This is Gerhard Richter’s sixth institutional solo exhibition in Switzerland in just over a decade, yet Kunsthaus Zurich’s survey of his landscapes, if not a thrilling choice, is worth visiting. The group of works themselves, fighting against a hollow curation, reassert Richter as a major force in pop art and a poet of the opaqueness of narrative image. The exhibition begins around the time he (along with classmates Manfred Kuttner, Konrad Lueg and Sigmar Polke) rented a butcher’s shop from the city of Duesseldorf for their «German pop art» exhibition. No mention of that term or defining event is anywhere, as the mediation leans heavily on Richter’s contrivance of «mechanically reproduced» «second-hand landscapes» and its «reflection on the lost potential of painting», as if he is solely a master of art about art. Egyptian Landscape, 1964/1965, a grid of desert tourist sites with painted captions predates Baldessari by a hair and makes clear the critical intention in using the photographic.
Nearby Family in the Snow, 1966, is the only human figuration in a show of about 130 works. Ostensibly shown to illustrate the way Richter collected and then used images from his early photo album work Atlas, 1962-66, it also serves as an important reminder of the gravity of history grappled with and the ways in which photographic sources never have their human narrative entirely removed. In seminal works like Uncle Rudi or Aunt Marianne, both 1965, neither exhibited here, the pictured subjects' futures in life and death hang heavy with hindsight of German history, banal in a way that Hannah Arendt described iconically two years earlier. Oddly, and sort of unconscionably, this exhibition makes no attempt to relate the extensive readings of Richter’s figurative works to the landscapes. Perhaps even suggesting a relation to pop art and its connection to criticality of the common brings up subjects the museum finds culturally unappetising. A bulk of the paintings on view depict Switzerland across decades of Richter’s career project (Lake Lucerne, 1969, Davos, 1981, St. Moritz, 1992, Waldhaus, 2004...). The wall text suggests this is because of its most sublime topography and a connection to the invention of modern tourism, which is one limited avenue of thought. But to suggest that Switzerland is continually depicted because it's the most beautiful place is as ridiculous and problematic as suggesting Richter’s figures are German because they’re the most beautiful race. Couldn’t Richter be exploring a similar banality still haunting a country with a related history never truly settled, or chastened?
The show’s limited framing also disallows how these works oscillate between trashy and transcendent. As a whole, Richter’s landscape paintings are situated outside the traditional taste markers of high art, and therefore operate as tragic commentaries on both the state of art and the natural landscapes we inhabit. There’s no way to ignore that tragedy with Ice, 1981, its bergs floating amongst smoggy sky and sea, although that reading might be very contemporary. Vesuvius, 1976, works the opposite way, the foggy volcano conjuring images of possibility for natural disaster from the classical forward. It’s a confirmation of Richter’s talent and rigour across decades that his paintings are able to escape their curation and make alternative intentions visible as a group. It would be kind of cool if the largest museum in this country had the curatorial imagination and rigour to match that. Towards the end of the exhibition are four collage sketches of proposals for large scale installations never achieved (Rooms, 1971). That the gigantic, empty museum extension next door wasn’t harnessed to finally realise an elderly artist’s five decade-old aspiration might be the best illustration of a vacuous and aseptic institutional sensibility. With this Richter exhibition this leads to lost opportunities of insight and an asphyxiation of what still remains vital contemporary painting.
Gerhard Richter. Landscape, Kunsthaus Zürich, 26 March–25 July 2021
Gerhard Richter, Piz Surlej, Piz Corvatsch, 1992, Collection Peter and Elisabeth Bloch; photo: Christoph Schelbert, Olten; Gerhard Richter, Lake Lucerne, 1969, Daros Collection, Switzerland; photo: Robert Bayer; Gerhard Richter, Ice, 1981, Collection Ruth McLoughlin, Monaco
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