Tuesday, 13 May 2008



The artist first rose to prominence with paintings conspicuously based on black and white photography, obliquely positioned between Pop Art and Photo-realism (see also Posts 16, 61 and 67). He soon expanded on the kinds of photography painted, including other forms of print, then onto more literal samples of frames and mirrors. At the same time he drastically loosened the treatment of photography, eventually arriving at a distinctive version of abstraction. Richter’s project is remarkable for the consistency or rigour of his interests, for his methodical – if not always successful - explorations and willingness to alternate between branches, to pursue them simultaneously and include unexpected combination.

However this project has not always been obvious. Richter’s treatment of photography literally blurs lens and print or publication attributes, makes for uncertain categories of picture and a somewhat evasive role for painting. To some extent this obscured the point of his colour charts and mirrors for some time, seemed a wayward point from which to approach abstraction. It is only in the 80s, where his large gestural abstractions alternate with blurred still lives of traditional iconography, such as skulls and candles; that a more confident sense of his scope emerges.

The blurring and wiping to painting exemplify a sense of motion, of moving on, disengaging or discovering. In early works, photographic sources are stressed through the use of black and white and blurring that would seem to belong camera process, a loss of focus or a slow shutter’s registration of motion, as if things were glimpsed from a speeding vantage point. In subsequent paintings the blurring becomes more ambiguous. Static objects such as a kitchen chair neither register the directional sweep of movement, nor a consistent depth of field for focus, much less a certain genre of photograph. At the same time, stock publication formats such as postcards, wildlife close-ups, pornography and the obligatory old master reproduction grant the blurring a degraded or coarsened quality, a kind of summary of lowered half-tone screen rulings, exploited at the time by Sigmar Polke, Gerald Laing and Alain Jacquet, amongst others.

Moreover the blurring can be quite painterly, so that the dragged brushstrokes are an obvious extension to the blurring, perhaps also suggest scan lines to a television screen. ‘Blurred brushing’ in this way risks lapsing into traditional facture at a certain point, but this too is tested against the notably photographic genres of aerial views of cities and mountains by the late 60s, arrives at something more like ‘brushy blurrings’. The blurrings next apply to just the mixing or combination of colours, firstly in masses of writhing brushstrokes, their direction measured only against smeared colour differences and then to their obliteration in fields of grey by the mid 70s. Later he uses soft-focus close-ups of brushstrokes to amplify the abstraction, and these soon allow more vigorous technique and introduce a set of layers, blurring, revising and concealing a preceding image.

What starts as blurring in standard figurative photography thus ends in massive wiping, abstraction and painting. Equally and elegantly, what is sampled throughout is not just a loss of focus, motion or print degradation, but reciprocally, the way they constitute a version of painting, its tasks and means. Accordingly, abstract works retain a vestige of photography in the broad wipes of unpredictable colour and shape, while more figurative works resist resolution as just focus, motion or publication.

Yet Richter also pursues abstraction to single colours in a grid or chart, as noted, a print format although not strictly photography. Indeed this aspect to his work is given new interest with the completion last year of the enormous stained glass window for Cologne Cathedral. Pointedly, no blurring or mixing occurs in such works. However, the random ordering is expanded across saturation and luminosity to a formidable range, inevitably rendered imperceptible by complementary contrasts at points, and accommodated only by diminishing size of samples or distance needed to survey them. Colour abstraction is thus rendered elusive to grids, much as in blurring or wiping.

Richter’s impressive system and samples nonetheless make sacrifices. While dragging and wiping can include shifts in direction, tool, colour and consistency, it cannot allow further drawing or more elaborate line, the styles and print layouts available there, the function and cues for local colour. In this respect Richter, remains a prisoner to the photograph and print paradigms for painting. Understandably, it is just these aspects to depiction that attract a younger generation. Richter’s contribution lies in their platform, in demonstrating how photography, paradoxically, revitalises abstraction in painting, how painting continues to provide the principal means of reviewing depiction.

The artist’s own website has been especially helpful in researching this post

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