Art Review: Gerhard Richter

GERHARD RICHTERThe National Gallery Complex, Edinburgh

EVERY era gets the art that it deserves. If post-war America got the deadpan, flashy and profoundly religious Andy Warhol as its greatest artist, then out of the ashes of Dresden, Europe got Gerhard Richter: enigmatic, highly disciplined and supremely resistant to categorisation.

Richter's star status, confirmed once more in this wide-ranging retrospective covering 44 years, is based not only on his persistence but on his ability to face off painting's biggest competitors – the camera, the mass media and the computer – not by ignoring or competing with them, but by quietly assimilating them into all that he does.

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At 76, he is routinely described as the greatest of living artists, yet his is an art of profound ambiguity and uncertainty, a riposte to the certainties of the twin ideologies that overshadowed his childhood (Nazism) and young adulthood (East German Communism).

He grew up with the memories of the glow of the Dresden firestorm, his own family intimately involved as both perpetrators and victims of Nazi atrocities: his uncle killed in action in 1944, his aunt murdered under the euthanasia programme.

In 1961 he left East Germany, subsequently rejecting both his early training in "political art" and state-sponsored mural painting and the capitalist alternative of expressionism. He flirted with pop art, but rejected its sunny materialism.

He is notoriously hard to pin down, his painting ranging from photo-realism to abstraction, from old master themes to modern warfare. The banality of consumer objects such as toilet rolls can sit against the sublime beauty of a romantic landscape.

If he can be said to have key themes then they are two-fold. One is a resolute opposition to the dangers of utopianism, the other is the oldest of artistic subjects: death.

This exhibition begins with death: a series of works drawn from some of the sources in photographs and newspapers that from his ever growing photographic archive now called Atlas. There are images of military planes, with the characteristic "blur" that reinforces both the mechanical nature of his found sources and the supremacy of the painter's hand. And a sensational newspaper image of a man crushed by a giant block of ice.

The logic of the show is more pragmatic than cerebral. The sheer number of works that Richter has produced (more than 2,750 and counting), their wide dispersal and commercial value mean that retrospectives like the 2002 show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York are logistical nightmares.

This exhibition is drawn from just a handful of key private collections, including that of the artist himself. While this means that some of his most famous paintings are missing, the quality of the best of the work on show is exceptional. And the major series and genres are touched on.

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There are Sixties modernist townscapes of astonishingly confident paint-handling, and a room full of the vast fluctuating abstracts that Richter makes with a home-made tool not unlike a squeegee.

There are canvases consisting of nothing but grey paint, pushed around in a variety of exotic ways that denies their apparent minimalism.

And there are the experiments with colour. It is debatable whether any number of monkeys with typewriters could ever create Shakespeare, but a monkey with a computer could certainly create one of Richter's colour chart paintings, produced at first from commercial paint charts and more recently from randomising computer programmes.

This act of anticipating his own redundancy seems audacious rather than lazy when its comes with an understanding of the very heights of his financial and cultural power.

Recently commissioned to create a new window for Cologne Cathedral, he produced a random pattern of more than 10,000 individual coloured glass panels.

There's a Darwinian chill and post-modern shrug of the shoulders that resulted in something so incredibly beautiful and so suspiciously irreligious that it troubled the Archbishop of Cologne.

Similarly one senses a certain marketing anxiety to the framing of this show in Edinburgh. The gallery and curatorial team intimately understand Richter's pivotal importance, particularly for generations of younger artists, but the associated materials feel the need to keep proclaiming Richter's status and importance as though the work can't quite speak for itself. These worries are not entirely misplaced. These are often anxiety-inducing works because of their uncertainties. The abstracts are shifting panoramas, their colours are strikingly unnatural and often outright horrible.

The technique of obliterating or painting over images is dissonant and visually annoying. The most visually consistent works, the photo-based paintings, constantly shift emotional register between the suffocating weight of history and levity of the everyday.

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One simple early work is Family At The Seaside, a holiday snapshot transcribed into thick monochrome paint. It is only our knowledge that the father in the picture (Richter's one-time father-in-law) was a gynaecologist who would have been involved in practices such as enforced sterilisation that tips the image into one of horror.

Allied to this ambiguity is the work's steadfast refusal to provide its audience with any kind of transcendental experience. The images from the early Nineties of skulls and candles are traditional themes of the fleetingness of life and inevitability of death.

Similar themes in Warhol's work are quite shocking, in-your-face emblems of death and darkness. In Richter's paintings you can sense a kind of Protestant quietude that you also see in his occasional nudes and that links him directly to the art of Dutch or Flemish old masters.

But at the same time there's a profound blankness to Richter's paintings where the moral sting at their heart should be.

Towards the end of the show, when we reach the Nineties in a largely chronological hang, there is another late series of photo-realist works. They seem curiously empty. An image of a snowy branch, a farm, a beige building which the title tells us is a squat. On one wall are four paintings entitled Buhler Heights: a stretch of grass, some trees, a cloudy sky. Progressively each image becomes more agitated, the brushstrokes blunter, the actual image less distinct. This is painting in the process of destroying itself, imploding into meaninglessness in order to prove its own unique abilities.

This is the double edge of Richter's art: powerlessness and immense power. It seems strange in the week of the forward-looking optimism of the US elections to be looking back with him down the dark tunnel of German history, but Richter is absolutely central to the place that contemporary art has found itself in.

It is not that he is pessimistic so much as almost heroically anti-heroic. Cool, scientific, determinedly rational and stylistically eclectic he has above all been determined to exercise quiet choice, to resist passionate commitment.

In the hands of Richter's young disciples, such as Damien Hirst, it sometimes feels like a dangerous cul de sac. In his own hands Richter's stance has the true virtue of a considered and hard won position.

So, a great artist. A marvellous, yet troubling, exhibition. That it leaves one curiously empty instead of full up is perhaps only what we deserve. v

Until January 4

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