Gerhard Richter Artist’s Books is a demanding but revealing look into an important, if often overlooked area of the artist’s oeuvre. Opening on the occasion of his 90th birthday, and squeezed into the oblong-shaped side room of the Neue Nationalgalerie, the exhibition is dominated by Richter’s enormous painting ‘Atelier’ (1985). This impossibly vibrant, show-offy three-panelled painting, with its scraped paint and greyscale pillars, is a brazen reminder of Richter’s status as the world’s best-known and most successful living painters.
Spread out on a small table in front of the painting is a large selection of his artist books. They are all here, including the enormous ‘Patterns’ (2011), a kaleidoscope of re-composed images taken from one of his own abstract paintings. Richter is renowned for using readymade photographs for figurative paintings, here he inverts the process using his paintings as source material.
He does it again in ‘128 Photographs of a Picture’ (1978), so zoomed in that the photos appear more like images of a scarred landscape than a painting. Richter first became fascinated by mass media in the 1960s, since then his work can be viewed as an ongoing tussle between painting and photography for the best representation of reality. Yet this reconfiguring of his earlier work undermines the finality of painting, threatening its supremacy – once the apex of Western art and, ironically, a medium he has done so much to rejuvenate over the last 60 years.
On the whole Richter’s identity remains hidden, though little intimacies and pranks are revealed.
The exhibition is split into three main themes: The Image of the Artist, The Image of Photography and the The Image of Chance. The first shows Richter at his most mercurial. In the rough pre-printed pages of his first artist book we see him wearing daft hats and mixing text from a popular sci-fi magazine with advice on how to avoid becoming an artist.
On the whole Richter’s identity remains hidden, though little intimacies and pranks are revealed. Like an exhibited letter to a famous German curator. Attached to its typewritten page, the artist has stuck a random photograph of a caretaker instead of one of himself.
Richter, it should be remembered, has perhaps done more than any other artist to problematise representation in art and contemporary image-making. He once said, “Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” Everything here is either masked, mirrored or doubled. For Richter, illusion provides a sense of truth, and, as he constantly reminds us, what we are seeing with our eyes is only half the story.
It makes for tough going, this exhibition requires commitment and knowledge of his oeuvre. A lot of the books are process driven and conceptual, considered but detached but there’s lightness too, even humour. Above an article about Steve Job’s successor in the Die Welt newspaper, Richter seems to have randomly placed what looks like a fuzzy stock photo of two suited men in a chummy embrace. In 2012 the artist was guest editor for a day and the pages of the paper have been separated and pinned up on the wall.
‘Die Welt’ is one of a number of well thought out additions. Like the inclusion of original prints from his artist book ‘November’ (2008), hung in the order they were made, with the ink slowly receding for each day of the month. Chronological and ordered, it could almost be considered straightforward. That’s until you discover Richter has turned some works over and broken the sequence. Like everything else in this exhibition, it lies in wait to catch out anyone looking for certainty.
Gerhard Richter Artist’s Books Through May 29 Neue Nationalgalerie