Issue Number: 112
In an age when many commentators declared painting to be dead, Gerhard Richter has continued to reinvent the language of painting, says Sir Nicholas Serota, who curates a major retrospective of his work at Tate Modern. Interview by Ben Luke
Tate Modern’s Gerhard Richter exhibition is a full-scale retrospective reflecting the artist’s vast and extremely varied oeuvre. The exhibition title ‘Panorama’ reflects the fact that we are looking at his whole career, basically five decades of work, from 1962 to 2012. He has made more than 1,000 works now, and we’re showing about 150 of them.
Gerhard Richter, 'September', 2005 Museum of Modern Art, New York /© Gerhard Richter. A panorama gives you an opportunity to orient yourself in relation to a landscape or a view, it gives you that sense of a sweep across a view, and that’s what we wanted to achieve with the exhibition. I think the breadth and intensity of Richter’s work will surprise people.
The exhibition will bring out Richter’s very close response to events in post-war Germany. We’ve become increasingly aware that some of his early paintings were drawn from photographs of family members who were directly affected by the Nazis. One is a painting of an uncle who was a serving officer, and another features an aunt who was mentally ill and was killed in Hitler’s ‘euthanasia’ programme. Periodically, he has referred to major events. The October paintings (1988), a series of black-and-white works based on images relating to the German Baader-Meinhof Group, are one example, but he has also made a painting, September (2005), about 9/11 and it will be shown for the first time in this country at Tate Modern.
Gerhard Richter, 'Ema (Nude on a Staircase)', 1966. Museum Ludwig, Cologne/© Gerhard Richter. Such works can be seen as contemporary history paintings and, in fact, Richter takes all the traditional genres of painting – including still life, portraiture and landscape, alongside abstraction – and he examines them in depth. Through his work, he has consistently defended painting as a discipline. Across 50 years, in the face of performance art, film and video, and photography, he has been constantly told that painting is not the medium of now, but he has always remained very loyal to it. That comes in part because he is such a technical perfectionist: his traditional training in Dresden, then in East Germany, has always stayed with him.
Richter developed a technique in the 1960s in which he used sweeping movements of the brush to create a blur effect. This occurred for a number of reasons. One is that it provided him with a way to think about abstraction. Richter had gone to Documenta 2 in Kassel in 1959 and been astonished by seeing Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana’s paintings. He returned and tried to make abstracts himself and found it very difficult.
In the mid-1960s, he began, through the blurring technique, to find a way of having a realist subject which nevertheless had a degree of abstraction to it, such as in Ema (1966), a portrait of his then wife, naked and descending a staircase. Later, he began to make an astonishing range of abstract works, and the exhibition reveals how he has explored abstraction over a period of 30 years, right up to his recent white paintings – very beautiful works which are suggestive of landscape in a certain way, but certainly not descriptive of it.
Richter is one of the great painters who has defined the language of painting in our age. And he has kept going. Many artists who are 80 end up repeating themselves, but Richter doesn’t. He is constantly moving forward, questioning the conventions of painting and exploring new materials.
Gerhard Richter: Panorama Tate Modern, London, 020 7887 8888, www.tate.org.uk , 6 Oct–8 Jan, 2012