Home Architect John Ganz on Gerhard Richter

John Ganz on Gerhard Richter

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Gerhard Richter in his studio with Spiegel (Mirror), 1981, and Abstraktes Bild (Faust) (Abstract painting [Faust]), 1980, Düsseldorf, 1981. © Gerhard Richter.

Gerhard Richter in his studio with Spiegel (Mirror), 1981, and Abstraktes Bild (Faust) (abstract painting [Faust]), 1980, Dusseldorf, 1981. © Gerhard Richter.

In March, New Yorker David Zwirner inaugurated his first personal exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work since the painter’s defection to the megagallery by Marian Goodman, his thirty-seven-year-old gallery owner. The exhibition featured fourteen of his last paintings, completed in 2016 and 2017, made before the artist, now ninety-one, declared his retirement from painting. It also contained seventy-six drawings – the products of the practice that replaced the physically strenuous process of painting for Richter – and a single glass and steel sculpture. If one was looking for some sort of retrospective, or a coda and summary of the artist’s career, this exhibition might have been disappointing: it was, in many ways, just another Richter exhibition, it that is to say, it was all the same quite remarkable. Often a painter’s final works will show their style reduced to the essentials, a shift to monochrome or some other statement of completion, but Richter’s later abstractions, though they show subtle developments and variations from to his previous work, do not boldly state, They are the ones. That’s it. I understood it. Such fulfillment would not seem natural for a painter who has made the public depiction of skepticism and self-doubt his profession. This show felt more like a continuation than a conclusion of his practice. However, it is possible to find, in this simultaneous refusal and acceptance of the idea of ​​a final painting, his artistic heritage.

Eleven years ago, I saw the retrospective “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. At the time, I wanted to be an abstract painter, and I believed that Richter Abstract Picture were the highest achievements in this genre in the contemporary world. I looked at his monumental “squeegee paintings,” with their additions and deletions of pigment, with a reverence bordering on adoration: the sublime was still possible to convey in the medium of paint. My date has not been moved; she said the works looked like something that would be in the lobby of a bank. At the time, this comment struck me as philistine, if not downright blasphemous. But I have to say now that there was a lot more than I wanted to admit.


Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Faust), 1980, oil on canvas.  Installation view, Deutsche Bank, New York, 2012. Photo: Gail Worley.  © Gerhard Richter.

Gerard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Faust)1980, oil on canvas. Installation view, Deutsche Bank, New York, 2012. Photo: Gail Worley. © Gerhard Richter.

At least one of Richter’s paintings actually occupied the lobby of a bank. The painter’s massive triptych from 1980 Abstraktes Bild (Faust) once adorned the lobby of the Deutsche Bank offices on Wall Street. (The struggling financial institution has since had to sell the Richter, along with a good chunk of its treasure trove of other fine works of art.) Faust is one of the artist’s ‘smooth’ abstractions, made before he had fully developed his squeegee and trowel technique of layering and removing paint, leaving behind its ridged, rough surfaces. FaustThe artful visual language of is drawn from the world of commercial art and illustration and balanced with aspects of gestural abstraction, forming a synthetic combination of Pop art and AbEx. The garish palette – a friend compared it to a Trapper Keeper – seems to herald the arrival of the tacky excesses of 1980s Wall Street. One could interpret the painting as a sly parody of the neo-expressionist schwarmerei of that era.. But there is something more here too, an allusion to the Theosophist’s desire to represent thoughts and emotions in visual form. The intimation of the occult corresponds to its title, taken, of course, from the legend of Faust, the most famous adapted by Goethe, about the alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural powers and hidden knowledge. There is a photograph, reproduced in more than one monograph on Richter, of the artist in his studio standing before his giant mirrors; Faust can also be seen in this same reflection, hanging behind him, perhaps suggesting some identification with the doomed endeavor of this tale after infinity. And like Goethe’s Faust, Richter renounces the comfort of complacency.

Richter is torn between a materialistic Weltschmerz who can border on despair and a lofty idealism who seeks metaphysical transcendence.

His workshop notes reveal that Richter is torn between a materialistic Weltschmerz who can border on despair and a lofty idealism who seeks metaphysical transcendence through art. In his lectures on abstract painting, Kirk Varnedoe makes Richter look more like Mephisto – “the spirit that denies” – than like Faust when he calls Richter “the man of negation” whose “abstraction comes from a climate of dead cynicism and irony”. It’s a little difficult to reconcile with the giddy statements the artist himself has made from time to time in the name of abstract painting, which sound more like negative theology than negation by dissolution or despair:

Abstract pictures. . . to make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate. We designate this reality in negative terms: the unknown, the incomprehensible, the infinite. And for thousands of years we have represented it through surrogate images such as heaven and hell, gods and demons. In abstract painting, we have found a better way to access the invisible, the incomprehensible. . . . Art is the highest form of hope.

These feelings may seem naive or even embarrassing to some. But darker moods can also happen to the artist. A few years later, Richter would write in his studio diary: “Art is miserable, cynical, stupid, helpless, confused – a mirror image of our own spiritual impoverishment, our state of abandonment and loss. We have lost the great ideas, the utopias; we have lost all faith, all that creates meaning. These lines come just ten days after that entry: “Art is a pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, desire for God.” So who is the real Richter: the wide-eyed mystic or the bitter skeptic? Richter has found success, artistically and commercially, in finding a space between these positions: there is something there for the seeker and the cynic. Or rather, his work reflects the realization that they are aspects of the same form of subjectivity at different times.


View of “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” 2012, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.  From left to right: Abstraktes Bild, 1990;  Summaries Bild, 1980;  Betty, 1988. Photo: David von Becker.  © Gerhard Richter.

View from “Gerhard Richter: Panorama”, 2012, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. From left to right : Summary Picture1990; Summary Picture1980; Betty, 1988. Photo: David von Becker. © Gerhard Richter.

The works exhibited at David Zwirner suggest Richter’s continued investment in the through negative. The paintings are constructed by obliteration as much as by the construction of form: they have been scraped, wiped, smeared, cut out. In the strongest examples, these deletions began to produce an illusionistic depth of field, linking the abstract works to Richter’s engagement with the Romantic landscape and the continued possibility of painting to reflect depth. The drawings also made extensive use of erasures and smudges, random drips and spills of ink, to create forms that seem suspended between coalescence and dissolution. The glass sculpture looked like an attempt to represent absence itself: One’s reflections appeared spectral in the glass, with no individual characteristics or qualities. One couldn’t help but feel here a commentary both on the screen and on the alienating glass and steel architecture of financial capitalism. But it was the suite of inkjet reproductions of Lyrical Abstract Drawings, collectively titled mood2022, which seemed to ask the central question of Richter’s work: Can we continue to have something like a spiritual existence, an inner life, while accepting the conditions of technology?


View of “Gerhard Richter,” 2023, David Zwirner, New York.  From left to right: Abstraktes Bild, 2017;  Abstraktes Bild, 2017. © Gerhard Richter.

View of “Gerhard Richter”, 2023, David Zwirner, New York. From left to right : Summary Picture2017; Summary Picture2017. ©Gerhard Richter.

Richter once described the state of humanity as being “exposed on some sort of garbage pile.” His bet has always been to embrace, rather than violently resist, modern life and the reign of machines. In a studio note, he set himself an agenda: “’The center cannot hold’: Be a reaction machine, unstable, blind, dependent. Sacrifice yourself to objectivity. In another, he compared his strategy to that of General Kutuzov in Tolstoy. War and peace, his way of “not intervening, of not planning anything, but of watching how things go, of choosing the right moment to influence an evolution that is beginning on its own. Passivity was the genius of this general. His work seeks to continue to make great, even monumental art, working with rather than against the garbage heap of an ever-advancing technological civilization: a world of broken LCD screen shapes, televisions static, damaged dot-matrix printers, broken circuit boards, abandoned screen prints and photographs; from images of terror, erosion and ecological catastrophe. For Richter, it is his own romantic ruin or sublime landscape.

As we enter a new stage of technological development and destruction with artificial intelligence, Richter’s work may not provide us with a center, but it may point to a way to continue, to accept there and to reject here, and above all to continue, to find new possibilities. As the choir of angels tells us at the end of Faust, part 2“He who struggles and lives to struggle / Can still win redemption.”

John Ganz is a writer living in New York.

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