Niru Ratnam

‘Painting is total idiocy’ says Gerhard Richter - and he has some new paintings to prove it

'Painting is total idiocy' says Gerhard Richter - and he has some new paintings to prove it
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Gerhard Richter has got a website. This is odd in itself – artists only usually have websites when they are young and not represented by a commercial gallery. They then proudly drop their websites when they get signed up to show that they are not in the grubby business of having to promote themselves. Gerhard Richter is 82 and arguably one of the few artists to combine huge commercial success (his 1968 work Domplatz sold for £24 million at Sotheby’s) with critical adoration.

This is not the only thing that is odd about his website. The artist is known for the variety of styles he has used in painting, from smudgy photorealism to freeflowing abstraction. His website attempts to categorise this in a way that no serious museum or curator would. Categories include animals, apples, clouds, candles, death, flowers, household icons and women. It is the type of categorization you might expect of the most commercial, low-grade painters, ready to turn their hand to anything a client wants. But this is Gerhard Richter, arguably the world’s greatest living painter. To top it all, Richter gives information on how much the paintings sold for if they went at auction, information that artists and dealers usually try to keep as opaque as possible.

Yet the website, with its weary deadpan tone unlocks one way of thinking about Richter. Visitors to his exhibition at the new Marian Goodman space in Golden Square, London, are presented with a series of works that are deliberately difficult to pin down or even look at in some cases. A series of grey diptychs fill the ground floor main gallery, each diptych being composed of two monochromes that are a slightly different grey. A glass sculpture, House of Cards, sits in the middle of the floor, panes of glass resting against each other somewhat precariously. There are works made by tipping various different coloured enamel paints, swirling them around and then freezing the composition by putting a glass panel on top. They look pretty and a bit inconsequential.

Upstairs is the main body of work of this exhibition - a series of digital works that consist of lots of vertical stripes of different colours. Large in scale, they dominate your field of vision but because of something to do with the size of the horizontal stripes and the combination of colours are impossible to focus on. They have a backstory that some art critics have got very excited about; Richter took a reproduction of an abstract painting he made in 1990, divided it up, joined together the half images with their mirror image and then kept dividing from quarters, eighths through to four-thousand-ninety-sixths. At some point late on in the process this threw up monochromes which he cut into horizontal strips, re-ordered, digitized and printed as the very bring ink-jet prints that are exhibited.

The back-story is both totally unenlightening and also without point; why not just skip most of the procedure and start at the point of combining a load of different coloured strips of colour? To top this all Richter explained to the critic of the New Yorker that he decided to pursue this labour-intensive way of working because he lacked 'the time and quietness' to make a painting using traditional means (like paint). The works are big, unfriendly and compelling as viewers try and focus on them without success. They occupy the field of vision in the way that great abstract expressionist works do, but deliberately hold back any resolution. They eventually beat you from the room.

In a final small room, Richter produces a series of small works where he has used the residues of paint from larger works to overpaint a series of photographs of landscapes. Deliberately throwaway, the works are beautiful, marking the passing of time on landscape by being made and dated on a daily basis for a half a month. They provide an oddly joyous end to the exhibition, although they sit opposite yet another of the oppressive strip digital works, berating the visual pleasure that the incidental works opposite offer.

‘For basically painting is total idiocy,' Richter wrote in 1973. It seems as if the artist, widely regarded as one of the greatest alive in the world today, has been conducting a deeply nuanced conversation with himself for years now about the hopelessness of carrying on painting in the face, at first, of newer art forms (in particular photography), and then more lately in the face of what he sees as the constant failure of trying to articulate a coherent message through this ancient and strange medium. 'I don’t believe in the reality of painting' is another of his quotes that he is happy enough with to feature on his website.

The exhibition is deadpan and absolutely self-assured (like that odd website of his), the works elegant and difficult. Richter is a definite oddity in today’s otherwise easily compartmentalized art world.