To mark the 80th birthday of artist Gerhard Richter, the Tate Modern in London held an exhibition in 2012 titled Gerhard Richter: Panorama, aiming to offer visitors an overview of Richter’s career. Richter is a particularly difficult artist to sum up, however, given that his style is constantly evolving and he uses multiple and at times oppositional techniques. His works have, at various times, been characterised as abstract expressionism, minimalism and photo realism, and he has utilised a variety of materials in his art over the course of his ever-changing career.
Richter was one of the first post-war German artists to reflect on the history of National Socialism within Germany and to engage with the political changes which the divided Germany underwent in the 1950s and 60s. He has produced work which looks closely at both followers of the Nazi party and its victims, as well as creating a series of works inspired by the actions of the Baader Meinhof group. His engagement with politics and current affairs continued into this last decade with a painting based on the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York.
Whilst Richter’s elusive character can make his career difficult to pin down, the cultural importance of his work was made evident by this Tate exhibition. It revealed the way Richter’s constant evolution through the various styles and techniques of 20th century art can be seen as an interrogation of the value of art in our modern era. His political engagement – which at all times is contrasted with the personal and individual – reveals that his work insists on the value of representation, of a relationship with the public, whilst also subverting that relationship through the incursion of the abstract or non-figurative. As the Tate exhibition showed, this most vital of artists continues to challenge and provoke by questioning the limits and categories of modern art.
By Thomas Storey