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When fame trumped political engagement

A significant shift in Gerhard Richter’s work can be seen in the most recent volume of the catalogue raisonné

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Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné Volume 4 is the third volume of Richter’s catalogue raisonné to be published (volume 2 is due to be published in 2017). It covers the period when Richter moved into the top tier of living artists, according to the estimation of curators and collectors, a time when he was painting mainly abstracts but also a handful of photo-based still-lifes, landscapes and figures. Of the latter, two of Richter’s best loved paintings of figures are in this volume: Betty (1988), of the artist’s daughter in a red-and-white patterned top, turning away from the viewer, and Reader (1994), of Sabine Moritz (the artist’s third wife) with head bent reading a newspaper or magazine. Of the still-lifes, the most constant subject is flowers. These are small, attractive pieces. Likewise, the architectural and landscape paintings are best when they are most modest and unassuming. The gentle poetry of overlooked pastures in Germany makes the landscape paintings in this volume both poignant and lovely.

Also present are some of Richter’s most dramatic abstract wiped paintings. In the boldest canvases, huge expanses of crimson paint flow from one side to another, speckling and tearing as they break up over the underpainting. These are auction-room stars that have set record prices in recent years. Unlike many of today’s most valuable contemporary artworks, these are genuinely exciting and original pieces deserving of acclaim. Smaller abstracts show Richter experimenting by partially scraping away wet paint, leaving scoured grids on the painted surfaces. While not all these paintings are successful, they bear witness to Richter’s flexibility.   

The most analysed (and controversial) work of this period is the series 18. Oktober 1977 (1988). (The bibliography for this series alone runs to 11 pages, with each painting accorded its own exhibition and bibliography data.) This series of 15 black-and-white paintings shows images associated with the 1977 arrest and subsequent violent deaths of members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction). The events divided German society, forcing an uncomfortable confrontation between many younger Germans angry at—as they saw it—the complacent absorption of Nazi figures into positions of power in an aggressively capitalist West Germany and the majority of the German population, outraged by the callous violence of solipsistic ideologues.

By tackling such an emotive subject, Richter was placing himself at the centre of a political debate, avoiding both sympathy with and criticism of the terrorists and the state forces. In the view of many critics, the work consolidates Richter’s position as a contemporary history painter. Yet the position of history painter has always necessitated a moral stance on the part of the artist towards his subject—something that is notably absent from this work.

Richter eventually sold the 18. Oktober series to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where few visitors know or care about the impact of the 1977 events in Germany. With that sale Richter made the symbolic choice of international art-world prestige over German political and social engagement; he may have chosen unwisely. The quality of individual paintings is erratic and, as a whole, the series suffers from being thematically and stylistically disjointed. Posterity is likely to consider the series more coolly than Richter’s greatest supporters do now.   

The inclusion of Richter’s mirrors—glass panes painted in monochrome on their reverse sides—indicates the wide range of Richter’s output. Also described is a stained-glass window of coloured squares, a forerunner of Richter’s work for Cologne cathedral. Richter assigns his sculptures, painted multiples and stained-glass windows catalogue numbers, which Dietmar Elger and catalogue compilers have adhered to.

As with all of the volumes, the text is in German and English, with catalogue entries only in English. The production values of the volume are impeccable and do credit to both the publisher and the world’s most famous living painter.

• Alexander Adams is a British writer and art critic. His book of poems and drawings, On Dead Mountain, in English and Russian, was published last month

Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 4, 1988-1994

Dietmar Elger, ed

Hatje Cantz, 600pp, £225, $375, €248 (hb)

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