How Gerhard Richter made painting avant-garde again

From April 1994, by Charles Hall

By Charles Hall

There's a new mood about. There are major painting shows at those Arts Council bastions of the avant-garde, the Hayward Gallery and the John Hansard, and significant solo shows for painters at Interim Art, Victoria Miro and the Saatchi Collection – the kind of galleries which, even a few months ago, one would have imagined would be implacably hostile. Suddenly, after years of neglect, Painters seem to be the in thing.

But if the attitude to painting is new, does that mean that there is anything particularly new in painting? Or is it that the powers-that-be, the people who set the trends among our most influential curators and administrators, have simply wised up to what’s been out there in British art all along? Of course, even at the height of the Painting prejudice, a handful of artists were always admitted a certain grudging respect. On the whole, though, they were survivors of a previous era, credited, if anything, with a contribution to the movements which eventually drove painting into eclipse – David Hockney and Richard Hamilton, for example, are admired for services to Pop, the beginnings of the great de-bunking of the Artist as Higher Being. True, the ’80s saw the rise of the Glaswegian figuratives, but the establishment remained frostily distant – thawing only when convinced, as in the case of Steven Campbell, that this, wasn’t really painting, just performance art in drag.

It seems telling that those few tolerated painters suffered no real diminution of their standing even when they started to turn into depressing parodies of themselves: Hockney’s portraits, which filled the last room of his solo show at the Tate, have to be some of the worst paintings ever seen in public outside of Montmartre; Bacon’s late canvases looked more like computer simulations than the authentic expression of a particular vision; Alan Davie’s recent work, as seen at the Barbican last year, is a sad, sexless thing in comparison to the rude vigour of his early improvisations. This decline went unnoticed because no-one in a position of responsibility really looks at painting any more, only CVs and catalogue introductions.

It was quite obvious, looking at last year’s Turner Prize shortlist, that the various luminaries on the panel were far too busy visiting exhibitions in Turkey and Venice to have had time to wander down the Portobello Road, let alone to make it to Halifax or Fishguard. This, of course, has always been and will always be the problem for big-wigs on the International Art Circuit. They can only ever have access to those artists who have already made it into the critical canon. As a result, they have no way of knowing what is bubbling up in unfashionable galleries or unconsidered genres. The question now is, would they have seen the revival in painting coming, if they had taken the time to look? Or has something distinctive happened which has at last made painting visible to the critical radar?

Some relatively conventional painters have received the official seal of approval – artists like Paula Rego, Peter Doig (both in the current show at the Hayward) or Jenny Saville (at the Saatchi Collection, see p.18). But the last few years has seen the emergence of a generation of painters whose work is intellectually appealing to the critical establishment, and that is what has won over the avant-garde. If there is one word to explain this development, that word has to be Richter.

The generation of painters now in their early 30s must have become aware of Gerhard Richter, the German artist, by a variety of routes. But for most I would imagine the crucial moment was an exhibition at the ICA, dedicated to a series of blurry greyish paintings effectively reproducing snapshots and police photos of members of the Baader Meinhoff gang, and their deaths (in what are generally referred to as ‘ambiguous circumstances’) in prison. Their fascination lay largely in what one felt was missing. Meinhoff’s face was unremarkable, yet the knowledge of the crimes she committed, of the thwarted idealism which inspired them, and of her doubtful death, make the sight of it riveting. In art, where we expect some kind of relationship between what we see and what we are intended to understand about it, the chasm between these informal, undemonstrative images and their possible meanings is utterly disorientating. Paintings presented on such a vast scale, handling events of such historical significance, demand to be taken seriously. We expect them to tell us something about the world, make its workings clearer. But these undistinguished blurs did nothing more than force the viewer to realise how very far from self-evident the ‘meaning’ of a painting is. It means exactly what we will allow it to mean: Meinhoff the murderer, Meinhoff the martyr, Meinhoff someone’s inexplicable daughter. And this confusion is all the greater because the paintings so obviously derived from black and white photos – photographs being, in the popular mind, objective records of the simple truth. Richter begins to edge us towards the idea that the truth might not, after all, be a physical thing – unquestionable, unchanging.

So far, so cool. This kind of thinking appears, at first sight, to fit in very neatly with the whole drift of anti-painting (and particularly anti- figurative painting) prejudice. By reproducing photographic images, and in such a hapless style, Richter undercuts two revered ideas of the artist – the inspired, improvisational seer, and the authoritative history painter, whose formal compositions set great events in their accepted order.

But young painters saw that he had put something in the place of these old stereotypes – the painter as a puzzled observer, for whom the act of turning a photo into a painting dramatises the struggle to make sense of contemporary events, and an attempt to turn those distant happenings (‘the news’) into something to do with real life.

At this point, painting begins to look distinctly healthier than conventional installation or conceptual art, which tends to operate on a level not far removed from allegory – the artist constructs an environment bringing together a collection of objects which nudge the reader towards a conclusion. Even when, as is often the case, the artist claims to be ‘interested 'n ambiguity’, he or she still tends to be operating from a position of intellectual clarity – disturbing the viewers’ conventional view of the world is supposed to lead us on to accept the artist’s own, ever-so-enlightened position. Installation art seems to be more about smug certainty than any genuine attempt to find one’s bearings, fainting, on the other hand, is a subjective, gradual process; the colour we see on the canvas is modified by the colour beside and beneath it. The rational decision to make a mark in one particular spot is qualified by the formal demands of the composition, or by the sensuality of painting. Each image, however apparently objective, represents a history of decisions and concessions – beginning, of course, with the choice of image, of what to include and exclude. When the artist seeks to move beyond reproduction, editing an image to amplify a certain view of the world, it becomes clear that the act of Making Sense is also an act of creative distortion: to say anything about how the world is, we need, in effect, to lie about it.

All sorts of artists picked up some echo of what Richter had suggested, but very few seem to have seen its full potential. They might see that this kind of thinking moves one away from the conventional literary juxtaposition of images in painting, and brings to the foreground, instead, the idea of using imagery at all – but many then tamely exploited this to proclaim, yet again, the death of painting.

The most exciting work came from those who saw that this did not make the choice of image, in itself, insignificant. It is no accident that so many painters working ‘after Richter’ found themselves, often without any knowledge of their colleagues’ activities, making paintings based on photographs of microscopic cellular forms, usually cells taken from the human body. Here are images which are, in effect, self-portraits, visions of ourselves which we have faith in but which we cannot actually see for ourselves – only through the microscope and the camera. When, as in the case of Mark Francis’s early work, the cells in question happen to be sperm or ova, we introduce a different level of anxiety: these are simple forms which we know, intellectually, contain the seed of unimaginably complex forms – whole bodies, whole identities. And, given this idea of biologically-determined identity, the travails of the artist take on a certain pathos: an assertion of subjective individuality, the right to write one’s own script, expressed in the very act of depicting the genetic codes, which one might crudely imagine had taken over the writing for us.

Which makes what is happening now all the more intriguing. Many of the individuals who figured in this largely unrecognised movement have begun to move on, again without any attempt to reach consensus, but with a certain unanimity. Artists like William Macllraith, Mark Francis and Callum Innes, all of whom could, in their different ways, have been said to be making organic-based abstraction, have begun to move away from recognisable images, towards a purer abstraction. The result is to bring them back into contact with the kind of questions which have occupied avant- garde painters since the birth of Modernism: the depiction of space, and the ambiguous nature of the mark made upon a flat surface.

This is perhaps clearest in the work of Mark Francis, where those familiar objects, once clearly sperm heads, have begun to reappear in isolation, as simple black marks or points. There is no obvious connection between each, although one can see that they are on the verge of forming swirls and clusters, about to take on life – but the suggestion that they might be organic, growing, is all but drowned out by the artist’s use of resolutely horizontal brush-strokes. Perhaps the black marks are no more than buck-shot scattered across the canvas, but there is something about this immaculate abstract painting which demands that we read something living, something fruitful, back into it – it’s a basic impulse, as primitive and irresistible as picking out faces in a set of random marks. Don’t these black forms also suggest objects spilling something out over the canvas from left to right? It turns out that Francis has been looking at photographs, in negative, of constellations, in which stars appear as black holes beaming black light into space. So this kind of painting, which looks so much as if it was about to collapse back into the black hole of art-for- art’s sake nihilism, opens out again in an aesthetic Big Bang. Light is the visual equivalent of the sperm or cell: it is at the beginning of things. Reduction to something near absolute zero brings us back to the source, and painting begins again.

Where will it all lead? It’s hard to say. There are so many artists taking these and similar ideas and developing them in bewilderingly different directions. Looking again at a seemingly more conventional landscape artist like Peter Doig, for example, it is clear that he is perfectly well aware of all these developments; his ‘landscape’ art is plainly photo-based, and goes out of its way (partly through the creation of odd, even ugly surfaces bearing no relationship to the objects depicted) to stress the artifice involved in the act of making and looking at painting. I recently visited Michael Bach’s exhibition at the Gilmour Gallery. His paintings are basically conventional cityscapes, intriguing partly because they combined a fairly lush paint surface with very accurate, photo-based renderings of grim concrete structures – tower blocks and flyovers. But Bach is a student of Richter, and explained in a catalogue note that he was fascinated by our different expectations and levels of attention when confronted with, respectively, an actual place, a photograph of it, and a painting of it. We want the last to contain an order, an inner coherence, visual and intellectual, which we would not expect to find in the reality.

When we cast around further and find artists as diverse and as impressive as Jeffrey Dennis and Jane Harris (both at Anderson O’Day this spring), Peter Doig and Nicholas May (at Victoria Miro), Mark Francis and Paul Winstanley (at Interim), or Callum Innes and Peter Ellis (at the Frith Street and Eagle Galleries, respectively), it’s time to admit that painting is not only back in fashion, but back on course.

Not that the establishment has entirely changed its spots. The Hayward show characteristically wastes wall space on European nonentities, squeezing out British artists covering equivalent fields with far greater skill and panache. The new British painting is strong and sophisticated enough to make converts on the international scene, but in the eyes of our blinkered gallery administrators, to be British is still to be damned as provincial.

From the April 1994 issue of ArtReview (then titled Art Review). This article was republished in part in the 70th anniversary issue of ArtReview, March 2019