"I Live in the Time When I Live": Gerhard Richter Plays it Cool in His Pompidou Retrospective

"I Live in the Time When I Live": Gerhard Richter Plays it Cool in His Pompidou Retrospective
German artist Gerhard Richter at his Pompidou Center exhibition
(Courtesy Getty Images)

PARIS — After Tate Modern and Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie, Gerhard Richter's retrospective "Panorama" is on view at the Pompidou Center through September 24, showing the chronological development of his work from the 1960s to today. Each iteration of the exhibition is slightly different, and one of Richter's newest works was loaned specifically for the Pompidou presentation: a colorful digital print on paper pasted onto an aluminum plate, from the artist's "Strip" series of 2011. Effacement is one of Richter's strategies, and gestural abstraction is another, and the exhibition shows how his work — which is adaptable, but not all that versatile — oscillates between these two poles.

Richter has painted, and still paints today, certain historical subjects from photographs. He made one piece from a photo of his uncle Rudi in a German uniform during the Second World War, a repellent "anti-portrait" that he first showed in 1967. He also depicted his aunt Marianne, a schizophrenic murdered by the Nazis. A muffled cry of rebellion springs up from these paintings against the abominations of totalitarianism and history. Richter, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, has lived through his share of historical tumult: he was born in Dresden in 1932, was enrolled in the Hitler Youth until 1945, joined the Liberal Democratic Party in the 1950s, and fled East Germany in 1961.

The artist's concern with memorializing is also visible here, although not in relation to current affairs, "which is a term that he doesn't like so much, since several years separate the events from the works that are produced," Camille Morineau, curator of the Pompidou retrospective, told ARTINFO France. History is what Richter is focused on. Are the paintings produced by the emotion or shock that history causes? "Yes," the artist told ARTINFO France. "I live in the time when I live. I'm interested in it and I continue to be interested in it... People often ask to come see how I paint. But would you ask a doctor to see how he operates?"

Landscape is a recurring theme in Richter's work, seen as early as his painting of a demolished Paris from 1968 — a "memento for future generations" — an image of the French town of Chinon, and a view of Jerusalem from 1995. In his 2005 painting of the World Trade Center, you can't tell what is being erased: the painted image or the towers. 

Monochrome paintings are present throughout, from the 1970s "Gray" paintings to Richter's white "Abstract Painting" from 2009. What does monochrome mean to him? "It's difficult to explain. Many things have happened in the meantime," said Richter, who is known for his reluctance to interpret his work. "In the show, we almost have film stills. There are a lot of links between the various works. There is not just one key that leads to monochrome."

This article also appears on ARTINFO France.