‘Late style’ be damned, and its attendant notion that octogenarian artists are apt or even dutybound to alchemise down their work to a precious residue. For his first commercial gallery show in London in almost 20 years, Gerhard Richter throws it all in the pot, excepting painterly figuration. Here is an elegant array of mostly abstract tendencies, which are as disparate as ever in process, plus some familiar effects freshly arrived at or deployed. In the first room of Marian Goodman’s new gallery, adjacent pairs of vast grey painted-glass panels are retwinned on opposite walls, so that the space contracts a little around a huge central sculpture, 7 Panes of Glass (House of Cards) (2013), that drolly invokes both Richard Serra’s cliffs of leaning steel and Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1824). Richter’s bristling caucus of glass is not only a pellucid take on those artists’ vaulting sublime; it will also comically isolate a viewer’s reflection, elevating you at some odd angle to the gallery below.
Amid all this monochrome, one’s first glimpses of Richter’s recent flow paintings are astonishing
Richter’s customary sport with transparency and reflection is pursued throughout the show in a series of smaller decade-old paintings, in which subtle adjustments are required between the surfaces one is looking at: flat planes of grey, clumps of compact strokes like fused mint humbugs, patches of gallery wall in shadow where the paint has not covered the glass. Amid all this monochrome, one’s first glimpses of Richter’s recent flow paintings are astonishing. These lurid agglomerations of colour are achieved by lowering glass supports onto maplike expanses of liquid enamel, arresting the paint in a giddying variety of forms, hues and textures. Tracts of solid colour seethe at the edges into honeycomb lightness; certain zones have begun to dry and pucker before the decisive moment, so produce crazed patterns of amazing geometric intricacy. Richter traces the thinnest of pigment lines through the seeming chaos, which is in fact scrupulously disposed. Chance intervenes only at the last second, when the glass descends and the slightest movement blurs the edge of the new painting.
Up close, the flow paintings are all frontiers and intrusions. Some lakes of colour improbably abut one another and will not relax their meniscal tension, others bleed and leach and creep like oil spills or alluvial deposits. It seems Richter is not done yet with inventing new kinds of blur: successors to the swashes and veils of his best-known paintings. The most extreme technique is the one he employs in his largescale strip works, which are the result of digitally segmenting and folding older paintings, until the picture plane becomes a smear of coloured horizontal lines on which it is near-impossible to focus as you get closer. If he kept going with the process, Richter says, the whole would dissolve into white noise, its colours reverting to toneless neutrality – which is where we came in.
This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.