art renewal center

Why Gerhard Richter Matters (to a contemporary classical realist)

Not because his works fetches top dollar for any living artist (especially if you think Thomas Wolfe had the final word on the art market!) OK, maybe in part… as much as why Apple and Coca Cola are top grossers, too.

The dude is a dada genius by refusing all traditional methods of training, yet producing beautiful work that looks like it came from an academic tradition. By using formalistic elements and creating beautiful paintings, as a “post-post-modernist” (according to Robert Storr), he was rebelliously producing work that was exactly what the avant guarde of the 60’s said he mustn’t.  However, he never went backwards, because he refused traditional means. Thus he is the epitome of avant guarde.   

Recently I saw his retrospective “Panorama” exhibit at the Pompidou Center.  I looked for traces of brushwork, evidence of the artist’s hand, just a hint of artistic process. There is none. NONE!  I am certain dude could not paint an alla prima portrait from life to save his own life! I left the exhibit calling him a “monster:” his work is stunning yet there is not one trace of his touch, not one hint of his humanity. His work is perfectly veiled and detached.

However, his conceptual process is on display.  His search for artistic means is evident throughout.  He is always searching for a way to make art. Follow the progress from painted newspaper clippings, projected by an episcope to copy on canvas, then cleverly squeegeed to give it a more “realistic” look (every professional portrait artist know the trick of blurring).  Nazi photos, Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, a chair, clouds, postcard of a Titian - dude was thinking about what matters. He played briefly with a more “painterly” looking image with the cityscapes.  Then squeegee abstracts, because, hey, that squeegee thing was cool!  And these abstracts are truly stunning!  A few landscapes: some sketches squeegeed, but ultimately, paintings from his photos are again most successful. Then, finally back to what works best for him: the cleverly copied portrait photos with carefully blurred edges. In my opinion, nothing conceptually fits his technique better than the painting 9/11.

His work is beautiful.  But don’t be fooled for one second that they are anything like a Vermeer or a Sargent or a Ingres or a Degas.  There is nothing more demanding of an artist’s skill and intellect than producing a portrait or landscape or interior from life.  Richter produces his from a photo by entirely different means. There is no drawing involved. No anatomical understanding. No perspective projections. No analysis of light or “turning the form.” I’m not even sure he uses a brush! 

Dear art student struggling with the traditional means of making a painting, take note: if you are going to copy a photo, then copy a photo!  While your skill development is virtuous, please THINK about what you are doing.  What does it mean to use traditional ways of painting? (Confessional: I am the art student to whom I am addressing.)

Because for a beautiful, representational, retinally “correct” image, and as a contemporary realist, using all means available, take note: NO ONE does it better than Richter!