July 22, 2020 by Gerhard RichterPencil, ink and colored ink on paper. 420 x 593mm. © Gerhard Richter 2021. Courtesy of the artist
In 2015, an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter broke the world contemporary art record when it sold at auction for £30.4million, and the octogenarian is often described as the most important living artist.
But I have always found the prices of his work baffling and the claims made about him overstated, because his paintings leave me cold.
The Hayward Gallery exhibition includes a group of drawings in which Richter employs tactics similar to those used in many of his paintings. A forest photograph is partially obscured by areas of gray overpaint. For me, this contrast between abstract and figurative elements is like a linguistic exercise, a classic demonstration of opposites. And I just don’t see the magic or the chemistry that others find in it.
This is why the nuance and delicacy of the other works exhibited are such a pleasant surprise and a delight. The most alluring are the ink drawings of 2020. A pool of alizarin purple spreads across the paper in veils of sumptuous color (main picture); a scaffolding of crisp ink and pencil lines crosses the space to give it structure, sometimes lying beneath the pool, sometimes cutting it like a thread of cheese. Elsewhere, a puddle of dark gray ink sits, like a tattered island, on a network of thin lines resembling a nautical chart.
Gazing at these skeins of color is pure joy, mainly because the subtle details produce a finely tuned balance between order and chaos. Controlling ruled lines against the flow of ink is a satisfying combination of discipline and play, or head and heart.
The balance is there again in a drawing made in 2017 (right picture), with pencils and colored pencils, but in a different form. Your eye follows Richter’s hand as she wanders the page seemingly searching for something while leaving a pencil trail that maps out her ruminations. The color seems more ambient, a way of creating a mood, perhaps, or a sense of place. The delicacy of the yellow against the awkwardness of the pencil lines is as touching, in a way, as an unexpected moment of tenderness or revelation.
In other drawings, Richter employs a wide range of pencil and graphite marks – including rubbing, crossing out, scribbling, dots, stippling and hatching – to create what might be called topographies. of the mind with limits and borders, in which the eye can wander freely. Sometimes he spoils the game by adding eyes that transform an amorphous form into something as tangible as a head. More often than not, however, it lets you find your own images, which is as satisfying as discovering angels in the clouds.