Gerhard Richter: The Soft Machine

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

by Simon Bayliss

Gerhard Richter is now celebrated as the world greatest living painter. The task for me of reviewing such an amazing survey of almost half a century’s work is daunting not only because of this accolade, but because the artist’s work is so difficult to pin down.  The chronologically curated paintings essentially depict two modes of practice: paintings based on photographs, and painterly abstracts; representation versus non-representation. Straightforward as it may sound, the paintings are never obvious. Snapshots of Richter’s relatives, as well as gently nostalgic landscapes and still lives bordering kitsch, dissolve in swathes of abstraction, questioning and suppressing their own validity in an iconoclastic battle between image and paint. The early abstracts, by alluding to familiar genres but quietly discrediting them, continuously subvert preconceptions, whilst the late squeegee paintings pretend implausibly, to be nothing more than astonishingly beautiful paint.

Three rooms into the show I found myself engulfed in one of Richter’s huge grisaille seascapes where the lauded influence of Caspar David Friedrich’s mysterious German Romanticism meets 1960s Op Art.  It seems the intention of the image is to be read as both abstract and representational at the same time. A first glace suggests a dark and magnificent sea merging with a bright but menacing sky at a central horizon; the shadowy flecks of waves are easily readable. Both elements however, seem to mirror each other in negative, in an eerie visual pun. Some areas of this psychedelic vision have the impression of being in focus, others out, adding a disorientating effect so that the whole thing seemed to vibrate in front of my eyes.  Visual conundrums crop up continuously throughout the exhibition and as in Seascape, Richter seems to be saying; neither way is up, neither side is right, but all is opulent and sublime.

Coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, the retrospective spans almost half a century beginning with some of the first paintings made after he fled from East to West Germany in 1961. Immediately apparent is the photographic quality of these paintings, some depicting casually cropped black and white newspaper clippings. Images of luxury and exotic things, such as a Ferrari advertisement, in which every recognisable feature of the car have faded in a sweep of grey, and a tiger passing the picture frame conveyed with the blurred exhilaration of a hunter’s gaze.  Although Richter had been recently exposed to everyday capitalist iconography, there is no wide-eyed feeling of reverence or indulgence that you might expect. Even in these early works there is a sceptical coldness; the artist beginning to operate as a machine, scanning fresh new visual amenities and projecting onto canvas choice clips of information.

But hints of irony and gloom permeate these first rooms. There is still a sense of Richter the person in these early stages, a refrained joker and provoker, pushing out potentially volatile ideas with an anonymous hand.  Even the overtly political works, such as Mr Heyde show no signs of either condemnation or sympathy for the subject.  Looking at Mr Heyde, portrayed here from a photograph of his arrest for Nazi genocide in 1959, he could be anyone; there is little sense of human presence. Even though a statement at the base of the canvas outlines the picture’s content, I didn’t feel that I was looking at a past moment in history, but at a removed and abstracted version of it. The painting is different from the photograph in this respect- the latter is a trace from the past, and in our culture we value this record as being objective. In works such as Mr Heyde, Richter questions the truth-telling ability of images by offering us a well-known photographic record quietly abstracted through the act of painting. The authority seems to lie somewhere between the paint and the subject.


 ‘After Duchamp’; the title of Room 2, gives us a further clue into Richter’s practice. The Duchampian invention of the ready-made as a form of art was adopted into Richter’s process of painting photographs. His sources are ready-mades in themselves, and to avoid making aesthetic decisions Richter replicates these images, often with mechanical precision. Human traits such as painterly flair and intuitive involvement in the process are not apparent.  Richter appropriates the aesthetic of the lens using the medium of paint and through this process can avoid the individuality of the hand-made mark.

Throughout the show the photo paintings become tighter, softer and more glossy, losing the tentative and at times, scratchy brush handling of some early work. It becomes clear that the artist has evolved a unique way of eradicating the evidence of mark making in this work. Betty, for example, curiously curated in a room full of large technicoloured abstracts, is a small tender painting of Richter’s daughter resting her head sideways on a horizontal surface, perhaps the floor or a bed, staring up and out of the painting as if contemplating the tempestuous wonderland surrounding her. She is so delicately painted I felt like I was staring at a Vermeer. I was considering this for some time when I noticed at the corner of her lip the slight smudging effect from a soft brush.  This miniscule imperfection brought me to the revelation that by ‘blurring’ his paintings Richter has invented his own fast track technique to producing incredibly subtle and technically brilliant surfaces. Perhaps the hours of painstakingly minute brushwork that would have been performed by artists such as Vermeer, are shortcut through the act of caressing a more approximate under-painting with a soft brush, adding an instant ‘all over’ effect.  The bombed townscapes in Room 3 for example, are crudely executed, but presumably are similar to the initial stages of a more abstract photo painting before the artist ‘blurs’ them.

Richter claims that he cannot paint like the great masters he reveres.  Annunciation after Titian is one of five in a progressively dissolving series after the old master painting which he describes as ‘a record of my defeat’ [1] when attempting to imitate the original from a postcard. Despite all this, the late photo paintings are indisputably technically phenomenal. I was consistently surprised throughout the show at how economically produced so many of them were.  Readerfor example, one of Richter’s best known paintings of his wife Sabine reading a newspaper, seems to gently hum with precision and elegance.  Its obvious snapshot origin cools the picture, reducing the sentimentality of this intimate portrait by retaining the mechanical effects of a lens. 

Up-close there is a large flat patch of pale yellow ochre which on its own makes up her chin. Studying the area carefully, I was convinced it was too saturated and tonally flat to work as a three dimensional rendering of flesh. Somehow though, even a foot back from the canvas, this (imagined) offending area disappears and the whole painting sings together.  Reduced quality photographs take on a posterised effect; a merging and flattening of similar areas of tone and colour, which is replicated in this painting.  Richter takes advantage of this visual simplification.  The brushwork is kept to an efficient minimum as if painted in a single take, giving an unlaboured and immaculate finish. I kept thinking of the popular photographic prints on canvas, which pose as imitation paintings- the difference however is that Richter’s pictures reverberate with subtle facture and unfathomable alchemy.

Insolent little painting

Hung adjacent to Richter’s famous homage to Duchamp (a painting of his naked wife elegantly descending a staircase) is an altogether more awkward and perhaps even insolent little painting. Encased in Perspex, Untitled (stroke) consists of dark grey finger marks rapidly smeared vertically across a softly graded atmospheric background. It is a brilliant example of the impact created when elements of visual chaos are superimposed against a graphic field.

Although superficially similar to many abstract expressionist paintings made around the time it was produced, it is its audacity as such a crude gesture which makes this simple painting the more progressive for 1968. Jackson Pollack and Lucio Fontana were exhibited at the second Documenta in Kassel, which Richter travelled to the west especially to see. This encounter was to be a great influence on his decision leave the GDR.  In the Tate’s exhibition catalogue Richter describes this experience: “I was looking for realistic paintings, and hardly found anything I liked, and then I saw Pollock and Fontana- and I was shocked. They were so brazen. One had made a cut in the canvas, the other had dripped paint on it.” [2]

Richter’s brazen little painting, however, has more modern implications. Pollock and Fontana as well as the other Abstract Expressionists worked in earnest, indulging in idealistic concepts and practices no matter how spontaneous their work. Many artists of the time struggled through layers of paint to produce hard won images. Richter subverts Modernist principles by creating work that looks on the surface to come from the same genre, but is produced with an off-the-cuff and irreverent gesture.

Further along in the show I was particularly fascinated by two large colourful abstracts placed side by side. The source of these painting are photographed sections of small impasto sketches blown up and projected onto the canvas then immaculately rendered with a velvety atmospheric effect. The images have immense depth, an attribute not normally associated with abstraction. I imagined, whilst viewing them, floating through a gigantic three-dimensional world of paint and brush marks. For me these were the first really uplifting works in the show. These paintings however contain a conceptual visual double entendre which questions painterly touch as a vehicle of personal expression. The reference to Abstract Expressionism is met with the cold intellectual clarity of a post-Duchampian pun – notably an obvious precursor to the work of British painter Glen Brown.

Politics or Paint?

I feel obliged to mention the Baader-Meinhof paintings, partly because they are so infamous and partly because as a series they’re so unusual in Richter’s oeuvre. It was quite a shock after being seduced by hypnotic swathes of luscious glossy paint and dreamily familiar landscapes to suddenly enter a room full of brooding grey.

The 18 October 1977 series, as they are known, are based on the photographs of the arrests, deaths and funerals of members of the radical left-wing German terrorist gang. The paintings are enigmatic, and seem to avoid a moral stance, perhaps even showing tenderness toward certain subjects. Youth Portraitfor example, is based on a photograph of the young Meinhof. As well as softening the image through blurring, he has made her look younger – she was actually 35 years old at that time, but here looks almost childlike. The title of the work suggests that is was Richter’s intention to depict Meinhof as an inexperienced and unsuspecting young woman.

But for someone drawn more to the paint rather than the politics of this particular event I began to question where the art lies in these paintings. Is it in the political and historical narrative, reinvented in a modern, non-linear way?  Or in reviving a long lost role for painting; to record and elevate a significant historic event?

Richter’s predilection for the concept of death and the dead, evident elsewhere in the show in Mustang Squadron, Aunt Marriane (who was euthanized by the Nazis), and Skull, is brought to a climax with these paintings. The series has all the traits of Richter’s teetering iconoclasm, but because of its celebrated and clear depiction of a notorious narrative I can’t help viewing this morbid commemoration simply as an illustration of the incidents depicted.

The 18 October 1977 paintings seem to present a barrier, preventing me from seeing the paint and reaching the essence of the art in question. But perhaps this is another tactic invented by Richter, an experimental but intentional smokescreen to cloud the audience’s vision in the same way that the Mona Lisa is shrouded by familiarity and as such is prevented from revealing its physical self. Having stood in the Baader-Meinhof room I admit that the heavy atmosphere convinced me that these paintings were to be taken gravely. I was partially reassured afterwards however when reading the catalogue interview, in which Richter remarks “I don’t even like showing them anymore. The press love them. Dreadful!”[3]

Painting machine?

There is a great sense of freedom, perhaps even joy in the paintings that follow the 18 October 1977 series. As a whole, the focus in the work becomes tighter and the paintings seem to sit more comfortably together.  The further you continue into the exhibition the greater the polarity become in both technique and appearance, between the two alternate painting modes.  The atmospheric backgrounds which previously simulated depth in the abstractions are no longer visible- now buried under entire lengths of squeegeed paint. In these formal exercises Richter is drawing our attention to the physicality of the medium and all its wondrous qualities. In some of the cage paintings I felt that the paint was so obtrusive that it prevents the viewer from contemplating past the surface of the canvas and the process of its making. On the other end of the spectrum the photo paintings seem to become more and more illusionary.

Whilst walking around these last rooms of the exhibition I couldn’t help thinking of Richter as some kind of highly sophisticated painting machine- a machine with a two-way switch; one way for illusion, with a dial for the amount of ‘blurriness’, and one way for abstraction with a dial for the level of obtrusive facture. Whereas the photo paintings rely on a predictable copying of an image, the squeegeed abstracts rely on the unpredictability of the medium to create an image.  However, the chance manifestations in the fluid paint are made through a machine-like process; the hand of the artist is once again removed by the use of an instantaneous and industrial technique. 

There are even examples of occasions where it is as if the machine had malfunctioned, perhaps from tears damaging the electronics.  In the last room there is a row of paintings of flowers in vases. Tulips and Lilies are executed with faintly varying degrees of blurriness but Bouquet, which without knowing the title, teeters wildly close to abstraction. It is possible to make out the remnants of three flowers and some leaves which have been scraped back and lightly squeegeed over with green and red. The original composition is slightly clumsy and I wondered whether Richter had drawn this conclusion, then attempted to annihilate the image, stopping during the process at a visually satisfactory stage.

The self-consciousness and control imbued in Richter’s paintings may suggest that his work is made without the unconscious, that it is only theoretical. I am certain however, this is not the case: the paintings would have been conceived both intellectually and intuitively. At first, when viewing Richter’s photo based paintings I found some choices of imagery slightly incomprehensible to my inherent sense of what qualifies for documentation. They are far from arbitrary though, and Richter has admitted to years of contemplation before choosing a picture to work from.

From four years of such scrutiny arose the final painting in the show. September is so subtle that I almost passed it without realising its content. Beyond the traces of scraped back paint which hang on the surface arresting the eye, it isn’t immediately obvious that these are the twin towers standing against the blue sky the moment the second aeroplane hit. There is no dramatic explosion, just grey smoke billowing from the grey building as it dissolves into abstraction. It is an astonishing painting. For me, quietly highlighted within its amalgamation of ideas and processes, is the essence of Richter’s practice.

The scene, based on one of the western world’s most provocative photographs has been rendered in a gentle and straightforward manner.  It is suppressed almost completely however, from the bold and rapid erasure of a paint scraper.  Neither a spectacle nor an illustration, it seems to hang in the balance between the formal qualities of process-based abstraction and the formidable implications of its source image. The immense tension between icon and anti-icon, wrapped up with the most tenuous handling gives the painting a potency which I can only imagine a master could conceive. Not only this, but locked within this beautiful work is an array of nuances and effects which only paint can deliver; this parting once again spurred the question whether I was indeed in the presence of work by the world’s greatest living painter.

[1] Godfrey, Mark and Serota, Nicolas. Gerhard Richter: Panorama , 2011, Tate Publishing, London: p15

[2]Ibid, p20

[3]Ibid, p25


Image Credits:

Mr Heyde [Herr Heyde], 1965, oil on canvas (CR:100) Private collection © Gerhard Richter

Annunciation after Titian [Verkündigung nach Tizian], 1973, oil on canvas (CR:343-1) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1994 © Gerhard Richter

Reader [Lesende], 1994, oil on canvas (CR 804) Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art  © Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting [Abstraktes Bild], 1977, oil on canvas (CR: 420) The Collection of Marguerite and Robert Hoffman © Gerhard Richter

Installation view: Room 9 18 October 1977 18 October 1977 [18 Oktober 1977], 1988 15 paintings
The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Gerhard Richter Photo: Tate Photography

Youth Portrait [Jugendbildnis], 1988, oil on canvas (CR:672-1) The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Gerhard Richter

Bouquet, 2009, oil on canvas (CR:908-1) Private Collection  © Gerhard Richter

September, 2005, oil on canvas (CR 891-5) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist and Joe Hage, 2008.  © Gerhard Richter


Gerhardt Richter: Panorama is on show at Tate Moden until January 8, 2012

Simon Bayliss is an artist based in Devon and Dorset. He studied painting in England, Czech Republic and Ireland and his work is exhibited and collected internationally.