An exhibition of new paintings by Gerhard Richter is inevitably an event. He’s been painting for more than 40 years, shifting fluidly between abstraction and figuration, though lately sticking more with the former.
This weekend, coming off a series of museum shows — at Tate Modern and the Serpentine Gallery in London, the DePont Museum in Tilburg, Netherlands, the National Art Museum of China, and elsewhere — he opened his first New York gallery show in four years, an exhibition of new paintings (and a few older ones) at Marian Goodman.
The exhibition is dominated by Richter’s signature abstract paintings, which he has long made by drawing a large squeegee-like device across their surfaces, subtracting some layers of paint and adding others, in order to create a rich, palimpsest-like surface. Sometimes an underlying image is obscured and rendered abstract. The gallery’s largest room is occupied by a new series of sprawling, magisterial white paintings that show hints of green underneath — a deep emerald hue that, as art historian Benjamin Buchloh points out in his catalogue essay for the show, echoes Monet’s Nympheas. In the back room are additional new abstract paintings that, in contrast with the austerity of the white ones, have surfaces in hot oranges and reds that can take on the appearance of skeins of flames.
Alongside the new work are a few older pieces that show Richter’s vast range as an artist: In a side room is one of the small, monochromatic gray paintings with a slightly stippled surface that he made in 1976 and has related to a typically wily statement by John Cage — “I have nothing to say. And I am saying it.”
One that may at first seem anomalous is a small print, between two panes of glass, that shares space with the suite of white paintings in the gallery’s largest room. It’s a print of Richter’s 2005 painting September, which takes as its subject the terrorist attacks of 9/11, showing, in his characteristic blurred style, the moment when United Airlines flight 175 hit the South Tower and disintegrated. This painting was gifted to the Museum of Modern Art last year by Richter and the collector Joe Hage, and went on view there last week. It is also the subject of an extraordinarily insightful and moving book-length essay by writer and curator Robert Storr, released last week by Heni Publishing.
I spoke with Richter at Marian Goodman Gallery a few days before his show opened. The interview was conducted in English, and therefore misses some of the nuances that might have come across in Richter’s native German.
I understand from Benjamin Buchloh’s catalogue essay that these large white paintings began as green paintings?
I always start these abstract paintings very colorful and very free. Everything is possible, there are no rules. I have a vague vision of what I want to get, what I want to show. Then I start, quite easy. With every step, it becomes more difficult, and more unfree. I have to correct and destroy a work and repaint it.
So you never envisioned these as white paintings?
No, I didn’t intend for them to be white paintings. In an interview for my last show of abstract paintings, I said, “The next paintings could be white, because it’s so quiet, like snow. And I’m old enough to make white paintings.” But it was a joke! Of course, in January 2008 at Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery, I did show some small white paintings.
In his essay, Buchloh discusses the various associations white paintings can have — with the idea of reductiveness, the end of painting. And of course there are Rauschenberg’s white paintings, and Ryman’s. Were any of these things on your mind while you worked on yours?
I don’t know the Rauschenberg paintings, but I know Ryman very well, and many others. What I didn’t agree [with Buchloh about] is that white painting is so abstract. I told him even Ryman, who intends to show nothing, gives us associations. I think it’s not possible to avoid giving a cue of something. I would like to look at these paintings the same way I look at photographs. They show something. They are not abstract.
How do you see the relationship between abstraction and figuration in your work? Some of the pieces in this exhibition seem to toe the line between the two approaches. The September print, for instance.
It’s hard to explain it. But I don’t see such a big difference. Both show something.
In the white paintings one might see atmospheric effects, or clouds.
For me it’s more an area I don’t know, and an object I don’t know.
Speaking of abstraction, a couple of years ago, your large abstract stained-glass window — it looks as though it’s made up of hundreds of colored pixels — was installed in the cathedral in Cologne, where you live. I understand certain powers in the church were initially not so happy with it.
I expected that someone would be against this. Especially the cardinal. He told the truth. It is not a Catholic window. I’m not Catholic. So he doesn’t like the window. It’s his right. It’s OK.
Do you see much contemporary art these days?
You get so many magazines and invitations and catalogues, it’s too much! It’s a strange development that there is so much art.
It’s probably because of the market.
The market, and people want to be entertained. So I do see a lot, but I don’t really go out to the galleries.
Do you think this is a good time for painting?
It’s not. It’s been almost the end of the culture of painting for a hundred years. We have photography, film, installation… You know, I’m the only painter at this gallery. I didn’t realize this until now. All the others are conceptual, and I was struck by this: I thought, it cannot be.
You’ve seen work by some of the gallery’s other artists?
Last thing I saw was the film by Steve McQueen, Hunger. It was very hard. I liked it. I was happy to see something made that wasn’t just cheap entertainment.
As a German artist, what did you think of the decision to have British artist Liam Gillick in Germany’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale this year?
I haven’t seen it, but I think it’s awful. So politically correct. It makes no sense at all. Stupid.
Why did you decide to make a print based on the September painting?
I do this sometimes. Initially it comes from wanting to have something for me; I take a photograph of a painting just to have it. Then it becomes interesting how different it is from the original. It’s not only a reproduction. It’s different from the painting and has its own qualities.
I understand the incidents of September 11, 2001, coincided with an exhibition of yours at this gallery.
Yes. So this has sentimental value, because I had an opening here on September 13, 2001. And I couldn’t be here. And here on this wall, where the print now hangs, there were gray paintings, and they looked like photographs of the dust from the towers. And people told me these paintings look like they have so much to do with what happened.
Which was, of course, accidental.
Yes. And so for sentimental reasons, this print is here in honor. Dedicated to that time.
So you never saw your show in September 2001?
No, my plane landed in Halifax.
You and your friend Joe Hage, gave your 2005 painting September to MoMA last year. How did that come about?
[Joe Hage] came to my studio and I finished the painting, and I said, no, I failed, this is the wrong painting and I will destroy it. He said, no, give it to me. I said, okay, I’ll give you [a half share in it]. So we made a contract. Well, the painting got better and better, and we gave it as a gift to the MoMA. I thought, this is the only place this painting could be.
What did you initially think was wrong with the painting?
It was a very typical photograph of what happened. Colorful — red, yellow, fire. I couldn’t use this image. It didn’t work. It was wrong. So it shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure. But it became better and better.