really interesting what you said about finding new ground for Abstraction. For me I quite like making paintings that are neither one thing nor the other, the dissapointing painting that you talked of. But for me these things are not made to be one thing or the other, they are not made to be ambiguous really, they are just made and it is conversation that draws these boundaries for it. The challenges that the painter faces are immediate and quite raw eg what colour? how do I change that? what do I apply this with?… These decisions and challenges ultimately build up over a period of time and it is difficult to have control over the final paintings conversational boundaries without being so overly couscious and contrived. I’m just talking about my own experiences and difficulties with wanting to make paintings, it feels so daunting to find your feet. I don’t think abstraction can avoid association to things external so I think why not embrace that, painting has an amazing ability to have layered depths of interest… I think if you only hit for that immediate visual impact that screams for only an ‘emotional’ response then surely your missing out on all the other things painting can offer. My experience of looking at painting is far more enriched when I can begin to re-invent information that is provided, a good example of this may be Sam Windett’s paintings where I am continuously re-thinking what I see, I like the ambiguity in his work and I would say if I had to that his work for me falls into abstraction. I guess rather than the paintings output these conversations regard the viewers attitudes in on the work and the boundaries the viewer sets for what they consider abstraction. Like you said it is difficult to no where abstraction is heading but I firmly believe conversation like this is a good driving force.

        Sorry Richter, forgot about you.


  26. john pluthero said…

    Thank you, John Holland, for putting voice to the inner disquiet I experienced on leaving the Richter exhibition. I had the curious sense that I’d been in a showroom rather than a gallery. A fact that, at the time, I put down to the predictably hagiographic nature of “blockbuster” exhibitions.

    But that trouble I had getting into the pieces and their glossy clinical nature was, I suspect, the absence of authorship. His undoubted technical talents are employed in the creation of facsimilies of big art not the real thing. This careful distillation and explicit manufacture is not uncommon in other arts. His work bears the hallmarks of an X-Factor winner – choreographed, stylised and autotuned (look, here’s a ‘Soul Diva’ and now a ‘Rock Chick’) but lack authenticity. At least the pop world knows what to do with such prepacked consumables, enjoy them for what they are and forget about them promptly.
    If art about art requires only sublimated irony to work then we trade in a very base currency indeed.

  27. John Holland said…

    It’s an interesting point; to what extent can an artist like Richter maintain a purely conscious strategy, to use that word again, within his work.
    I don’t know if it makes sense to look at Richter’s paintings as a combination of both conscious conceptual decisions and unconscious psychology. It certainly wouldn’t endear you to Buchloh.

  28. John Holland said…

    It would have been interesting, Robin, to hear Mark Godfrey talking more in response to your question about his favourite picture in the show. He pointed to a work from your favoured ’80′s mash-up period, but didn’t justify this, or discuss the painting itself.

    I agree that these pictures are the most interesting, simply because they take a few risks, they mix (copies of?) styles with an uncharacteristic lack of taste- and as you intimate, nothing kills invention like Good Taste. So they juxtapose all kinds of techniques from the last half-century- hard-edge geometries, expressionistic sweeps, warm, graduated colours overlayed with blank segments of grey- quite carefully put together, but never resolving into much more than artful experiments in ‘picture-making’.
    Personally, I think the only paintings that qualify as either good or bad are both figurative. I find the Oktober series moving, Richter’s dead, detached style making formal and emotional sense here, while the horrible copies of (postcards of) of Titian’s Annunciation amplify every limitation of Richter’s whole method.

    Funnily enough, I was going to put in a quote from Julia Peyton-Jones in my first post- she was saying that Richter had gone “beyond great”. A bit of hyperbole is ok, but that is beyond embarrssing. Certainly her blanket eulogy of the work epitomises the way art is discussed now in higher circles, with its aversion to looking at specific works of art in favour of an evaluation of a generalised strategy. If the artist passes her ‘significant strategy’ test with high marks, then Peyton-Jones can take all or none its particular material manifestations to her Desert Island.

    Seamus- re your ‘high-flying doctor’-
    I think you would have enjoyed the monstrous bronzes that sat near the London Eye until quite recently, like the droppings of Dali’s elephant. I forget the artist’s name, it was a single word as they often are with that sort of pseudo-modernist artist, and, before becoming a successful genius, he was a successful banker.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      It would indeed have been interesting to take the interview with Mark Godfrey further, to press him on specifics, but we were unable to because of strict time constraints on our filming.

      The artist’s intentions and their relation to the finished work is quite an interesting topic in Richter’s case, I think. Whilst I always try to form an opinion of the achievement of a painting based only upon what I can see in the work, regardless of what I am told or have read about context or backstory (which have their part to play, but I think must always be subject to being ignored, if necessary), nevertheless the determinism of good painting, its wilful display of its own sense of purpose, is nothing if not a lucid exposition of the artist’s ‘intention’. But we have to, as always, be careful with words here. Richter’s ‘intentions’ seem to be of a different order, as previously discussed, part of a wider context of detachment across all his work, an overarching theoretical stance, which is very conscious indeed – conceptual, really – but which doesn’t filter down to the specific decisions of any individual painting – beyond, that is, an intention of a ‘lack of intention’. In other words, Richter’s ‘intentions’ are strategic, whereas in a truly visual artist like Cézanne, say, the ‘intention’ is not only there to been seen in the paint, one decision as against another, very specifically and unambiguously realised pictorially all across the picture, but may also be unconscious or subconscious. Indeed, I am pretty certain in my own mind that whilst Cézanne would have had an immense intellectual grasp of what he was about, and indeed a sense of a ‘strategy’ in relation to the art of his time, such self-consciousness does not prevent his total emotional and imaginative immersion, when at his best, in the actual pictorial articulation of the painting. I make that proviso, ‘when at his best’, because even Cézanne made quite a few bad paintings – unlike, apparently, Richter. If an artist is not prepared to fail, then it seems to me unlikely he will really succeed either. I am not prepared to allow Richter not to fail. Ha-ha.

  29. seamusgreen.blogspot.com said…

    I just wanted to add something here because I find what you’re both saying really interesting. I’m young and I guess quite naive so I’ve always found Richter’s paintings incredible to look at, however reading your comments I can see them differently now. They almost feel like surfaces slapped with make-up to appear as a stereotypical abstraction. As much as I have loved his work, a blog entry now comes to mind that I read the other day by Joanne Mattera, it was about untrained artists, typically the high flying doctor who packs in his career to spent time ‘expressing’ himself through painting, who then expects the same high flying career and attention that was warranted as a doctor… Richter’s abstractions remind me of this, they do have technique but they also possess that falsity and tacky attempt to ‘make art’. On the other hand though I do admire him because his paintings are so visually exciting you end up feeling satisfied just engaging with the material, which is something I find lacking in so much ‘abstraction’, but that is just personal taste. I don’t feel like Richter is really engaging himself in anything more than a daily activity of applying material for merit, I do like them but then again I’m supposed to like them, just like Farrow & Ball paint or up-cycled furniture. They are an air brushed image in vogue rather than the everyday struggle to get yourself out of bed and do something with your life.

  30. John Holland said…

    I think you’re right when you say that Richter’s abstract paintings are not parodies, they are not tongue-in-cheek; they are dead-pan impersonations. They are, to quote Peter Halley talking about his own psuedo-formalist abstract paintings, ‘hyper-real simulations’.
    They have to be looked at as one element of his strategy, one that presents models of image making, visual catylists for philosophical rumination, and not as an engagement with the possibilities inherent in the ‘language’ of abstract painting. So they are not bad paintings, for the same reasons they are not good ones, either; he has no need to achieve anything more than a kind of risk-free, executive quality neutrality.

    Even the most apparently complicated and engaged-looking works, like the squeegee paintings, are essentially the same as his literalistic enlargements of photographic details, the mechanical contingencies of the squeegee technique substituting for the found photo and its impenetrable, blurred surface. They are more like screens than pictures, or like the frustrating pleasure of staring at a fixed point through the window of a speeding train. To look at them for meaningful formal content would be a little like looking for harmonic structure in the ambient sounds that creep into performances of 4′ 33″ by Cage (one of Richter’s heroes).

    Just as his colour chart paintings are substituting the mathematics of chance for the responsibities of aesthetic choice, so the more ostensibly formalist and gestural abstracts of the late 90′s are playing essentially the same detached, conceptual, game of contingency and simulation; they are not so much beautiful as quoting the idea of beauty as an ontological conundrum. Maybe, sometimes, he might get a little bit carried away by the pleasures of paint, like Art and Language discovering to their horror that, when making their semiotically rigourous Pollock/Lenin paintings, they were finding some of them more spacially exciting than others.

    Now, though, he’s back on safer terrain, making work formed of digitally streched photographs of thin sections of his own paintings, and Buchloh can rest assured that his Simulachra are just what they appear to be.

    • Robin Greenwood said…

      Thanks for those intelligent comments, John, I think that is probably the clearest assessment of Richter’s work I have come across. It explains at a stroke the rather baffling phenomena of most of our art-world elite’s capitulation to his entire oeuvre, without so much as a word of criticism. Because, as you intimate, all the paintings are conceptually equal, so judging one to be better than another is deemed an unnecessary act of dated subjective discrimination. For example, on being asked to choose an all-time great masterpiece from the history of art (‘My Kind of Masterpiece’, Guardian 13.10.11), co-director of the Serpentine Gallery Julia Peyton-Jones maintains she could have picked ‘almost any work’ from the current Richter show as being representative of his ‘greatness’. That is some claim; I cannot think of many other artists in history with such a successful strike-rate. (And yes, that’s right, Peyton-Jones chose Richter from the whole history of art.)

      Yet I don’t feel your clarification of the conceptual homogeneity of the work quite gets us off the hook. I personally feel I still have to form an opinion about the relative merits of each work (the abstract work anyway) regardless of the artist’s attitude and/or intentions, as I try to do with any other artist. Having been round the show again, I find myself pretty disenchanted by most of it. The early abstracts based upon painted reproductions of enlarged photos of paint are pretty stupid and nasty. The paintings from the middle period, in the eighties, I still think are OK. They play fast and loose with the aesthetics of abstract painting in a way that I find challenging. Trouble is, they don’t really resolve problems, so they don’t go far enough. They have a kind of faux-innocent excitement – but that’s the easy bit, isn’t it? An attempt at synthesis would be very interesting here; but no, he just ducks the issues, moves on, to mirrors, portraits or some other rubbish. Some of Tate’s blurb praises Richter for continuing to paint against the odds and in the face of what is seen as painting’s ‘compromised’ position. Surely Richter’s posturing only adds to that compromise? (Not that I think painting is ‘compromised’. You can’t compromise Titian, can you?)

      Then, in more recent works where the squeegee rules, I find that his work shows more and more signs of the very thing one imagines he might have wanted to avoid, a conventional ‘good taste’. I have come across quite lot of abstract painting which is the result of a similar ‘dragging’ technique, pulling mixed paint across a canvas with a squeegee or similar implement. It is a process which, to my mind, rarely delivers more than interesting effects of an arbitrary nature. Such a technique, tried out by lots of abstract painters in the seventies and eighties, certainly doesn’t take painting forward towards any new meaningful form and has become something of a cliché of abstract art.

      • Sam Cornish said…

        I have mixed thoughts reading through Robin’s and John’s comments. On the one hand Robin seems to be asking the wrong questions with regard to Richter: even my very brief acquaintance with his work persuades me that his images are surely part of a wider strategy that has little to do with advancing the language of abstraction. His abstractions would surely be misunderstood if considered solely in relation to the post-post-painterly squeegee experiments of the 70s and 80s that Robin refers to. A recent comment elsewhere on AbCrit seems to find the suggestion comic and you can see why: the rest of Richter’s work makes the attempt to discover new structure trivial or at least seems to make it trivial.

        Yet in paying too much attention to understanding or misunderstanding are we not in danger of taking Richter too much at his word, of giving too much credence to his intentions or to the schema his admirers detect or construct driving through his work? (A inclination that is somewhat ironic considering the sense of detachment or authorly removal that his images suggest). Any game linking up intention and result surely has limits, though it is one everyone in art history plays to some extent. Does creating meaningful form depend on the intent to do so? Could not detachment be a way into making meaningful structure? In (I think) his introduction to the Dada Painters and Poets Robert Motherwell remarks on the unconscious Dada spirit of many of the Abstract Expressionists, and the manner in which progressive New York galleries of the fifties often hung 30s geometric abstraction and Dada together, sensing a coincidence despite the very different impulses under which they were made. Could Richter’s painting be considered in the same way, as creating a new abstraction in spite of itself?