Gerhard Richter in Berlin and Frankfurt
Three of the most important museums in Europe have joined together for the major Gerhard Richter retrospective: following its premiere in London’s Tate, “Panorama” is now on show at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Subsequently, in celebration of the painter’s 80th birthday, the exhibition will travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. But Richter’s works also play an important role in the new presentation of contemporary art at the Städel in Frankfurt, where high-profile pieces from the Deutsche Bank Collection are also on view.
||An artist amidst a flurry of camera flashes: at the press conference for his exhibition Panorama, more than 400 journalists, photographers, and camera teams crowd around Gerhard Richter. The painter endures the media turmoil with the casual air one would expect from a movie star, subverting people’s expectations of ready-to-print statements with laconic humor and nebulous answers. His reserve towards the press has done nothing to diminish the success of his exhibition. On the contrary: ever since the magnificent retrospective opened, visitors to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin have been standing in line to see approximately 130 paintings and sculptures by the artist in Mies van der Rohe’s glass cube—a modernist temple that presents a serious challenge for showing paintings. The austere exhibition architecture is effective in enabling Richter’s works to enter into a perfect union with the building.
The paintings are presented chronologically on simple white mobile wall elements, allowing viewers to follow the development of Richter’s oeuvre from the early gray-toned works painted from private snapshots and newspaper photographs to the large-scale, brilliantly colored abstractions—and what are probably his most popular images, the blurred family pictures and landscapes that transport Romantic painting into the present day. City views and monochromatic paintings, large and small formats are all hung side by side. One of Richter’s main works—the much-debated, highly controversial series October 18, 1977 on the RAF terrorists (1988)—is not, however, on view in the Neue Nationalgalerie, but several miles away in the Alte Nationalgalerie. The works are hanging in the Schinkel hall, near the historical paintings of the 19th century and the works of Caspar David Friedrich, whom Richter has long admired. This "outplacement" of the RAF paintings takes away the political sphere in which they are often discussed; instead, the location underscores the art historical tradition behind the paintings.
A walk through Panorama shows why Richter, who celebrated his 80th birthday the day before the exhibition opening, is one of the most important and popular artists of the present day. He has tenaciously adhered to the proscribed category of "beauty," and the deliberate coolness of his paintings saves even difficult motifs like burning candles from becoming kitsch. Over the years, he has tirelessly probed the possibilities of the medium painting. Figuration or abstraction, expressive gestures or perfect squares—through its plurality of styles, Richter’s work withdraws from any simple categorization. Except, of course, that it’s always about painting.
This process has also led the artist into areas in which the painting turns into an object, a sculpture—an aspect that can be studied in Berlin in a handful of selected works. For instance Four Panes of Glass (1967), consisting of four panes encased in a dark metal frame and mounted between slender iron rods, which enables them to be tilted like windows. Richter’s Mirror (1981) is just that, a mirror—and hence a picture that changes constantly in accordance with the situation in the exhibition space depicted therein. 4900 Colors Version 1 (2007) consists of 196 square metal panels each of which consists of 25 squares of various colors. The colorful band encircles the exhibition like a gigantic frieze and establishes contact with the outside world through the windows of the museum building.
Belonging to this series of sculptural works is the site-specific commissioned piece Eight Gray that Richter created in 2002 for the Deutsche Guggenheim—eight objects on the boundary between painting, sculpture, and architecture. The gray reflective glass plates, sixteen feet high and almost ten feet wide, were mounted to the side walls of the exhibition hall and exerted an effect that was both monumental and quiet. In an interview Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, conducted with the artist for the current show, Richter explained: "I have nothing against the word ‘elegance’ being used to describe the paintings—at least the gray panels I’ve made have a highly elegant side to them (…) there’s that phrase, ‘an elegant solution,’ which means that it’s simple and right, and easy. I like that very much."
Despite all its simplicity, Eight Gray opens up a wide field of associations. The work is based on a key function ascribed to paintings at least since the Renaissance—that of being a window to the world, or a mirror reflecting the world. In order to bring the world beyond the exhibition space into the work, Richter had the translucent glass in the windows facing the boulevard Unter den Linden replaced with transparent panes. And so his gray monoliths in the Deutsche Guggenheim not only reflected the person standing before the work, but always the outside as well. The minimalistic mirrored surfaces were a challenge—on the one hand hermetically sealed, on the other open to interpretation. Viewers could see everything, or nothing. As early as 1966, Richter noted the following in his sketchbook: “glass symbol—(see everything / not understand).
Richter already played an outstanding role in Deutsche Bank’s art activities prior to the commissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim. In 1988, he was "Artist of the Fiscal Year," and his works from the Deutsche Bank Collection were subsequently sent on an exhibition tour. Along with the 1965 painting Boat Ride and the large-scale abstraction Faust (1980), which are presented in the lobby of the Deutsche Bank New York branch on Wall Street, nearly the complete set of Richter’s prints are a part of the corporate collection. Prior to the modernization of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, the entire 28th floor of Tower B was dedicated to his work. In accordance with the concept of the collection, this presentation was concentrated on his paper works. Along with the prints, drawings and watercolors demonstrate the breadth of Richter’s artistic language. Now, in the new art presentation in the Towers, a selection of these works is installed in the board rooms.
Richter’s prints from the Deutsche Bank Collection can now be seen in the Städel Museum as well. They belong to a group of 600 works on permanent loan from the corporate collection that was presented to the Frankfurt museum in 2008. In the new Garden Halls, well-known works such as Candle II (1989) and Betty (1991) are a part of the spectacular presentation of contemporary art there. They’re shown in a room of their own together with prints by Sigmar Polke. The synergies existing between the museum and bank collections are evident: "The presentation creates parallels and brings together works that belong together," says Dr. Martin Engler, curator for post-war art. "An exciting dialogue arises between important Richter paintings, for instance between the very beautiful early Large Curtain (1967) and Boat Ride (1965) from the Deutsche Bank Collection.”
The silkscreen print Dog, made the same year as Boat Ride, is also on view in the Garden Halls. In 1965, Richter created two of his best-known paintings: Uncle Rudi and Aunt Marianne, both of which are on show in Berlin. In these four works, the artist implemented his typical blurring technique in a palette of various different gray tones, except for the blue-hued Boat Ride. These four ghostly-looking paintings could have come from a photo album of any generic German family. The past casts a shadow over them—quite openly, as in the picture of the smiling uncle in the Wehrmacht uniform, or in the form of a possibility. Richter’s dog is a very specific member of its kind: during the Third Reich, German Shepherds were highly popular, a kind of national mascot. On the other hand, in the painting of his aunt, the reference to German history is not immediately visible. In 2005, a journalist’s research revealed that Marianne Schönfelder was murdered in 1945 because of her schizophrenia—one of 250,000 victims of euthanasia. Richter painted the work before he knew anything of his aunt’s fate. While he used private snapshots for the "Family Pictures," Boat Ride is based on a newspaper photograph. "True-blue Bavarians row newcomers across the Königssee" is the original image’s caption. In the context of other works from these years, the image of an innocent leisure activity during the era of the German economic wonder takes on a bitter aftertaste. Only 20 years after the end of the Third Reich and the devastation of the Second World War, the new Bavarians are already sailing happily across the Alpine Lake again.
"My paintings are smarter than I am" is a frequently quoted statement of Richter’s, which the story behind Aunt Marianne confirms. When, in an interview with Nicholas Serota, the artist defines painting as a "basic attribute" akin to dancing or singing that "endures," he is not connecting it to analytical or conceptual thought: "I never knew what I was doing." The meaning of his paintings remains as blurry as the contours of his motifs. Banality and content, intuition and calculation, pure surface and auratic depth—along with their beauty, it’s the ambivalence in Richter’s paintings that exert such enormous fascination. In the final analysis, the secret of his painting resists language.
Gerhard Richter. Panorama
February 12—May 13, 2012
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Presentation of contemporary art in the new Garden Halls
starting February 25
Städel Museum, Frankfurt