Gerhard Richter. Pictures / Series. May 18 to September 7, 2014, Beyeler Foundation, Basel

Maria Grazia Vassallo Torrigiani.

Gerhard Richter has always said he stands in front of a blank canvas “ohne Plan”, i.e. without a project in mind or expectations of any sort, hoping in serendipity. What still has to come about in his mind and has no genesis as to yet, could be conceived as a sort of preconscious or unconscious condition which many artists recall when asked about the genesis of their works. Francis Bacon, although sharing no affinity with Richter, in an exhaustive interview with D. Sylvester declared: "You start with an intention, but actually things come about while you’re working – that’s why it’s so hard to pinpoint it  [...] you feel a kind of aura or a cloud, a sensation inside you, but one doesn’t know what it is. They call it instinct.[1] "

The term "cloud” coined by Bacon brings me straight to what I want to say about Richter. He is a painter of clouds, and not only figurative ones. A sense of vagueness and unreality pervades his works; this effect is skillfully created by techniques and methods. His canvases reveal images in clouds of dust, figures vaguely outlined and out of focus; layers and layers of juxtaposed colors, smudges, cracks and scratches abrade what lies beneath.

In my opinion, Richter’s prime interest lies in exploring the effect which mental transformative processes have on form; abstract or figurative themes seem to have secondary importance. It’s a complex, mutable, elusive process, involving emotions which pass from one mental state to another and emerge in a solid or semi-solid state, a sort of hallucinatory coagulation which manifests itself in a realistic vividness and yet is bound to be drawn into the inexorable flow of memory and desire, the fragments of which are twisted, dissolved and recomposed. The iconic configurations on the canvas never seem to be brought to a close, but are part of the many renderings developing in continuation. Another important feature of Richter’s method is his encyclopedic collection of photographs, an archive of visual memories - in a way like Warburg’s archive - from which other ideas and forms originate. However, even though Richter approaches reality by way of previous representations, the truth is never conclusive, but only questioned and confronted with, as it continues to evolve.

 An important architectural background to his paintings is fundamental for Richter. The Beyeler Foundation offers a unique opportunity to admire his vast opus juxtaposed against the magnificent rooms.

The serial paintings set in a sort of spatial-perceptual-emotional environment are counterpointed by individual works chosen among the most representative of Richter’s production. An example of the latter is the portrait of Betty (1988) Richter’s teenage daughter. We intuit nostalgia from the twisting body and the girl’s face turned backwards, perhaps contemplating her past childhood.

The groups of works classify in different ways the concepts behind the series.

There are paintings executed in succession, as variations on the same theme, for example, Verkündigung nach Titian (Annunciation second Titian): five paintings in which the figures gradually dissolve into a smoky whirling of black, blue and reddish clouds; or the eight small emotionally moving paintings of S. mit Kind (S. with child).  

Another way of deciphering the series is examining groups of works painted simultaneously. They are formally created using a web of cross-references, creating a single dense emotional atmosphere which envelops the viewer. Very much the same is true for the powerful large abstract paintings in the series January, December, November, or for the two extraordinary cycles inspired respectively by the music of Cage and Bach.

There are also works unified by similarity in content, such as the fifteen dramatic works from the series 18 Oktober 1977. This title refers to the night when members of the Baader Meinhof Group were found dead in the Stammheim prison, in circumstances that were never fully clarified. Just as Richter shows delicacy and intimacy with private memories and affections, his attention to historical and collective memory is equally contained and questioning, humanly painful in front of the incomprehensibility of death.

We could continue to talk about the Greys, about the mathematical or technological research on color in the glittering 2014 Farben, and Strips. These paintings, along with his glass installations, express new directions this young octogenarian, now one of the leading contemporary artists is taking. But I'll stop here, and leave further discoveries to your visit to Basel.

PS: This short video shows how Richter works on his large abstract paintings, using as a sort of large spatula  called "squeegee."

(Thanks to D. Catts for the English translation) Text available in Italian | French

[1] This is not the original wording by Bacon, it is translation  from the Italian version of the interview.