Tate Modern, London, United Kingdom
From: 6 October 2011
Until: 8 January 2012
Benjamin Katz: Gerhard Richter – Atlas Exchanged
Sunday - Thursday:
10am until 6pm
Friday - Saturday:
10am until 10pm
Phaidon was lucky enough to be present at a Q and A session with legendary German painter Gerhard Richter on the eve of the opening of his Tate Modern retrospective, Panorama.
Flanked by his interpreter on one side and Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota and the show’s curator Dr Mark Godfrey on the other, Richter was dressed in slate gray with a black blouson and looking much more spry than his 79 years would suggest. Much has been made of the artist’s non-communicative stance over the years and it's true, the press conference was punctuated by laughter at the brevity of many of his replies. Serota however, was careful to pick up the threads of his conversation, deftly examining the artist’s intentions without ever claiming to explain them.
To be honest, Richter seemed more bewildered and bemused by all the fuss rather than the stern, taciturn or evasive figure he’s so often painted as. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the conversation as it unfurled. Questioners have been credited where known.
To kick off Richter was asked about one of his more colourful, Abstract Paintings from 1982, originally exhibited with a line of text that’s since become one of the artist’s most famous lines: “art is the highest form of hope.” Dr Godfrey asked him if he still thought it was true.
Gerhard Richter : “For me yes.”
Q: What does it give you hope about?
Richter Shrugs: “Ask some people.”
Nicholas Serota: “Well I think that one of the challenges of the exhibition is indeed the fact that there are not simple or single readings of any of the works. Gerhard has said that the most successful paintings are the ones that remain incomprehensible. That is an explanation of why he’s reluctant to talk not just today but generally. Because being too specific about meaning can limit one’s understanding or feelings for the work. I mean, you once said famously painting is a moral act…
GR: “Don’t ask me, please.”
NS: Right, let’s take a question from the back there.
Q: To what extent would Herr Richter like to express his opinions on his work and to what extent would he like to leave it to the spectator?
GR: “We have such wonderful experts who do this kind of thing so well that I wouldn’t really put myself out to that extent. You need joy and you need talent in doing these things and I don’t necessarily experience those!”
Art Newspaper: In 1956, under the Communists, you completed The Joy Of Life in the German Hygiene museum in Dresden. In 1979 after you fled to the west it was painted over in white because of your political stand. Nic (Serota) mentioned your important 1957 works a year later which are in the Tate show. How do you feel about the mural of The Joy Of Life being covered over in white paint and would you now like it to be uncovered?
GR: “It was a student’s work without any importance. And you only mentioned it now because I’m well known.”
Q: Would you like it uncovered now?
GR: “No, no. Of course not.”
Q: You have explored figuration, abstraction, the banal and you have explored the poignant. It’s said all the time that painting is dead but you have pushed it to examine every possibility that painting can have. Can any more be said about painting?
GR: “It’s not my task but that of others. I’ve done enough.”
NS: “If you look in the last four rooms of the exhibition which effectively contain work made since the Tate exhibition in 1991, you see an artist who’s pushed painting even further forward than we thought at that moment and despite his modesty I think he’s capable of pushing it even further into areas that we’ve not seen him or other artists move. So no pressure!”
Q: A few years ago you held an important retrospective at the National Gallery of Scotland. How do you see your work having developed since that exhibition?
GR: “Oh. (long pause). Oh. (laughter).
NS: “One of the paintings in room 13 is from 2005 (Richter's 9/11 painting, September) and the others from 2008/9. So perhaps you will see a new moment in his career.
Q: You’ve always emphasised the internal existential nature of the artistic act and yet at the same time recognised that history can exhaust those forms. Looking in Panorama, do you have a more urgent message for us today?
GR: “No comment.” (laughter.)
Bloomberg: A couple of years ago I recorded a short conversation with you at the Serpentine and you said a few words about the art market and you were expressing your views about a certain number of these buyers being perhaps not fully educated or interested enough in art and you felt that it had become a bit of a market. What are your feelings today?
GR: “It’s become worse, yeah!?” (laughter). I’m not an expert at marketing, prices.”
Reuters: We’re coming up to Frieze week with all the contemporary art buyers in town. One of your paintings is estimated to go for £6-9 million. When you hear about amounts like that what do you think?
Long pause. Richter talks to his interpreter who answers: “It’s just as absurd as the banking crisis. It’s impossible to understand and it’s daft!”
Press Association: What’s your view of British contemporary art? Do you like/ dislike The Turner Prize?
GR: “What do I think about British art?”
NS: Are there any artists you admire?
GR: “We’re old friends. Gilbert and George.”
NS: Any favourites?
GR: “I will have to look at a book.”
Q: In the past you’ve talked about uneducated buyers and sellers of art. Do you have any guidance for us?
GR (via interpreter): “It is a problem isn’t it? We used to think that if the museums are open to everybody and we have education about these things that would be wonderful but in the meantime these matters have become rather neglected and fallen perhaps by the wayside I don’t know whether free admission is such a good thing. It is a good question.”
Q: What gives you your power?
GR: “I don’t know.”
NS: “I would strongly urge you to go and see Corinna Belz’s film (Gerhard Richter Painting) which will be in the cinemas in the next few days (screening at Tate Modern this Thursday) and I think the answer to your question is visible in the film in terms of, and I don’t want to speak for him, but there’s an inner determination there.
NS: He calls it working, I call it inner determination!
Phaidon: Many years ago you made a very interesting and provocative remark in response to what Mark Rothko had once said: that the people who look at his paintings are having the same religious experience he had when he painted them and that they would sometimes break down and cry. To this you replied: ‘Unfortunately it is not possible for painting to have such an effect.’ Now, years later, do you still feel the same way about painting’s objectivity?
GR: “(talks in German to interpreter before replying in English). “I can’t remember actually saying it, but they must feel a little similar.”
Q: Your work has often been inspired by political events and tragic events. I’d like to ask what moves your heart today which might inspire future work?
GR: “I don’t know.” (laughter) But there are so many things at present, at all times. Everything. That’s too complicated. Sorry.”
NS: I think if you look upstairs you’ll see how the inspiration and emotive force behind different paintings changes. Some are very personal about family, friends, others are about the big historical events of the moment. Others are about the existential element of life. So there’s no simple answer, there cannot possibly be one.
Q: Members of the press may be surprised to hear that the published version of your collected words runs to more than a thousand pages (laughter) all of which are fascinating and enlightening. And I wondered if you still write about your work?
GR: “No. not enough!” (laughter).
NS: You have an answer!
Q: What was it like watching yourself on film?
GR: “Yeah, I was very surprised. Nothing special (Richter was intimating that he had no special feelings on seeing himself, rather than the film itself) it was OK. I was more (surprised) by the public than about me - I know me. It made me happy.”
Q: Herr Richter, if you were to paint September again would you paint it smaller?
GR: “No. September was small yeah. Yeah. What can I do?”
Q: Has the role of artist changed over the years, how?
GR: “Oh yeah. It’s more entertainment now. We entertain people.”
And with that he was gone, pausing only for a couple of autographs on the way out.
The retrospective runs from Thursday (October 6) until January 8 2012. Tickets can be bought here
Follow the link to find out why Gerhard Richter is so important.