Painting, according to some, has long been as defunct and deceased as Monty Python’s parrot.
That doesn’t stop this allegedly ex-art form carrying on regardless. The big new exhibition “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at Tate Modern in London presents a life time’s tally of powerful and beautiful works all executed in the traditional manner. Their subject is the death of painting and the disappearance of meaning. That’s what makes them so modern.
Richter, born in Dresden in 1932, has been producing paintings for more than half a century in, essentially, two modes. His pictures are either based on photographs or they are abstract. Both are idioms with a long history.
The camera has been affecting painting for centuries, perhaps since before photography itself was invented. It seems virtually certain, for example, that Vermeer used a prephotographic technique in the mid-17th century, looking at his subjects through a camera obscura.
Richter is highly conscious of Vermeer as a predecessor; he made the connection clear with “Reader” (1994), which echoes the Dutch master’s pictures of women reading. Vermeer’s works are filled with a sense of transcendent calm. The light is spiritual. In contrast, Richter’s photo-based art is concerned with how much significance the camera lens misses. Among his early works are several based on family snapshots such as “Aunt Marianne” (1965), a teenage girl with a baby on her lap.
There are dark secrets lurking here. The baby casting a sour look at the camera is the infant artist with his Aunt Marianne, who suffered from mental problems and was killed in an extermination program; smiling “Uncle Rudi” (also 1965) wears a Nazi uniform. Richter accentuates the smudge and blur, the arbitrariness of what the lens happens to see. Those out-of-focus blotches have a bleak beauty of their own.
Sometimes, his fascination with chance shapes blends into a Zen-like contemplation of nature. It’s difficult not to react to his almost photo-realist triptych of “Clouds” (1970) as if to an altarpiece. They float in front of you like a revelation. Except that it’s clear there is no more deep import in these wisps of vapor than in a Rorschach blot. Obviously, there’s another demise involved -- announced in the 19th century like that of painting -- the death of God.
Landscape painting, in the hands of Turner or the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, acquired an almost religious force. Their seas and transcendental mountains suggest a divine presence. Friedrich is another predecessor Richter acknowledges. But to Richter, nature is alien, if not hostile.
Power of Paint
If some of Richter’s work is meticulously naturalistic, another large part is blankly abstract. He seems fascinated by the way paint can produce visual power in the absence of meaning or even conscious intention. A good deal of his abstract painting is about randomness.
When making “4096 Colors” (1974), he took the primary colors, mixed 1,024 shades from them, and put those down four times each in neat little squares. The result pops with energy even if the system that produced them was mechanical (Damien Hirst’s spot paintings owe a lot to Richter).
Since the early 1980s many of his abstracts have been worked over with a squeegee, which he uses to smear, drag and erase what he has done. Still, they shimmer with light like a Monet.
The twist is that this beauty has been made by messing around with pigments. What you see is all there is. The emptiness at the heart of Richter’s world can seem melancholy, though paradoxically his work demonstrates that -- at least for painting -- there is life after death.
“Gerhard Richter: Panorama” is at Tate Modern, London, through Jan. 8, 2012. The exhibition will travel to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, (Feb. 12-May 13) and to the Pompidou Center, Paris, (June 6-Sept. 24). Information: http://www.tate.org.uk, http://www.neue-nationalgalerie.de, http://www.centrepompidou.fr.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney.” The opinions expressed are his own.)