Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Alex Danchev applauds an artist whose depiction of events that others shy from aims to make the 'inexplicable more explicable'
Gerhard Richter: Panorama
Curated by Nicholas Serota and Mark Godfrey, with Amy Dickson
Tate Modern, London
6 October 2011 until 8 January 2012
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
12 February until 13 May 2012
Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris
6 June until 24 September 2012
Gerhard Richter: Panorama: A Retrospective
Edited by Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota
With Dorothée Brill and Camille Morineau
Tate Publishing, 304pp, £24.99
At 8.45am on 11 September 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center in New York, Gerhard Richter and his wife were on Lufthansa flight 408 from Cologne, scheduled to land in Newark at 12.30pm. They were on their way to the opening of an exhibition of his new paintings in Manhattan. At 10.24am the Federal Aviation Authority closed air space over the United States and diverted incoming transatlantic traffic to Canada. Richter's plane landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He and his wife returned to Cologne two days later.
Five years after the event, a certain intimation of artistic creation emerged in Richter's Atlas - a scrapbook or sourcebook of photographs, postcards, drawings, clippings, diagrams and plans from his bottomless bottom drawer - a newspaper cutting, roughly framed in white paper, and three colour prints of the twin towers ablaze. This sequence appeared alongside some abstract collages; it was labelled, anonymously, Stripes and WTC (2006).
These were not random placements. Nothing arrives in the Atlas by chance. Richter is meticulous in his dispositions, and an obsessive arranger and rearranger of the facts of his life. Unconventionally, he started his own catalogue raisonné in 1962, when he had found his feet in the West, after "relocating" from the East, as he put it, the previous year. He was 30; 1962 was year zero. He cancelled his past and set about creating the echt Richter. No catalogue raisonné in modern times has been more actively managed by its living subject. If the past is a foreign country, the back catalogue is continental drift. Already there is an archive - a treasure trove - in Dresden, his birthplace. What matters to Richter is what matters to all great artists: whether the work will hold up, against the competition, sub specie aeternitatis. Posterity calls.
Richter is no mere self-publicist. He is an artist of Proustian ponderation. Other artists have dared to think of the twin towers as a spectacle, a ready-made, or a subject for their own work; few have voiced the thought, and fewer still have acted on it. Richter is different. Embedded in the Atlas are two batches of photographs of the Holocaust. The first batch he assembled in 1967, the second in 1997. On the latter occasion he had been commissioned to make a work for the newly restored Reichstag in Berlin: a testament to his heritage. He seriously considered using a selection of those images in a columnar construction he designed for the towering atrium, making a kind of spinal memorial - the very backbone of the building - a parliament of hopes and bones. One can only speculate on what the reaction might have been. In the end he decided against. The Holocaust, he said, was "unpaintable".
In his 80th year, the temptation (if that is the word) is still with him. Richter is apt to be an elusive interviewee, but Nicholas Serota elicits an intriguing admission in the course of a conversation published in the catalogue of Tate Modern's Panorama. For the past four years, a small photograph has been pinned on the wall of Richter's studio. "You see a concentration camp yard, with people walking around in it quite calmly, moving corpses - except you only see that when you look more closely. Like nice gardeners...there's an appalling contrast between the contents and the look of the picture. But if I did anything with that, it would be just too spectacular."
Asked if he has nevertheless considered making a painting from that image, he replies, "Yes, often". For Richter, the question of the paintable and the unpaintable is not a question of taboos or proscriptions, given or handed down, but rather an exercise of artistic conscience. It might well encompass issues of taste or discretion, and also scale and feel, but in the end paintability is a matter of judgement - judgement about his own capacity, the snare of inanity, and the scent of hope.
WTC presented a somewhat similar problem. The original cutting was pinned on the wall for four years before Richter began to paint, interestingly, on a small scale (52cm x 72cm). "The little picture of the two towers was very colourful to start with," he told another interlocutor, "with the garish explosion beneath the wonderful blue sky and the flying rubble. That couldn't work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen." It was not fit to be seen for another four years. Finally Richter gave it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It appears in this show for the first time outside the US.
Surprisingly enough, 9/11 is paintable. The little picture is called September (2005). It succeeds triumphantly (but not triumphally) in avoiding the traps of spectacle and illustration, Richter's bêtes noires. Like its maker, it is at once bold and discreet. At Tate Modern, it communes with a series of small white abstracts: an inspired conjunction.
Richter eschews exclamation. He pulls off masterpieces of every stripe and stroke and genre, without prejudice. At Tate Modern there are at least two rooms full of them: the cycle of 15 paintings known as October 18, 1977 (1988), on the life and death of the Baader-Meinhof group, perhaps the only great art yet made of terror and counter-terror in the contemporary world; and a suite of six giant abstracts, Cage (2006), named after the composer John Cage, in sympathy and tribute. Richter has long felt a strong affinity with Cage's characteristic statement or sentiment, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it."
Panorama is part-conspectus, part-celebration; an Anglo-Franco-German co-production, it is also a collaboration with the artist himself (a photograph in the catalogue shows three scale models in Richter's studio of the exhibition's three venues, in London, Paris and Berlin), organised chronologically and arranged with great sensitivity, mingling abstraction and figuration throughout. The aim is "to look evenly at all aspects of Richter's practice", as the curator Mark Godfrey puts it. The even gaze is riveting. It is also appropriate. Richter is an even painter. Even Richter nods, but not often.
Despite his protestations, he does have something to say. His collected writings, interviews and letters now run to a volume of some 600 pages. For all that he likes to play up the proverbial stupid painter ("most artists are afflicted with more than common stupidity"), he comes dangerously close to being an intellectual, as his writing and reading and talking amply demonstrate. He deals in the big questions. Richter's doubt bids to rival Cezanne's. Richter's hope is now in a class of its own. "In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible...that which has never been seen before and is not visible.
"This is not some abstruse game but a matter of sheer necessity: the unknown simultaneously alarms us and fills us with hope, and so we accept pictures as a possible way to make the inexplicable more explicable, or at all events more accessible...So, in dealing with this inexplicable reality, the lovelier, cleverer, madder, extremer, more visual and more incomprehensible the analogy, the better the picture. Art is the highest form of hope."
Richter is the arbiter. To see what painting can do under postmodernity, we go to Gerhard Richter. What does he do next?
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. He writes more about Richter in On Art and War and Terror (2009).