Gerhard Richter begs to differ with the curators at Dresden’s Lipsiusbau, who are exhibiting his “Atlas,” an archive of his preparation work for paintings.
On a panel in the exhibition, the museum proclaims “Atlas” as “an autonomous artwork in its own right.”
“Nah,” Richter said at a news conference in the same room. “It might be interesting, but it’s not art, it’s just documentation. I’m just grateful that someone is keeping all this stuff safe. These are things that it would be a pity to throw away but are not good enough to sell.”
Germany’s best-known artist turns 80 today and the Dresden exhibition is one of several in his honor this year. Though unlikely to attract as many visitors as the major retrospective opening at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie on Feb. 12, it offers a fascinating counterpoint for enthusiasts.
“Atlas” is an insight into the artist’s preoccupations and inspirations -- a glimpse at the history and geography of a creative mind. Whether or not it is art is a matter of perception and perhaps not so important.
The collection is made up of more than 8,000 items -- private family snaps, historical photographs, sketches, clippings from magazines and collages, all accumulated over 50 years and organized in orderly frames by the artist. He continues to add to it.
The name “Atlas” is a good one, Richter said. He sees the collection as a kind of road map. “I am trying to orientate myself and find order in this chaos,” he said.
Snaps of his wife breast-feeding feature alongside photos of snowy Swiss mountain scenes; there are adverts cut from lifestyle magazines and terrible newspaper images of emaciated corpses piled up in Nazi concentration camps.
The sublime mixes with the grotesque and bizarre. Photographs of beautiful landscapes and cloudscapes rub shoulders with some surprisingly frank 1960s pornography images in black and white. An article cut out of Stern magazine in 1974 details the grisly death of a Frenchman mauled by lions in a safari park -- complete with photos taken by fellow holidaymakers.
Some immediately evoke the resulting artworks -- a series of snaps of a wine bottle and apples, candles, skulls, two blurry cars whizzing by in black and white in the background of an advert; an image of a woman descending a staircase in a shimmering, metallic dress. Some of the photos are out of focus -- blurry like many of Richter’s paintings.
Others keep their secrets. There are dozens of snaps of trains and railway lines and embankments. The carriages and engines are often half-hidden behind trees as though on furtive and shameful missions. What captured Richter’s interest here? This is no harmless train-spotting urge. Something seems to link these snaps with Holocaust images earlier in the display, which include pictures of Jews being herded into carriages.
It’s intriguing to see that, in addition to painting photographs, Richter photographed paint -- perhaps not surprising for someone who has spent much of his career exploring the relationship between the two media. The paint in those luscious photos of his color tests looks fresher, richer and glossier than it ever could on the canvas.
What you won’t find in the “Atlas” are the photographs of paintings Richter has destroyed over the years, kept in a Dresden archive. Under the headline “The Destroyer,” the Spiegel magazine last week published photographs of the lost works, including a black-and-white 1962 painting of Adolf Hitler in rabble-rousing mode.
The artist shredded the work after showing it just once, saying it was “too spectacular,” according to Spiegel, which pointed out that this painting would now be worth millions.
That, of course, is just one side of the story. If Richter weren’t such a tough self-critic, then none of his paintings would be as valuable as they are. Last year, an abstract work from 1997 fetched $20.8 million at auction, a record.
At 80, Richter said, the pace of his work may have slowed a little, though he still goes to the studio every day.
“What else would I do?” he asked.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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