Meaning over spectacle: Gerhard Richter retrospective online

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The abrupt closing of Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at the Met Breuer, among other art world events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused the energies of its curators to use online platforms. While it serves its purpose well of extending the reach and lifespan of art exhibitions, the Met Museum’s website is not the sleekest online viewing platform there is. Compared to say, the MoMA website, which features seamless zoom-in infos and virtual walking tours, or the PACE Gallery’s online catalog with a smart juxtaposition of texts and images that make sterile cases like Julian Schnabel’s paintings more appealing than they actually are. But in the past weeks, technical adjustments were promptly made to capitalize on the fact that captive audiences in quarantine will be more attentive to online presentations. Indeed, just as quickly as I googled the exhibition, I received a sponsored message on my instagram feed from the Met, enticing me to experience the retrospective online.

An advantage of viewing the exhibition online compared to a physical visit is the simultaneous but harmonic appearance of text and image on the screen. The experience is akin to reading an illustrated children’s book, where the text is part of the image and not a mere supplement or caption. While the passages are watered-down even by standard wall-texts, they are capable of being insightful. The function of scrolling vertically and horizontally through the screen has particularly infantilized but also enlightened my understanding of a Gerhard Richter painting called the Birkenau series from 2014.

The four paintings which Gerhard Richter sees as a single work serve as a demonstration of the intertwined painterly concerns in the spectrum of his artistic practice. The revelation of the work’s appearance over time through a slideshow is a lesson in how figuration and abstraction can fold over each other to dispel the notion of contradictory perspectives. I realize, in the speed of hyperlinks, how a wide range of pictorial genres, from drawing to photography, have contoured his body of work from the beginning.

A video before the horizontal scroll of images documenting the painting’s process, tells us that since Richter’s early days as a painter, in a cramped studio in East Germany, there was a sober, objective analysis of artistic material. Emphasis was placed on the examination of substance, function and different modes of operation in images (mental image—surface image; photographic image—picture; manual image—painting). Richter assumes that an image in the purest and truest sense of the word cannot be achieved intentionally, but can only appear, albeit tentatively, in a complex, multi-layered and always negative mode of painting (elimination, blurring, obscuring, re-ordering).

A textual cue from one of his interviews in the Frankfurter Allegmaine Zeitung in 2016 informs us: “It’s not unusual for me to start from the figurative and end up with something abstract.”

Elsewhere, I see the application of this statement, in works such as “Ten Large Color Tables, 1966” and “Six Yellows, 1968” vis-a-vis an “atlas” of images, Richter shows us that in the vein of Minimal Art, industrially produced color tones instigated an aesthetic perception through mere valuation of color and spatial composition. The paintings also show us how the historical contrast between figurative and abstract painting was provoked by the invention of photography.

The concordance-like cross-referencing of works makes the story behind “Birkenau” more loaded in the online exhibition primer. I witness the transitions in the media, changes in the state of time and the disassembly of the surface into sections, which are documented in great detail sans interactivity in the catalog.

On the surface, “Birkenau” is made up of giant tables of color, which largely appear to be overcast in shades of grey. Accents of green and red permeate the canvases, while concealing the original background images taken inside the concentration camp in 1944. He sourced the four photos from Georges Didi-Huberman’s book Images in spite of everything (2007), photos that were taken in August 1944 by prisoners of the Sonderkommando in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I find it hard to describe the photographs without feeling inadequate: framed by the dark corridor of a gas chamber, a platoon of soldiers stand at ease around a pile of naked corpses on the ground, smoke rising from the ditch behind it. The photos were scanned and then projected onto four large boards measuring 260 x 200 cm each, and serve as the first layer of painting.

In the course of many layers, the atrocities originally depicted in the photographs become unrecognizable. They are overpowered. When they were exhibited for the first time in the spring of 2015, they were simply titled “Abstract picture, 2014, WVZ 937-1–4,” without a hint to the layer underneath.

Then Richter presented details of the quadriptych painting in a book entitled, Birkenau, 2015, with the preliminary remark: “93 Details from my painting Birkenau.”

A photographic version of the quadriptych also exists and stands on equal footing in the retrospective: “Birkenau-Reproduction, 2014, WVZ 937 B, Diasec behind acrylic glass”.

This elaborate presentation was all in the interest of saying, Richter cares for what pictures mean, and not in the spectacle of the image itself. The Birkenau series is a striking reminder that these pictures and the people who took them have gone through unimaginable lengths just to survive. I can only compare, though, not meaning to equate, the sensation of seeing these images to another startling event I found online: aerial photos of the burials, published Thursday by the Associated Press which offered viral portraits of one of the darkest moments since the pandemic began. A drone video shows inmates in hazmat suits digging mass graves in New York’s Hart Island while a pile of coffins are being unloaded using a forklift. The number of burials at the sprawling public cemetery holding the remains of the unclaimed dead, has increased fivefold as the death toll from the coronavirus continues to rise in the city.

While I am living through this pandemic, I find myself in Richter’s position who lived through that time but who never witnessed the horrific incidents first hand except in photographs. If a painter had taken the pictures from Hart Island and made a painting out of it, would I fist think of it as inappropriate before judging if its more meaningful or spectacular?

The painter’s veiling tightens the tension between the complex relationship of history and memory. He has previously dealt with photographs from the war but Birkenau is Richter’s first work to directly explore Nazi terror. The artist says he took an interest in the Holocaust early on, collecting photos that documented the genocide since the 1960s, but had struggled about working with them.

Despite the sensitive handling of the image subject, a number of critics, particularly in Germany, say the paintings merely depict—and therefore glorify—the horrors of the Holocaust despite the layers of abstraction hiding the original photographs. But how could these critics have known of the hidden layers, unless they too read the book or googled this information online?

Experiencing an exhibition—not to mention a major retrospective—in this manner naturally results in hyper-informed audiences who walk away knowing everything there is to know about the painting except its physical dimensions. Many will be equipped to argue loftily but vaguely about the experience of actually being there versus “remote” viewership. I maintain that an art exhibit is less about dispensing trivia and soundbites but more about witnessing and grappling with the complexities of the work. I am ambivalent, though, about the witnessing and grappling part, when I’ve always relied on information posted online to process what my eyes have seen. Even before my quarantined state, what remains remarkable is painting’s capability to ignite novel ways of thinking despite the changing modes of its presentation.

The exhibition’s dates have been postponed due to the Museum’s temporary closure. No specific date has been given for its re-opening. The primer of the exhibition can be visited at this address:
A catalog has been published and can be ordered for this exhibition: Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, 2020, 270 pages, by Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh.

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