Man for all seasons
Neil Cooper gets the lowdown on a major new exhibition of work by the man considered by some to be the greatest German artist of the post World War II era
When Sonic Youth toured their 1988 Daydream Nation album in 2007 on the back of the same year's two-CD deluxe edition of what had originally been the New York art rock pioneers' final independent release, the original LP cover art was probably the last thing on the minds of anyone watching. Yet, Gerhard Richter's 1983 and 1982 'Kerze' ('Candle') paintings, which adorned both sides of the sleeve, was a crucial part of Daydream Nation's original package. Effectively one work of art wrapped round another, it was an unmistakably explicit statement on the seriousness of both parties.
The major retrospective that is Gerhard Richter: Paintings from Private Collections, which the 1982 'Kerze' forms part of, is equally serious. From pop art beginnings, Richter has moved from photo-realism to abstraction and back again, embracing all facets of painting as a creative form when the rise of conceptualism declared that painting was dead.
Despite the ficklenesses of fashion, German-born Richter determinedly stuck to his guns. Today, with a back-catalogue covering all stylistic bases, this first major UK show since 1991, drawn from the Frieder Burda and other private collections, opens the door on an artist often hailed as the greatest painter alive.
'It's almost like seeing an exhibition by ten different artists,' notes Keith Hartley, chief curator and deputy director of the National Galleries of Scotland. 'There are fine representations of his early 1960s work right through his colourful 1980s abstractions, as well as work from the 1990s and some late figurative work based on Richter's own photographs. There are also some very recent abstract works from the last couple of years. People have been saying painting is dead ever since photography started, but Richter will explore every possibility of how he might do things, and there are conceptual elements in his work. He has been a shot in the arm for painters, because he shows that painting can still be a powerful force.'
Richter's influence could be seen recently at Dundee Contemporary Arts, whose Altered States Of Paint group show reinvigorated painting even as it drew from the dark side of 1960s pop culture. Such a link went beyond the work itself. One of the artists taking part in Altered States was Jutta Koether, a long-term associate of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, who provided sleeve-notes for the 1993 re-issue of the aforementioned Richter-adorned Daydream Nation album.
More recently, Richter produced a stained-glass collage for Cologne Cathedral. While Hartley points out that Richter will never stand still in terms of form, his commitment to painting is unswerving. As Richter wrote as far back as 1973: 'One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For, basically, painting is idiocy.'
Gerhard Richter: Paintings From Private Collections, National Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 8 Nov-Sun 4 Jan.