For the first time the Neues Museum in Nuremberg presents the paintings of Gerhard Richter it received as a permanent loan from the Böckmann collection. With the exhibition Gerhard Richter. Detail the museum is able to give a fascinating overview of the multifaceted work of this German artist.
With the 29 Richter paintings given to the museum by private art collectors Ingrid and Georg Böckmann the Neues Museum in Nuremberg now hosts the world’s third-largest collection of works by Gerhard Richter. This privilege makes Nuremberg extremely proud and other, formerly more renowned, art institutions probably jealous. After all, Gerhard Richter, born in 1932 in Dresden, is considered to be one of the most significant and also one of the most expensive contemporary artists. This superstar of the international art scene even helped to design the exhibition at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg. Richter furthermore added a loan from his private collection to the show in order to complete and enrich it. These 31 monotypes, which together form a cycle of pictures called “Elbe” (1957), serve not only as the entrance to the exhibition but also as its program. The Elbe-pictures put on view how Richter turned from the figurative and representational to the abstract: moonlit landscapes are suddenly swallowed and extinguished by pure black colour. “Elbe” thus already presents on a small scale what the exhibition tries to display as a whole: Richter’s examination of and toying around with the possibilities and impossibilities of art in general and painting in specific.
A kaleidoscope of styles
The 28 pictures on display cover the white walls of the exhibition like an enormous frieze which also spreads onto the two screens that divide the spacious and light room. The paintings shown in the exhibition at Nuremberg cover a period dating from 1957 to 2003 and can thus give an extensive overview of Gerhard Richter’s work. However, the title of the exhibition – Gerhard Richter. Detail. – clearly points out that it is only a small detail of an artist’s complex work which can be discovered here. Richter’s works are presented in this show as diverse as a kaleidoscope: accordingly, abstract paintings are hung next to portraits, romantic landscapes next to nude studies, and monochromatic canvases next to wild interplays of flashing colours. There is not one coherent style that defines Richter as an artist but instead there are many. He refuses to be classified and thus to be pigeonholed. This ambiguity and diversity is expressed by the chronological hanging of his works. The museum avoided to arrange the paintings in groups, to give them structure or order, because Richter’s work has indeed no such order. Hence the painting “Grey” from 1976 is hung on one wall and the other “Grey” from 2003 far away on another. These simple grey canvases capture and express Richter’s idea of nothingness. They are his attempts to paint, to give shape to something that is indeed non-existent. The colour as such is therefore the sole subject of the works and is turned into the artist’s device to question the possibilities of painting.
Nothing is what it seems to be
Gerhard Richter’s work seems to be characterized by a permanent inconsistency of style and it is indeed hard to believe that all of the paintings on display at the Neues Museum are by one artist only. His paintings demand a closer look as most of them are rather vague, complex and multi-layered. They do not reveal their depth on a first, short glance. An apparent photograph is really an oil painting (“Seascape, cloudy”, 1969) and an entanglement of black, grey and white brush strokes is really a street view from above (“Townscape PL”, 1970). What you see is what you get? Not with Gerhard Richter and his works. The oil painting “Blanket” from 1988 does not reveal its secret immediately. Several shades of grey and white seem to disguise something that lies beneath, a different layer. Indeed, Richter at first repainted a photograph of the dead Gudrun Ensslin, a former RAF member who committed suicide. Then he painted over this scene using a special technique that left a surface resembling that of a birch tree. There are still hints of what is underneath this apparent crust but the blanket has to be lifted first to discover the original.
Especially the muted colours add to the impression of mysterious haziness of many a painting of the Nuremberg exhibition. Even the “Flowers” (1994) seem to be disguised by a veil, hidden behind a misted-up window. With this memento mori, Richter draws on the tradition of still life painting but turns it into something new. As an artist he is connected to the past and to art history. In his art, he hence also expresses a dispute with history. His “Woman Reading on The Beach” (1960) resembles the paintings of Max Beckmann. And “Olympia” (1967) reminds of Manet’s painting with the same title, but is, however, a travesty of the historical piece of art. Richter has used original patterns and models, referred to other artists and styles; he reflected, considered, recreated and created anew. This partly explains the ambiguity and diversity of his paintings and why nothing really is what it seems to be.
And yet, Gerhard Richter’s works do not need explanation to be understood. They speak for themselves and every visitor of the exhibition may see something else in them. To gain more background information on the artist and his paintings, take a look at the free booklet published by the Neues Museum specifically for this show. It is a great extra to an already extraordinary exhibition.
Gerhard Richter. Detail. Paintings from the Böckmann Collection. Neues Museum Nuremberg. November 14, 2014 to February 22, 2015.
featured image: Gerhard Richter, “Schädel mit Kerze”, 1983, loan from private collection @Gerhard Richter, 2104 , photo: Neues Museum (Annette Kradisch)