As you enter the top floor gallery that houses the exhibition: ‘Gerhard Richter: Seascapes’ at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, you would be forgiven for feeling a sudden melancholic jolt.
Entering from either the left or the right side, you are presented with 8 paintings from this body of work lining a curved wall in a single lineage that, at least initially, gives the impression of trying to recall certain memories, but never quite being able to do so clearly.
Some, like ‘Seascape (Green-Grey, Cloudy) [Seestück (Grüngrau, Bewölkt)]’ (1969) are rendered in high contrast, creating a brooding, sinister reading. In others, the colours are bleached out and, in the case of ‘Seascape (with olive clouds) [Seestück (Oliv bewölkt)]’ (1969), a colour-cast lends the painting a morose tone.
Two works on paper are seen on an opposing wall, but do little to offer more sustenance to the limited display. But whether by coincidence or on purpose, what the small number of paintings on view allows for is a brief glimpse at Richter’s dexterity, as seen clearly in two paintings in particular: ‘Seascape (Cloudy) [Seestück (bewölkt)]’ (1969) and ‘Seascape (Wave) [Seestück (Welle)]’ (1969). Here, we see flairs of virtuosity that, by proxy, elevate his more-widely regarded masterpieces like ‘Betty’ (1988) or ‘Reader’ (1994), and him, resolutely into this realm.
Yet the exhibition is not without further obstacle. Trying to tackle the dense conceptual framework that is integral to Richter’s varied output can quickly become frustratingly tedious. Over decades, there has been so much commentary stemming from so many different sources, further complicated by Richter engineering a convoluted response, in dry-humoured, no punchline kind of way.
To give an example, in an interview with former Tate Modern director Nicholas Serota, Richter wasasked: “Do you think painting is about discovering the unknown or the known?” The “known,” he answers, “which we see and experience, which affects us and we have to react to… that is the most important thing” – but then, in an immediate change of direction, he went on to claim that when a subject “turns into the unknown, into what it was, that has an excitement all of its own”. Painting, he concludes, has to retain “something incomprehensible”.
What we are initially encouraged to read into a painting like ‘Seascape (Morning Mood) [Seestück (Morgenstimmung)]’ 1969, is made redundant as eagle-eyed observers notice that the light emanating from the top left of the composition does not correlate to the inky-black water below.
As we investigate, we are told that Richter has reduced painting to an exercise in creating a “perfect image”, which it transpires, means combining two separate source photographs of the actual subject. Through this process, any inheritance from Caspar David Friedrich, any form of romanticism or sublimity, is now made null and void by its falsity, and our attention is, by Richter’s play of hand, refocused on the illusionary nature of painting.
This is taken a step further by the two paintings that bookend the display, ‘Seascape [(Seestück)]’ and ‘Seascape (Grey) [Seestück (Grau)]’ (both 1969). They are smaller, rectangular and square respectively, and both look rooted in abstraction, only to be drawn back into the realm of representation by their titles and a thin line, barely perceptible in the latter, that dissects each composition horizontally.
In these two paintings we see how Richter bullishly subverts two of the most well-known schools of thought in mid-20th century painting, representation and abstraction, by simultaneously confronting and merging them, disarming them of any authenticity beyond the immediacy of the paint.
Yet all this presents itself as superfluous to our instinctual response to the paintings, which is, in truth, what drives the exhibition.
Standing inches away from the canvas ‘Seascape (Cloudy) [Seestück (bewölkt)]’ (1969) we truly witness painting as an art form. We are helplessly seduced by the confidence, meticulous due diligence, and patience needed to create it. From the billowing grey clouds glowing as the light passes through from the left side of the composition, smoothly blended without a moment of hesitation or trace of the artist’s hand to be seen, to the waves cresting beneath, powerful and full of movement; there’s no let up by Richter, no carelessness or sign of a stumble. There is still no sign of his hand and the most minuscule details are still seamlessly melded the surface of the image is still mesmerizingly flat. Then, if that wasn’t enough, Richter blurs the whole composition ever so slightly, like an act of alchemy – too much and we know it would be ruined, too little and it would seem accidental, like a mistake. And yet here it is in front of us, just right.
The same applies for ‘Seascape (Wave) [Seestück (Welle)]’ (1969). If you leave and return, nearly all the other artwork within the museum pales by comparison and the impact of these two paintings does not fade Richter’s aptitude for handling and manipulating paint in these works, executed some half-century ago shows just how timeless a great painting can be.
To consider it an exhibition is perhaps doing it a disservice, think of it more along the lines of a fling; a quick mediation on what Richter is capable of achieving that, if nothing more, certainly whets our appetites.