Gerhard Richter: ‘Panorama’, Tate Modern, review by Eliza Apperly
As implied by its title, the Tate’s Richter show is big on breadth. Coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, this vast retrospective not only spans the historical decades of Richter’s art, but also the unremitting variety of his practice. The exhibition insists upon such stylistic scope, with curators Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey distinguishing ‘Panorama’ from previous Richter shows which have focused on single stylistic tendencies. This exhibition, explained Serota, aims not to present an artist of any specific style, but to recognise an artist who ‘chooses to express ideas at different moments.’
Within a broadly chronological structure, much of the exhibition has been orientated to emphatically display such stylistic plenitude. Many of the show’s largest rooms strikingly juxtapose figuration and abstraction, flaunting Richter’s engagement with both tendencies over similar historical periods and his capacity to interrogate similar ideas in vastly different looking works. The brash colours and squeegee technique of the artist’s early 1980’s abstract work, for example, are exhibited alongside the careful portraiture of Betty (1977), close mimesis of Flowers (1977) and still life vanitas paintings Candle (1982) and Skull (1983). In other instances, Richter’s inclination towards figuration and abstraction merge in single works. In Bouquet (2009) a studious still life with flowers is partly obscured with the follow-on application of a squeegee, while in Lilies (2000) precise figuration had become, in Richter’s own words, ‘so unbearable that I smudged all the nuances.’
Constantly toying between divergent modes of painted expression, Richter also demonstrates an elaborate interrogation of the very practice of painting. Scalar disruption, the use of glass and reflection and Richter’s energetic combinations of painting and photography all testify to an ongoing questioning of the imaged, and particularly painted, realm. In 128 Details from a Picture (1998) for instance, Richter presents 128 photographic close-ups of a small abstract painting, Halifax, painted two decades earlier. The images, taken at different angles and distances, scrutinise the surface of the canvas, subjecting individual strokes to intense observation and analysis. In 4 Panes of Glass, Ball, 6 Panes of Glass in a Rack and 11 Panes, meanwhile, Richter plays repeatedly with reflective media and with the creation of forms which are shifting, shadowy and uncertain, rather than fixed in paint.
Throughout the exhibition, we encounter, too, an artist who is particularly concerned with painting’s engagement with history. From his portrayal of two of his own relatives, one a member, one a victim, of the Nazi party, to his comment on the Iraq War in War Cut (2004) Richter repeatedly considers painting’s capacity to respond to and represent drastic world events. His small, restrained September (2005), which portrays the attacks on the World Trade Center, is shown for the first time in the UK in this exhibition.
With approximately 150 works on display, ‘Panorama’ is as ambitious and expansive as the artist it represents. It is a retrospective which eloquently draws out certain patterns and ongoing preoccupations in Richter’s work but which above all illustrates - and celebrates - the earnest invention, re-invention and self-reflexive enquiry of ‘ongoing new beginnings.’