A stillness that recalls Vermeer: Gerhard Richter's "Reader" (1994) (Tate)
With the death of Lucian Freud the unofficial title of the "world's most important living painter" has passed, in the eyes of many, to Gerhard Richter. He has had a decent showing on these shores of late: in 2009 a substantial batch of his portraits was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and his colour chart paintings were displayed at the Serpentine in 2008. Richter turns 80 early next year and Tate Modern is using his birthday as an excuse for a full retrospective.
Richter has always been the most varied of artists, whose work encompasses both realism and abstraction, and also among the most disingenuous. "I believe in nothing," he has said but, despite this disclaimer, many of his pictures suggest the opposite and reflect his distinctive history. Born in Dresden in 1932, several of his relatives were active National Socialists; he fled to West Germany shortly before the building of the Berlin Wall and was there throughout the Baader-Meinhof group's activities. His country's — and by extension his own — troubled past has been a recurring theme in his work.
It means there are two ways to approach Richter, either taking him at his word that political topicality "means almost nothing to me" and that his paintings are "devoid of content, significance or meaning, like objects or trees, animals, people or days", or instead as an artist who has adapted painting to his changing times. The very fact that Nazism or Marxism or Islamist terrorism (he has painted 9/11 too) feature in his work suggests that, while he may indeed have no agenda, he believes that at the very least art itself does, and that it should engage with great events as well as small.
Richter builds a get-out clause into his art, claiming that "pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures". It is not, however, a view that is easily defensible and his own paintings are ripe for interpretation. Observation is itself a form of comment and strands of his paintings amount to a sort of political history.