One of the publicity quotes for the GOMA show declares that Gerhard Richter is the world’s greatest living painter.

Q: Is Gerhard Richter the world’s greatest living artist?
: : :
A: No.1 of Six Greatest Living Artists – Vanity Fair
A: Saviour of contemporary painting – Deutsche Welle
A: The Top-Selling Living Artist – Wall Street Journal
A: One of the most influential painters working today – MoMA
A: ‘Recognised as one of the greatest living painters’ – Malcolm Turnbull

On inspection, GOMA’s The Life of Images is a knockout, the first survey of Gerhard Richter in Australia. Not having seen many in the real, in reproduction Richter had seemed to me cool, controlled and calculating if not cynical, but this show — in all its materiality of paint and postmodern transmedia — makes clear that the artist has been running hard on his nerves all his life. The show is a real coup, a proper look at Richter’s diverse modes, with many wonderful paintings. It is spaciously hung with a simple, austere elegance, and the wall text is really useful.

There’s a library of writing about Richter’s work, but here are reflections on four encounters …

GR, 1962: ‘The first impulse towards painting … stems from the need to communicate … Without this, all work would be pointless and unjustified, like Art for Art’s Sake.’

Richter painting

SELFIE-FREE ZONE

Across the corridor the Yayoi Kusama show Life is the Heart of a Rainbow is packed: kids run riot, people wearing spots and stripes pose against paintings of dots and stripes. Peak selfie is at the end of a 45 minute queue to an “infinity” room — 30 seconds of private enclosure to snap yourself in black light floating in endless space among glowing neon spheres.

Back on this far less populated side a quartet of women in their 60s pose before one of Richter’s tapestries, amazing things wrought through computer transformation and manufacture. I offer to help and they laugh: ‘Thanks, but this is all about the selfie!’ In two days they were the only people I noticed snapping themselves with any of Richter’s art.

Viewers peer closely and document on their mobiles, but there is no desire to identify with the works, and apart from the four enormous tapestries they don’t provide delightful backdrops. There is a weight to Richter’s work, with an aura of sound-absorbing quiet about the figurative paintings – his control of tonalities is supreme – and one of agitated white noise around the abstractions. Nor do they have the allure of fame; they’re not Vincents or Leonardos, only the art crowd would recognise these blurry or fractured images, or even his name.

GR,1977: ‘Arbitrariness has always seemed the central problem in both abstract and representational painting. What reason is there, other than some stupid system or the rules of a game, for placing one thing next to another …’

Richter paintings

Richter paintings

Richter paintings

SO SMUDGED

Two boys careen around a room of photo-paintings. Until they’re brought to a halt by a mock-severe attendant they stage whisper loudly as they pass each painting: ‘Smudged!’ … ‘That’s really smudged!’ … ‘that’s SO SMUDGED!’

Family members, undramatic landscapes, skulls, candles and flowers. There’s the rub: first, the photo-derived image is painted beautifully, fastidiously — then it is subjected to an unforgiving, irrevocable drag of a squeegee, blurring the surface. The large abstracts are entirely blur and drag.

The blurry, suggestively degraded photo source, is a truly original move. The small, black and white painting of his ‘Uncle Rudi’ brightly smiling in his Nazi army coat, from 1965, is disturbing in content and stunningly prescient in its feeling of slippage and unreliability, long before digital media made us acquiesce in undeclared fakery.

Like Richter’s early refusal to choose between figurative or abstraction, the blur is a hugely influential art strategy. Richter says it is to remove the artisanal feel, to unify the image and make “everything equally important and equally unimportant”. My long-bow reading of his remarks is that Richter’s desire for a cool, objective tone is a rejection of German Romanticism and its mutant descendant, the murderous righteousness of the Nazi era into which he was born.

Richter used photos from the start because banal photo images are what we see every day; and because photos conveyed his family history, entwined as it was with the Nazis. It’s a paradoxically realist vision that embeds implicit questions about trusting how and what we see, and how memory works. He has an ongoing practice of smearing paint over photos — his “overpaintings” — as a way to marry the figurative and abstract, to make another kind of “reality”. (Richter’s many quotes about photography are tricky, sometimes contradictory or mischievous, eg, that photographs are “devoid of style”.)

GR, 1985: ‘I constantly despair at my own incapacity … of painting a valid, true picture or even of knowing what such a thing ought to look like.’

RIchter painting

SYMBOLS FOR BLOOD

One room displays four large abstractions titled ‘Birkenau’, flanked by two all-grey paintings, and four small “overpaintings”. The paintings began as rendered versions of four secret photos taken in Auschwitz-Birkenau, showing skewed silhouettes of doorways and branches and small figures amidst billows of smoke. Frustrated with the paintings Richter characteristically attacked the surface with swathe upon swathe of paint, resulting in a tumultuous roil of black, grey, red and green. The set was hanging in Berlin’s Reichstag earlier last year.

The wall text explains the commemorative nature of the work and the artist’s struggle. A forceful mother took to loudly reading the text in its entirety to her 11-12 year old daughter. Finishing, she gestured at the kid to move into the room: ‘Go, go, you can work out for yourself what are the scratches and the symbols for blood.’

> GR,1993: ‘The image of the artist as a misunderstood figure is abhorrent to me. I much prefer the high times, as in the Renaissance or in Egypt, where art was part of the social order and was needed in the present.’

The four canvasses dominate the space, claustrophobic in their scale and literal burden of paint. I felt for the little girl – the pictures are mutely oppressive, depending on the wall text to declare their intentions. I would say it’s their failure of representation that is memorable — while it is impossible to recall any random passages of paint splitting and tearing across the canvas, the group rears like four sheer walls of wreckage.

Richter has made contemporary versions of what were called history paintings, like his series on the Baader-Meinhof terrorists of the 1980s, or the small devastating painting of the World Trade Towers, now multiplied and manifested as a print. His Birkenau pictures of 2014 have employed abstraction to address history. The sensual and sublimating abstract expressionism of De Kooning and Rothko has morphed into profoundly disturbed paint: repurposed as a memorial to national guilt.

GR, 2002: ‘In one sense, abstract art is absolutely nothing, stupid. In 100 years, maybe people will just think it’s garbage. But somehow we see something in it … But it is impossible to describe.’

GOMA Richter show

Richter Atlas detail

ATLAS: RICHTER’S WORLD

The “Atlas” is the part of Richter’s ongoing archive of source images and notes that is formatted into displays. On show are about half of the 800 cards – though much reduced in scale “Atlas” fills all of a long gallery. It includes the clippings of Brikenau photos, placed next to pornographic pictures (don’t ask me); seascape collages; notes for fictional room displays; sketches of a Reichstag installation and the Cologne Cathedral window; tender family snaps that became some of the paintings in the show; a weird set showing Richter in blackface (and body), and thousands more. It’s very voyeuristic and easy to spend hours in there.

I bumped into and briefly hobnobbed with the artist John Young and his partner Kate. We joked about how John might adopt Richter’s rigorous daily schedule (wake 6:15, make breakfast for family, take kid to school, in studio by 8). John said what deeply impressed him was Richter’s integrity. That word was a nail struck home.

What knocked me out, what moves me about the survey is its sense of a long life of integrity. Growing up among the Nazis, escaping East Berlin just before the Wall went up, the atheist postwar artist followed his own path (thus blazing new paths) through a world of constant change, and stayed true to his faith of doubt and painting. At 85, is he the world’s greatest living artist? I really believe he is the greatest artist ever named Gerhard Richter: no one else could have made this work with the intelligence, feeling, craft, persistence and ambition evident in the show. Richter scale: 9.9

GR, 2011: ‘I’m still very sure that painting is one of the most basic human capacities, like dancing and singing, that make sense.’

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