Surprised by some of the comments provoked by the recently-closed Gerhard Richter exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, I decided to put in writing a few remarks about the show myself.
I saw this exhibition some months ago in London at the Tate Modern, and like many of my colleagues and friends I found it sober and well constructed. Clear. Until I reached the last rooms, where the vision of the work suddenly fell apart, leaving me with a feeling of regret, or I might even say uneasiness. It was at the Paris Richter exhibition that I realised the cause of the London slip, which was quite simply that the Tate show bore the positivist stiffness of the (artistic) constructions of British art history… along with their limitations. In any case, it failed to follow the complex twists and turns in the pictorial process of an artist whose work is constructed by constant reversion to the past. His subject matter is equally marked by this characteristic.
The Paris show was pleasing in the abundance of different approaches that, in my view, this work indisputably demands. However, much as I found the hanging subtle and complex, I was astonished to see in various rooms comments referring to… Marcel Duchamp ! So “Saint Marcel” (Duchamp) turned up here I yet again n a purely – viscerally – pictorial context, despite his being the conceptual artist par excellence, light years away from the pictorial field. Couldn’t people leave Marcel Duchamp alone and finally accept that he was more of an art critic than a painter ? Obviously, when confronted with such a pictorially complex process such as Richter’s, the conceptual “loophole” provides a handy way out, but it is an escape route that leads… nowhere.
I find Gerhard Richter’s painting very encouraging, because after so many announcements of the “end of painting” (the recurring subject for critics of modernity), it shows that post-abstract painting not only remains possible, but probably has a bright future ahead of it.
Richter’s work makes me think of the amazing brilliance of colour and formal qualities in the “solar metavisions” of Władysław Strzemiński, the extraordinary continuator of Malewicz’s Suprematism. Richter’s latest paintings show deep scraping that is reminiscent of both Pollock’s Action painting and the more superficial but no less “existential” work of… Georges Mathieu. The German artist strayed into Action painting (de Kooning, Hartung), as well as a brief passage via Courbet and Monet and, particularly, halting with Gaspar David Friedrich – all of them enchanting pictorial escapades.
To me it is rather surprising that in a country like France, where the psychoanalytic avalanche is still active, the technique of scraping – the Action phase of Richter’s work in which the gesture leads to the rediscovery of the image’s subterranean strata – has received such little analytical interest or in-depth commentary. Or has it just escaped my notice ?
As for the images based on the iconography inspired by recollections from the 3rd Reich, these are as complex as the incessant return to his various pictorial references. The deeply personal associations awakened by a family memory refer back to deeply buried strata no less interesting in their semantic function; his psycho-iconographic boxes also open up onto the abstract paintings created with the scraping technique… scraping the memory of the image.
I read a piece in Le Monde on this subject : the article was painfully clichéd, whereas the subtlety of the layers that form the artist’s memory requires delicate insight on the part of the commentator. For that, however, one really has to be able to appreciate modern painting and be familiar with its winding paths, from Matisse to Beckman, from Pollock to Hartung, from Rothko to Richter.
What a treasure-trove modern painting is, and what promise for the future lies in Richter’s gesture !