‘ARTIST ROOMS’, co-owned by Tate and The National Galleries of Scotland, is a large-scale collection of modern and contemporary art whose ‘ARTIST ROOMS On Tour’ initiative aims to bring major bodies of work by internationally acclaimed artists to public British art institutions. It is through this scheme that Plymouth City Museum is currently showing a solo exhibition of works by German artist Gerhard Richter - an ambitious choice given the artists’ complex practice and one that echoes the city’s continuing bid (since hosting the British Art Show in 2011) to engage local audiences with challenging contemporary art.
From the beginning of his career, Richter has sought to explore the ambiguous relationship between not only painting and photography, but also between the figurative and the abstract. His interest in the way we perceive reality allows him to cover a wide observational range, from a scientific microscopic approach to the historical or political. Over the years this has resulted in an extremely rich and critically acclaimed oeuvre. The exhibition at Plymouth Museum presents a relatively minimal but carefully selected range of works, which bring to light much of Richter’s artistic complexity.
Looming large over the main exhibition space hang the controversial and somewhat haunting ‘48 Portraits’ (1998) based upon photographs of men of letters, philosophy and science which Richter found in various encyclopaedias and dictionaries. He transformed this source material into a series of black and white paintings that were first shown at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Typical of Richter’s layered, process-based practice, this painting series was then photographically duplicated into four sets, of which the Plymouth Museum now shows one. Although this particular series focuses solely upon men, throughout his career Richter has also often depicted women; most notably the elusive ‘Betty’ (1988) and his various portraits of Ulrike Meinhof. In this instance ’48 Portraits’ is confronted by a large portrait of the American artist Brigid Polk, a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory who has been depicted by Richter several times.
Repetition as a means to understand and experiment with subject matter or technique is definitely a staple of Richter’s oeuvre. This is reflected in a small double portrait of the artists Gilbert and George, which also establishes a direct link with the city, as Gilbert is from Plymouth. In the portrait Richter plays with the inherent ‘repetitiveness’ of the couple and their work by layering a straight and an up-side-down version of the portrait image atop each other, alluding in a sense to the layering of his own work while also bringing to mind the style of Francis Bacon in the overall distortive rendering of the portraits.
A smaller partition of the gallery is dedicated to a series of Richter’s ‘Grey Paintings’ in which he explores perception via scientific phenomena that are invisible to the naked eye. For instance, in ‘Abstract Image – Skin’ (2004) he enlarges the miniscule visual patterns created by sound when this is brought in proximity of milk, whereas ‘Abstract Image – Silicate (880‑4)’ (2002) reveals the structure of this material on a minute scale which is contrasted by the size of the painting. ‘Correctly’ interpreting the seemingly abstract pattern only becomes possible by reading the accompanying caption, thus introducing yet another layer of image and interpretation to his oeuvre.
The simultaneous building and discovering of layers of reality are further represented via a large ‘squeegee’ painting in the main room – ‘Abstract Painting (809-3)’, (1994). Here, Richter’s technique consists of slowly scraping a smaller or larger squeegee (normally used in silkscreen printing) over a freshly painted canvas or other surface thus revealing and mixing with the earlier painted layers underneath. The artist’s own image is slowly obscured using a three-stage administration of this technique in ‘Self Portrait Standing, Three Times’ (1991) thus stressing the unfixed nature of any depiction, including the self-portrait genre.
The learning program, intended to form an integral part of any ‘ARTIST ROOMS’ presentation, adds a further dimension to the exhibition. The Museum has collaborated with the University of Plymouth and Plymouth College of Art to create a series of sound works, resulting in nineteen tracks that interpret or respond to Richter’s work. A small but precise programme of music, film and dance offers a further dialogue with the exhibition, a diverse approach which shows that the deliberate ambiguity of Richter’s work not only provides the artist himself with rich, ongoing subject matter, but also provides a perfect platform for new, diverse audiences of his work to discover new insights.