New YorkMarian Goodman Gallery
May 7 – June 25, 2016
Gerhard Richter has always experimented with a range of production techniques, but in this current exhibition, high touch wins out over high tech. Bypassing his characteristic digital prints and glass constructions, Richter’s hands get busy for this show of drawings, paintings, and painted photographs, almost all from 2014 and 2015. The surfaces of the oil paintings are more active than ever, with patches and lines of scraped canvas standing out like livid scars, and betray a compelling need—an old man’s impatience, perhaps—to get to the point. Here also Richter jettisons his practice of pulling paint in a strictly horizontal or vertical direction, his smears taking an off-axis—even diagonal—direction. This bending of the rules, so to speak, produces a feeling of spontaneity that is echoed in the graphite drawings on view. It is a quality not often associated with Richter’s work, and is a welcome stage in Richter’s lifelong career of questioning the complex assumptions about time and space that we make about images today.
Richter, as he has done in the past, addresses those assumptions in the new large-scale paintings by undermining the coherent unity of their images and the conventions that identify them as abstract works. Take, for example, 940-8 Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting) (2015), whose hyperactive surface creates such visual noise that the unity of the painting’s image nearly falls apart. He pushes the surface noise by overworking the distribution of the colors, particularly the red, which appears in nearly all parts of the painting. The freedom with which he distributes the paint also points to his interest in landscape, a genre the artist investigated as early as his watershed 1963 painting Hirsch (Deer), which includes the first example of his signature blurred image. In Hirsch, as in the more recent 940-8 Abstraktes Bild, Richter pits visual references to photography, landscape painting, and abstract painting against each other to yield an image that shifts between all three domains. In 940-8 Abstraktes Bild, the blurry gradients in the yellow section of the painting, particularly where it meets the red, owe much to the feel of a snapshot in which sections unintentionally fall out of focus. Paradoxically, that blurring creates an airy sense of space typical of landscape painting.
Using another strategy that combines painting and photography, Richter’s painted snapshots effectively contrast two experiences of time typical to each medium. As with the abstractions, Richter smudges paint on top of the photographs, opening their interpretation into a new kind of image. However, as opposed to the paintings, which are atemporal, the painted photographs have a specific time stamp indicated by the title: 14. März 2015 (2015) is a very funny instance of that difference. The snapshot, taken in an art gallery or museum, shows a bearded man, evidently in esthetic contemplation, staring at something obscured by a grey smudge of oil paint. As a man and a woman, possibly his subordinates, hover nearby, he appears to be pondering the smudge of paint. While the snapshot presents a moment from a narrative in the past, the smudge of paint takes us out of the narrative and puts us into the present where we are trying to make sense of the hybrid image—two very different spheres of experience working against each other without clear resolution.
The pencil-on-paper drawings add an essential third element to the exhibition by straddling the non-temporal quality of the abstract paintings and the implied narratives found in many of the snapshots. Each drawing’s title specifies a date, yet since they are all uniformly framed and hung together in one room, they also invite a group reading that ultimately transcends each work’s specific time stamp. Their greatest appeal, however, lies in their brevity, which contributes to the exhibition’s overall experience of lightness. 29.5.2015 (2015) has a very dark ground on which pencil lines and erasures hang suspended. It bears a reading of deep space comparable to the paintings, but accomplishes this with just a handful of elements. As an image, it floats somewhere between a painting, a photograph, and a drawing—a testament to Richter’s encyclopedic grasp of contemporary ways of seeing.