Beyond Buildings

 

If We Could Build What Gerhard Richter Paints

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Richter Die Lesende

 

In Gerhard Richter’s world, space is both infinite and absolutely controlled. The edges defining that space are invisible in all cases, vibrating every time you peer closely where one form begins and a vista unfolds in a portrait or landscape, or one layer supplants another in pure abstraction. In his most realistic paintings, Richter evokes a definite place with a host of romantic or moral connotations, and then washes it down into abstraction. In his abstract images, what appears to be limitless color turns into a geometry of lines and presence of pure material that draws you into the canvas as if it were treasure-filled room. There is, in other words, no greater manipulator of space working today than the painter Gerhard Richter.

 

If you want to see the full range of what this protean artist is capable, go see his exhibition Panorama, which is currently on view at the Tate Modern until Jan. 8, 2012. It will then travel to Berlin, where it will be on view at the Neue Nationalgallerie in time for Richter’s 80th birthday, before ending its run at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the fall of next year.

 

Gerhard-Richter-Abstract-Painting

 

The huge exhibition makes clear–as the title indicates--that part of what makes Richter’s work so fascinating is its range. Almost since he started painting as a émigré from East Germany in the late 1950s, Richter has oscillated between abstraction and figuration. He has also made works of art that are mirrors, either singular or in series, or pure planes of color. He has painted over photographs and used photographs as inspiration. He has evoked everything from still lives to landscapes, prisons to pornographic scenes, and has addressed issues from his native country’s troubled historical consciousness to the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers.

 

I remember my first encounter with his work beyond fleeting acquaintance. It was when, as a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the mid 1990s, I watched the arrival there of Die Lesende (The Reader, 1994), a portrait of his new wife. Lit from behind, the woman is absorbed in a newspaper. The background indicates a door and perhaps a corner, but it is really a wash of reds fading into blacks or yellows. The delicacy of the depiction, the glow of the woman’s skin and hair, and the intense focus the image conveyed made it absorb all the concentration in a room full of trustees and staff members. Everything moved into this small canvas.

 

At about the same time, a collector acquired some of Richter’s abstract paintings, which he created concurrently with the portraits and his paintings of candles and continues to paint today. I marveled at the sheer invention of color combinations, the implications of forms, and the sweeping grandeur the artist’s strokes evoked. There was a universe as extensive in these paintings as it was intensive in the portrait.

 

My feelings about Richter’s work have if anything intensified over the years. His work not only justifies the power of painting in all its modes and methods, but also makes me realize how much those of us who study and want to reshape the spaces of our world have to learn from these works. What would a world look like if we could build what Richter paints?

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.