Gerhard Richter exhibited his first signature works in a furniture store in Düsseldorf in 1963. A relatively recent immigrant to the West from the East German city of Dresden, where he had been born, raised, then trained as a painter, Richter demonstrated in this group of works, in a style he called "Capitalist Realism," a preoccupation with both the context in which painting was received and how that framing operated—physically, socially, historically, and conceptually. Photographs gleaned from newspapers and other popular sources, and snapshots from family albums, provided the point of departure for these early works, which explored ways in which photography, as the dominant visual language of the modern era, challenges and impacts upon the production and the reception of painting. Through questioning the role of painting, Richter also addressed an ocular-centrism now inextricably enmeshed with the spectacle, an issue that has become increasingly foregrounded in his art in recent years.
In the later 1960s, when many of his colleagues abandoned painting for other art forms ranging from performance to installation-based and still more experimental modes, Richter focused self-critically on his practice. Under pressure to justify, if not restore, painting's vanguard position as a viable expressive language, he embarked on an exigent scrutiny of its history and ontology. The results included a number of strategies devised to explore its origins in mimesis. The key mythemes grounding Western painting derive from the notion of a painting as either a window offering a view on to a world beyond or a mirror reflecting whatever is held before it. These two tropes, thewindow and the mirror, which metaphorically figure painting's relation to visuality, now became his subjects. A group of some twelve pencil studies from 1965–67 for glass constructions are all based in his ongoing critique of painting as a form of illusionistic picturing.1 However, only one of these, the landmark 4 Glasscheiben (4 Glass Panes), 1967, was executed at this time. Poised between architecture and painting, this seminal work invokes mythemes of glass, including the German Romantics' reverence for it as a mystical substance, the German Expressionists' fascination with it as the inculcation of a visionary new world, and salient modernist preoccupations with it, such as the embrace of transparency by Walter Gropius and his peers as integral to a utopian functionalist architecture.
Concurrently, in a series of paintings titled Fenster (Window), begun in 1967, Richter directly addressed abstraction, modernism's primary pictorial language. Wittily and subtly reformulating the axiom that any representation is necessarily an abstraction, he simultaneously postulated the converse: abstraction is inherently referential. All languages of representation, the mimetic as well as the nonfigurative, are constructs whose formulations depend on the establishment of governing pictorial codes and conventions.
More forthrightly, the monochrome, the paradigm of modernist abstraction, became the focus of Richter's attention in the Gray Paintings series, initiated in 1975. While invoking influential precedents by Kasimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and other pioneering early twentieth-century abstractionists, Richter's dour works ambiguously mourn what are irretrievably lost registers of pictorial experience: mimetic representation, individuated subjective expressiveness, psychic inscription, virtuoso craftsmanship, sensual gratification, etc. Subtle but telling differences among these reductive, manifestly impersonal works serve eloquently as "a memory of the past of painting," rendering the ongoing series mute testimony to "the elegiac conditions of painting."2 In one of the bleakest of his many commentaries accompanying his work, the artist himself described this series as "the welcome and only possible correlative for indifference, apathy, refusal to make a statement, formlessness."3
Literally and metaphorically, Richter's works increasingly incorporated the walls on which they were hung and the spaces in which they confronted each other.4 For example, in 1981, for a two-person show with Georg Baselitz in Düsseldorf, he produced the first of the monumental transparent mirrors that appear intermittently thereafter in his oeuvre.5 Purged of all evidence of the maker's presence, they absorb as their content the ambient world before them in all its transitory serendipity. Subsuming spectators into that fluctuating matrix, depriving them of any clear, fixed, stable relationship to space and place, his mirrors seductively undermine the viewers' authorial indepen-dence and autonomy by dissembling traditional hieratic perspectival systems of perception. Sieben stehende Scheiben (Seven Standing Panes), 2002, the first in a recent series of three-dimensional glass works stemming from those seminal sketches of 1965–67, confounds what is seen with what is represented. Filtering, refracting, and inflecting its environment, it affectlessly incorporates its surroundings, venturing yet another compelling if double-edged variant on the problematics of the in situ or environmental artwork.
The strongly synesthetic basis of Richter's practice, evident early in his career in a virtuoso interplay of disparate traditions and techniques, has turned increasingly in recent years to a fusion of the normally discrete registers of architecture, painting, decor, and sculpture, as witnessed in the ensemble of paintings and colored mirrors he presented in a special pavilion designed in collaboration with architect Paul Robbrecht at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, in 1992. Interweaving abstract paintings, a floral still life, and two colored mirrors, this installation foregrounded protocols of exhibition and display. In this unprecedented spatialized ensemble Richter realized what, only several years before, he had described as a "dream of mine—that the pictures will become an environment or become architecture—that would be even more effective."6
"I do perceive an unchangeable basic attitude, a constant concern that runs through all my works," the artist averred in 1991.7 Now spanning some forty years, Richter's oeuvre confirms his continued engagement with fundamental pictorial problems in the broadest sense, for from his first exhibition in the Düsseldorf department store he has been highly attentive to issues of presentation and reception.8 At the same time, his unwavering commitment to the media and materials conventionally associated with the practice of painting—oil pigment, acrylic, watercolor—allows him to probe the viability of this art form by situating his work in dialogue with its most hallowed traditions.
Richter's proposal for Dia:Beacon is an installation comprising a suite of six large reflecting glass surfaces, a fusion of the monochrome gray paintings that he has executed for almost thirty years and the earlier glass and mirror works originating in those prophetic sketches of 1965–67. He describes his hybrid colored mirrors as a "Neither/Nor," noting, "which is what I like about it."9 At his request the space where his work is installed has been redesigned so that the building's articulated structure of column and beam has been masked, transforming it into a more conventional white-cube gallery lit by a clerestory. The gray enameled panels of glass cantilevered from the walls on steel supports will be tilted at various angles.10 Their crepuscular depths not only reflect approaching visitors but respond to shifting weather conditions, as light is refracted through the high windows, conflating the registers of architecture, sculpture, painting, and photography into a synthetic environmental whole.
The culmination of a pursuit that began with 4 Glasscheiben, the Dia:Beacon project Six Gray Mirrors (Sechs graue Spiegel), 2003, is more a sequel to than a reprise of Acht Grau (Eight Gray), 2002; commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, in 2002 that grand, austere installation was as profoundly destabilizing in its relation to site and place as it was solemnly elegiac.11 "Glas Symbol (alles sehen nichts begreifen)" (Glass symbol [to see everything to understand nothing]), Richter wrote in 1966 on the edge of one of the sketches limning 4 Glasscheiben. This brief note succinctly formulates his abiding doubt that perception will vouchsafe understanding, and, by extension, that light, with glass as its preeminent transmitter, can still serve as the embodiment of transcendental experience—in short, that the Enlightenment project has any viability today. Drained of memory, repulsing history, these penumbral surfaces obscure as they reflect. At once somber veils and surfaces of pure unblemished radiance, they offer no reconciliation between the contraries of opacity and reflection, painterly paradigms for the monochrome and the window. Refuting the Enlightenment's belief in the power of illumination, and, with it, the promise of seeing as a transcendental experience, Richter proffers a stance that is, however, less unrelievedly pessimistic than that which underpinned his Gray Paintings in the mid-1970s. A qualified skepticism informs his Neither/Nor.12.
1. René Magritte was very much on Gerhard Richter's mind at this moment, as a singular untitled painting from 1967, made on a found framed mirror, attests. It is not published in the catalogue raisonné.
2. These apt phrases were coined by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Richter's foremost critic and historian. The first is quoted in Martin Hentschel, "On Shifting Terrain: Looking at Richter's Abstract Paintings," in Gerhard Richter 1998 (London: Anthony D'Offay Gallery, 1998), p. 11; the second comes from Buchloh, "The Allegories of Painting," in Gerhard Richter: Documenta IX, 1992. Marian Goodman Gallery, 1993 (New York: Marian Goodman Gallery, 1993), p. 14.
3. The statement, made in 1982 to Heribert Heere, is quoted in Hentschel, "On Shifting Terrain," p. 13.
4. Several sketches in Atlas, the encyclopedic work that Richter began in 1964, depict vast galleries containing his monumental paintings. These are obviously fantastical projections, but Atlas also contains technical drawings and designs for built and buildable structures, including furniture and architecture.
5. See Jürgen Harten, ed., Georg Baselitz—Gerhard Richter (Düsseldorf: Städtische Kunsthalle, 1981).
6. Richter, quoted in an interview by Dorothea Dietrich, The Print Collector's Newsletter 16, no. 4 (September–October 1985), p. 130.
7. Richter, quoted in "Interview with Jonas Storsve," 1991, reprinted in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings 1962–1993, ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, in association with Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London 1995), p. 229.
8. This may owe something to Richter's formative years in East Germany, where he painted a number of murals under a socialist aesthetic. More pertinent, perhaps, are such modernist predecessors as El Lissitzky's Abstract Cabinet (1926–28), for Dresden and Hannover.
9. Richter, in "Interview with Jonas Storsve," p. 226.
10. The colored mirrors are glass paintings made by a technique in which pure pigment is fused in a heating process to the back of a glass sheet. Variations in tone and hue are found among the various groups of Gray Mirrors as well as among the brighter hues.
11. See Buchloh's excellent study, to which this text is much indebted, "Gerhard Richter's Eight Gray: Between Vorschein and Glanz," in Gerhard Richter: Eight Gray 2002 (Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, 2002), pp. 13–28.
12. Buchloh offers a more critical interpretation than that found here: "we encounter a definition of visuality that seems to suggest that it is far from liberating and transcendental, that it is in fact deeply inscribed in or causally connected to other formations, the regulations of institutional interests and control or the processes of systematic fetishization." Ibid., p. 28.