Exhibition held in 2003
Given the pressure to publish and make a name for themselves, art historians are tending to uncover more and more sources over which to discuss and pontificate; thus not only is there interest in the work of an artist, but there is interest in the artists’ correspondence, her theories, her lovers, her lovers’ theories, her lover’s washing bills etc. Judging by Gerhard Richter: Atlas at the Whitechapel Gallery this is true for the museum world as well. The focus of the exhibition was not Richter’s artistic output but his working ideas. During the course of his career, Richter has been taking own Polaroid photographs, jotting his own notes and collecting other visual materials, and, according to the exhibition blurb, these have formed a backdrop to Richter’s artistic productions, inspiring, illuminating and motivating him.
There are justified reasons for thinking this a good idea for an exhibition. Art historians may glean some novel biographic facts. It might provide stimulation for other artists, or indeed anyone else involved in the creative process. But above all it might help reveal something more about Richter the artist. Richter’s work as a painter revels in exploring the relationship between the painterly and the photographic. Not just examining the different textures of photographs and paintings, but exploring their content, their significance, their means of communication, and investigating how all these elements overlap and steal from one another. Therefore any exhibition which focuses on his working methods, and his in particular how Richter benefits intellectually from his scrapbook of photographs should be useful.
Candles, 1982, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Sadly, this was not to be. A few photographs showed content which echoed with some of Richter’s most notable paintings, a photo of a flickering candle being one of the most apparent. Yet precisely in being photographs, in being incomplete artworks, these worked lacked a spark of interest. Printed on cheap, glossy, flat material, the photographs of the candle appeared ordinary. Compare this to Richter’s candle paintings, imbued with ambiguity and mystery, but above all opening up a box of questions about what it means to be a painting and what is means to be a photograph. Much less can be achieved by just showing the photograph on which the painting was based. Indeed showing just the photograph seems to be taking the art away and leaving a rough approximation of an artist’s idea, communicating only to the artist himself, and little to the spectator.
The collection of smaller photographs on the ground floor of the gallery lacked much of a theme for the visitor to grab onto. Elements from family life, travel trips and other parts of Richter’s visual diary were pinned to the walls. Possibly for someone with a strong knowledge of Richter’s oeuvre this would be useful stuff, allowing for the illumination of some of his paintings. But for the casual visitor, this was pretty senseless stuff, about as much interest as overhearing an anonymous conversation about pets on the Monday morning trip to work, or indeed going through somebody else’s holiday photo album. The photographs are all obviously significant tools for Richter to create his artworks, but as artworks themselves they have little intrinsic interest.
A feature of art is that provides a glimmer of coherence amongst the random clutter of reality. The focus of Atlas, unfortunately, was on the random clutter.