Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Gerhard Richter: Abstract Paintings 2009 at Marian Goodman Gallery

November 7, 2009 – January 9, 2010
24 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues,
New York City, 212-977-7160

Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (911-3) 2009. Oil on canvas, 78-3/4 X 118-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.
Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (911-3) 2009. Oil on canvas, 78-3/4 X 118-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.

In recent years, Gerhard Richter has increasingly focused on his abstract works with their distinct technique involving squeegees and wooden rulers, pulling back from his alternative, realist idiom. In Richter’s world, changes are minute, nuanced and occur over long periods of time. In his abstract paintings, palette and the varying density of composition are the characterizing ingredients, prompting discussion of such intangibles as atmosphere and emotional impact rather than radical changes in style or content in his elusive work.

In his new exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, his first New York solo show in over four years, Richter offers a significant twist on his established vocabulary. The cavernous front space is dominated by a selection of large new white paintings. Certainly, it would be a misnomer to think of these as  being “white” like a Robert Ryman. Underneath translucent layers of light grays, whites and creams are hints of turquoise and cherry reds. Whereas Richter’s abstract works often feel like lush conglomerates of pasty color, into which you would like to dip your finger, these much flatter paintings veil rather than conceal. They are exercises of restraint and yet they convey melancholy and nostalgia.

Ricther works in cycles and series.  This group is mesmerizing in its grandeur and its expression of serenity. Collectively, it establishes a spiritual aura reminding us of the Rothko Chapel in Houston or Richter’s own large mosaic window (completed 2007) at Cologne Cathedral). The white paintings give way to Richter’s semi-abstract take on the theme of the September 11 attacks. Exhibited here is a print mounted between sheets of glass. The painting to which it relates is September (2005), a recent donation to The Museum of Modern Art by Richter and the collector Joe Hage. The painting is intimately scaled, 20-1/2 x 28-1/4 inches, and bridges Richter’s abstract and realist vocabulary. A crisp blue sky is offset by two large grey verticals, which immediately register as a reference to the twin towers. The scene is obscured by fields of gray, which at times morph into dense clouds of smoke. It is a masterpiece of allusion: smudges evoke airplanes, while a light gray vertical is reminiscent of the reflective windows and metal glistening in the bright morning sun. Even without providing much information or painting out details as he did in October 18, 1977, his Baader-Meinhoff series, Richter succeeds in capturing tragedy with a moving combination of clarity and gravitas.

It seems that Richter’s latest quest is to create paintings for every imaginable mood. Austere, calming, provocative, aggressive, confronting, soothing, luring, denying – these are some of the adjectives that can be applied to works on display. Sometimes, impressions are tied to Richter’s palette – a combination of orange, black and yellow as seen in Abstract Painting (910-2), (2009) might evoke heated tension while a mélange of blue-greens, flesh and coral, as in Abstract Painting (910-6), (2009) feels serene and comforting. On other occasions it is largely due to gesture. Many of Richter’s latest works contain relief-like carvings into the painted surface, possibly made by the other end of his brush or a palette knife.  At times these feel accidental, but they are often strategically placed. These vertical and horizontal lines, which in the case of Abstract Painting (908-4), (2009) hint at the structure of a grid, translate as mysterious inscriptions in ways that relate to Adolph Gottlieb’s Pictographs or Klee’s works on wet clay. They add something quite unusual to Richter’s oeuvre – a faint sense of whimsy. More importantly, they offer a trace of the artist’s hand, which in Richter’s case has for too long, and unjustly so, been deemed mechanical and aloof.