Last year, Gerhard Richter became the highest-selling artist in the world. In June, the Pompidou Center staged the largest exhibition of his work ever shown. This month, a stunning new documentary called Gerhard Richter Painting, portrays him as a lone genius at the top of his game.
At 80, most artists–especially those who have achieved such astounding critical success–might consider slowing down and enjoying it. But Richter, who is known for his intellectual curiosity and uncompromising rigor, has taken the opportunity to throw himself into another phase of work. Last week, in his ninth solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Richter unveiled a series of prints that represent a surprising pivot in the artist’s oeuvre.
We know Richter as an artist deeply committed to the process of painting, and intensely wary of the burden that the past places on the present. Richter grew up in Nazi Germany and was enrolled by his parents in the Hitler Youth; his art career began in earnest when he defected from East Germany. His work since then has vacillated between blurry visions of old photographs to immense abstractions. In Gerhard Richter Painting for example, a camera follows the artist as he scrapes and smears dozens of layers of paint across massive canvases using a giant squeegee. But in Paintings: 2010-11, visitors to Marian Goodman will find a very different sort of process–one that intentionally seems to erase the burden of all those millions of dollars in sales.
In a series called Strip Paintings, Richter cuts a pixel-wide wedge from one of his paintings from 1990. Then, using image editing software, he duplicates each strip thousands of times, producing striated patterns that look like textiles. In other pieces, the repetition of color snippets create raucous optical effects, recalling fractal patterns. The finished images are printed on a plotter and mounted beneath a layer of Perspex.
It would be easy to frame the series as a complete about-face for Richter. And certainly, it’s a surprise to see the painter working digitally for a change. On the other hand, though, he’s been fascinated by the idea of blurring for decades. “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant,” he said in 1964. “I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth, and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”
Does it matter, then, if he’s using a squeegee on a 10-foot-tall canvas, or a Photoshop button on a .tif file? “I don’t believe in the reality of painting, so I use different styles like clothes,” Richter told one interviewer in 1978. “It’s a way to disguise myself.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the exhibiting gallery. It is Marian, not Mirian, Goodman.