Artist Rooms: Gerhard Richter – Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery – 19.11.15

This exhibition was put on in conjunction with the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. The aim was to ‘examine the breadth and depth of Richter’s practice and techniques, and focuses on three broad areas of activity in his work: figurative, constructive and abstract’.

The space was light and self contained and all the work was hung cohesively with accompanying plaques detailing the important basic information about the work. Because the point of these ‘Artist rooms on tour’ exhibitions is to engage and educate a wider audience around the country there was a focus on providing as much supporting information as possible. A booklet which contained the artist’s biography and the supporting context of each of the 13 works on display was given out at the start, and also there was an attendant available who was eager to engage with the audience and provided us with really useful and interesting facts about the works that we were discussing.

The work on display provided a range of Richter’s works dating through his career, split into two rooms. Upon entering the first room I was initially struck by the artist’s work “48 Portraits” (1971-72/ 1998) which were hung along one wall. These depicted images of famous men of music, philosophy and science that the artist had found in various encyclopaedia and dictionaries. It was interesting that there were no women on display. The museum attendant explained that this was because Richter’s whole motivation for the work was his search to find a male father figure. This context gave an extra level of meaning to the work which in turn helped you understand why the artist went to such lengths to depict these figures so carefully. This work consisted of a photographic set of Richter’s original paintings. The connection between photography and painting seemed to be a common thread through many of his works.

Photorealism was an important oeuvre for the artist during his early career and other portraits that used this technique: Brigid Polk (1971) and Gilbert, George (1975) were on display. It was a fantastic opportunity to look closely at the handling of the paint in these particular works. I was surprised to see a lack of brush strokes visible. The artists had applied blending extensively across the format and at close range these paintings looked extremely blurry like an out of focus photograph. It is when you step back that their form can be appreciated.

At the edge of this room and in the second room Richter’s more abstracted works were on display. I had watched a documentary about Richter a few days previous which showed the artist at work producing these squeegee paintings, which gave more gravitas to seeing these in the flesh. To be able to see the layers of paint built up over the substrate and the physical presence of the paint gave a view of the artwork that is not possible to witness from books or the internet.

The next room were full of his grey abstract paintings. The experience of seeing these was a surprise. I had seen many of these works online before but nothing prepared me for how colourful they were in reality. To me these were the highlight of the exhibition and I spent some time closely studying the artist’s techniques.

The first, “Abstraktes Bild (Grau) 2002 was oil paint over aluminium. Underneath the grey paint you can see the many layers of various blues, purples, whites and yellows. The grey is scraped over the top of the surface and some of the hues below subtly show through like ghosts, this gives a luminous quality to the grey paint. From a distance the work is reminiscent of water, with textures produced, possibly by the artist slipping the squeegee across the surface providing marks and indents. These paintings are all produced through the artist’s process and intuition. He applies accidents and chance, sometimes the canvases work out, some they do not. This is in stark contrast to the more controlled photorealistic work of his earlier career.

Two other grey works “Abstract painting (Silicate) 2002” and Abstract Painting (Skin) (2004) follow the same process as above but he also includes some of the realistic elements. In these the viewer can see patterns across the surface. Initially I assumed that these were just random abstract patterns but upon closer study I read that these were in fact the blurry patterns of microscopic cells that he had photographed and then enlarged to these great scales. In these works the artist had combined both approaches to produce paintings that communicate on many levels.

The exhibition was a complete joy to attend. It is not often that I am able to get to see great artists’ works because of physical and financial limitations I am not able to get to London, but this pop-up exhibition was a fantastic opportunity to see the work locally. The work may not necessarily inform my printmaking work at the moment but I can take away some interesting things to consider. The way the artist used layering – both physically and to give meaning are interesting to me, and something that I would like to explore in my art going forward.

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