Interview with Nicholas Serota: The importance of curating Gerhard Richter

The latest exhibition he has curated opened just last week at Tate Modern, “Gerhard Richter: Panorama”


Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, was responsible for mounting some of the earliest shows in Britain of artists including Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Eva Hesse during his directorship of London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery (1976 to 1988).

It proved more difficult when he became the director of the Tate, just as Tate Liverpool opened, which was followed by building Tate Modern. But since 2004 and his Donald Judd exhibition, Serota has managed to find time, as part of a small team of curators, to organise exhibitions. The latest one opened last week at Tate Modern—“Gerhard Richter: Panorama” (until 8 January 2012, then travelling to Berlin and Paris), co-organised with Tate curators Mark Godfrey and Amy Dickson.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you want to mount an exhibition devoted to Gerhard Richter?

Nicholas Serota: I’ve had a passionate interest in Richter for many years. I did a show at the Whitechapel in 1979, and the more I watched and learned, the more I studied the processes and the outcomes, the more impressive his work is. I’m astounded by the thoroughness with which he investigates every problem that he tackles, and also the number of levels of meaning in the work. There have been a number of exhibitions in recent years looking at aspects of Gerhard’s works but, certainly in Britain at least, there’s a sense of him working in either the figurative or the abstract, whereas these qualities can be present in the same work. The exhibition tries to show how the work has evolved, but also the processes, whether it is painting, in 3D, in glass, in drawings, in mirrors. He is examining reality from a very particular point of view. He is not dealing with a particular aesthetic or style but is an artist who chooses different language to express ideas at different moments.

There was a major Richter exhibition at the Tate in 1991. I understand it is the museum’s policy to mount shows of the same artist only when there is something new to say.

I think that the 1991 show, rather than the small show I mounted at the Whitechapel, introduced Richter to a British audience. Now the audience is somewhat familiar with the work hovering between realism and abstraction. This [exhibition] goes to another level of experience because it deals with history, his approach to still-life and the portrait, and his approach to landscape, as well as his abstract work.

What do you think has been the most significant development in his work?

One of the things that’s emerged in the past ten to 15 years is that Richter has become a painter of history as well as beautiful still-lifes. He is also more forthcoming about the motivations for his work than before. So now we know that many of his works are tangled up with personal history.

Richter was born in Dresden in 1932. How much do you think the war influenced his work?

The aftermath of the war runs through much of his painting. If you take his cityscapes, many of them look like Dresden after the bombing. Then there are the portraits of his aunt and uncle, Rudi, in a Wehrmacht uniform. We now know that his aunt [who had a mental illness] was forcibly sterilised [and later murdered]. He could have painted so many images of his family but he chose these, perpetrator and victim—but he didn’t talk about it. The question of the war and the break-up of Germany and what it meant for a generation does determine his work to a degree that wasn’t realised—he was thinking about it but not talking about it.

For a long time, he was best known for his paintings based on photographs, but what do you think is the relationship between his work and the camera?

I would say that he is trying to make an image more lasting than a photograph. I would say that he is knowledgeable about the camera rather than aware of the art of photography. I am sure he is aware of August Sander, but for him the history of the development of photography in the 19th and 20th centuries hasn’t been especially important. It’s the potential of the camera to generate the unexpected or the fleeting moment, and then how to make the moment more enduring and have qualities not in the photographs.

You could have hung thematic groups. Why did you choose to display his work chronologically?

It shows that [he is] very frequently working simultaneously on works that look very different, which is unusual. We did consider early on whether we should choose eight groups of work and look at them in some detail, but the overlaps between them would be very great and give a false picture of the way he is working.

Why do you still want to organise such big exhibitions? It must be difficult on top of all your other duties.

It is important from time to time for a director of the Tate to curate to retain his sanity! I don’t want totally to lose touch with curating. I curated for 30 years and I can’t just stop. Also, it is good to work with colleagues—partly because I couldn’t do it on my own, but it also keeps one in touch with the way the organisation works as a whole.