Magazine article The Spectator

What's It All About?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's It All About?

Article excerpt

Exhibitions What's it all about? Gerhard Richter: Atlas Whitechapd Art Gallery, until 14 March

Gerhard Richter (born in Dresden in 1932) appears before us garlanded with honours, despite the fact that he does not rate inclusion in The Yale Dictionary of Art & Artists. He is billed as 'the most expensive artist in the world' (whatever happened to Jasper Johns?) - which is apparently a very high accolade indeed and his influence on young Western artists is considered to be unrivalled. He is celebrated for being shrewd enough to avoid espousing a signature style, painting in a variety of ways from the photorealist to the abstract. What is his work about? On this showing at the Whiteehapel not only could Richter be said to have no style, but it could be reasonably argued that his art has no content either.

Richter's installation consists of a handful of paintings and 5,000 photographs. There are some drawings and cuttings and bits of collage, but most of the exhibits are straight photos, ranging from family snaps to found images and Richter's own shots (since 1975 he has mostly taken his own photos). Assembled over the last 40 years, Atlas has been exhibited regularly since 1972, and is archived and owned by the Stadtische Galerie Im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Atlas is part of the source material for Richter's art and is here juxtaposed with various key paintings which have emerged (almost unmediated) from the photographic mulch. First find the photograph, then compare the painting. (To say that Richter is reliant on photography is an understatement.) The sequence of 48 heads of famous men adds a new twist to this game. Their small source photographs are to be found on an adjacent wall, arranged according to whether the sitters face slightly to the right or left, or fully frontal (this seems to be the only reason for their inclusion, not the value of their respective achievements), but the group of larger images shown nearby are not the paintings that Richter subsequently made from the photo source, but a later photographed copy of those original paintings. Can you get cannier than that?

The fact that Richter subtly distorts these famous men into a rogues' gallery of psychopaths and perverts (Graham Greene surely never wore that much make-up nor pursed his lips quite so petulantly) is quite forgotten in applauding how the artist has managed to distance himself yet further from his own work. And this is the central problem which emerges from this peculiar exhibition. Richter displays absolutely no involvement with his art, nor docs he seem to be able to edit or sift his raw material. There is next to no transformation of raw material into art, and almost anything can be used to make a painting. It is all so undisguisedly arbitrary.

This insidious notion that one thing is no better than another, and that all is art, is utter rubbish. Of course, it must suit an artist who makes so little discrimination between what is a photograph and what a painting, who seems unable to distinguish between the various merits of each, but it is no use in a larger interpretation. And it leads to Richter's utter confusion. No wonder he spends days simply staring at his millions of photographs trying to decide which to use. He is like a character from a Borges story who wants to rewrite the encyclopaedia, or map the world to the same scale as that on which it's made. That is not art; art is about selection and interpretation. It is about meaning. …

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