Evasive Action Painter: On Gerhard Richter
But back to that set of glass paintings.Hinterglasmalerei is an old folk-art tradition that has now and again been taken up by modern artists, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky among them, as well as, in recent years, the English artist Simon Periton. There's nothing folksy about Richter's use of the medium. Sindbad (2008) is not the most important work in the show, though it consumes the most wall space; but it's one that you have to come to terms with if you really want to understand Richter. That's not easy, because it represents a side of his work that is hard to warm to--I was tempted to say impossible, but art lovers are an unfathomable lot. Its colors are brash, garish and arbitrary, more like those of Richter's abstractions of the late '70s through the mid-'80s than his work of recent years. These aggressively ingratiating, cheerfully clashing hues are really hard to take. As with his color charts-- represented in this exhibition by the small square 25 Colors (2007)--they represent the perversely antithetical stance toward color that has periodically been his: to reach the neutrality of gray by forcing bright colors into a situation where they neutralize each other. But because each of the ninety-six panels that make up the work is a little bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper, and because the paint is sealed away behind glass, their ferocious neutrality is in itself neutralized and contained. Rather than overwhelming you, as Richter's abstractions of the early '80s might have, their intensity gets under your skin retroactively, after you thought you were already thinking about something else.
Most of the abstract paintings Richter has been making of late are not like that. They use or are dominated by a limited number of colors, and by moving these colors back and forth across the canvas so that they sometimes mix and sometimes emerge separately, Richter almost automatically evokes a specific atmosphere, a mood, a condition of light and space. In that sense they are closer to traditional painting, no matter whether abstract or not, than a work like Sindbad is. And yet their very profusion, and the fact that they have been produced by semi-mechanical means, with the paint moved around by a squeegee, suggests that at another level the same arbitrariness is at work in these paintings as in the color charts, the early abstractions or Sindbad. For works like those, as Richter wrote to Buchloh in 1977, the premise is that "I can communicate nothing, that there is nothing to communicate, that painting can never be communication, that neither hard work, obstinacy, lunacy nor any trick whatever is going to make the absent message emerge of its own accord from the painting process." Not surprisingly, Richter soon discovered that a message does emerge from the painting process, that something is communicated. In most of his current abstract paintings, which somehow manage to assert themselves as sheer obdurate matter and radiant quanta of space and light at the same time, he allows that message to emerge--but washes his hands of it. It's not his message but rather something that occurs almost naturally. "Using chance is like painting nature," Richter has written. "No ideology. No religion, no belief, no meaning, no imagination, no invention, no creativity, no hope--but painting like nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, thusness."
In one thought Richter goes from nihilism to Romanticism. Likewise in his painting. And if his hope of painting in a way that parallels the processes of nature seems to echo Jackson Pollock's famous boast when asked whether he worked from nature--"I am nature!"--it's no accident. Commentators on Richter's abstract paintings have often emphasized the radical distinction between them and the work of the Abstract Expressionists, with which they might superficially seem to have much in common. After all, the apparent spontaneity of Richter's paintings is not based on the immediacy of the artist's gesture, as with Pollock or Franz Kline, but is highly mediated, not only by his hands-off working methods but by his basic tendency to subsume the space of painting to that of photography rather than of nature. True enough. But in this case, the superficial view contains more truth than the sophisticated one. The most powerful works in the Goodman show were several very large paintings whose surfaces were nearly white, though of a quasi-white highly variegated, with a great deal of color within or beneath it, surfacing in ghostly demarcations. Contrary to what Buchloh claims in his catalog essay, they bear little or no connection to the Neo-Dada tradition of Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings of 1951 or Piero Manzoni's "achromes" of the late '50s. In these paintings, Richter achieved, as he has rarely if ever done before, an effect of sublimity such as commentators on the Abstract Expressionists often speak of, though the painters achieved it but rarely. Read Richter's notes again with this in mind and you'll realize that he sounds like a painter of the 1940s more often than you'd imagine. When he speaks of painting as "an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surrounding," it might as well be Willem de Kooning talking. Richter's best works might surpass any but the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists, but that's not because his project is radically different from theirs. It's because his is theirs in extremis, pursued with a deep-seated suspicion of its impossibility and an even more vigilantly maintained No. It's the drama (and dramatization) of that self-consciousness that's so exhilarating.