Abstract Critical

Richter Scale

The Gerhard Richter exhibition at Tate Modern has had a tremendous critical reception. We thought we’d find out though what practising artists felt about it, asking a cross-section of abstractcritical’s  regular contributors, and others, to give us a quick 150-200 word reaction to the show. Hopefully, too, there’ll be room to post the best of the responses we get from you… This column will grow so keep reading!  Meanwhile, first up is artist Lee Triming, also one of our two new Writers-in-Residence from this month. As well as teaching, Lee also writes regularly for Art In America.


Richter is an artist about whom I have increasingly mixed feelings.  His 90’s Tate show threw a very long shadow over the British painting of the time, the transparent Richterisms of which ended up reflecting back on his own concerns with hollowness and replication in ways unintentionally and perversely interesting.  Looking over the practice of this supposedly protean figure today, what’s most striking is how it actually consists of such a limited number of moves.  There are some fantastic paintings in that body of work (his Toilet Paper, from 1965, is still an understated knock-out), but overall his production is repetitive in a way that becomes less and less interesting as his career progresses. He seems, like the similarly once-fascinating Luc Tuymans, to have shifted from painting out of a lively concern with the redundancy of images to painting images that are, in themselves, redundant.  The large abstract works have of late become particularly flaccid; watching Richter wielding the squeegee in Corinna Belz’s documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting” is like watching a Beckett character slogging through an endless field of waist-high mud.




(Artist and regular contributor to abstractcritical)



What I thought about as an abstract painter when I saw Gerhard Richter’s ‘Uncle Rudi’ (1965)

In 1961 Gerhard Richter defected  from East to West Germany bringing with him an academic training in ‘socialist realist art’.

Irony, emotional restraint, dark humour, ambivalent relationships with history/ideology and technical ‘mastery’ would have been survival strategies not ‘art poses’.

This perspective casts a strange light on the ‘triumph’ of American painting. Take Noland’s work or  the polished edges of Alfred Barr’s streamlined, aerodynamic version of the history of Modern Art for MoMA  for instance – they become a little more alien, a little more corporate…..

1965. Maybe  Richter cannot take his ‘culture’- high or low- too much for granted? The hypocrisy of ‘Time Zero’ (a typical all-American catch-phrase defining a ‘new beginning’ for a war-torn Germany and Europe) – was quickly unravelling. Europe was entering a renewed  period of cultural unrest aggravated by denial of the extent of Nazism’s contamination of Europe’s ‘civil societies’. There was a  heightening of terrorist activities, social/generational clashes, the intensification of the Cold War and revelations of the dark-side of  U.S foreign policy – Vietnam, Latin America and so it goes on….

It is interesting to think that, while Richter painted ‘Uncle Rudi’, across the Atlantic Ocean (under which US and Soviet  submarines were busily playing hide and seek with armed nuclear missiles) Noland was painting ‘Drive’.


(Norfolk-based abstract painter and printmaker)

In some ways Gerhard Richter neutralises processes and ideas of painting (and photography) by covering so many bases, over and over again. His contemporary Sigmar Polke insists that we encounter clashes, discords, harmonies and dramas within a single image. Richter rarely does this. His images, from whatever time, each have a uniformity within themselves that is bleak or beautiful or pleasing or silent or all of those things. But they have no internal dramas and so the attention shifts to ideas generated between paintings. An effect of this (unlike Polke, and Beuys) is to force us to a place where we feel ‘nothing’. This is a radical position, though of course not a new one. It is achieved by both the lack of drama in each image and by playful and cool inconsistency. When Richter asserted ‘I like everything that has no style’ he invited us to fall into the clueless gaps between the paintings. We should not confuse Richter with Guston or other artists famed for their insistent and defiant changes of direction. Rather, Gerhard Richter is a kind of anti-shaman, rejecting Beuys’ total engagement, rejecting Beckett’s proposal- ‘…to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.’ Richter’s only invitation, in the end, is to a collection of elegant and concise neutralities.


Dear —–,

Thank you for your e-mail which I received via Hales Gallery and good luck with your dissertation.

Gerhard Richter is an important and influential artist, although not my favourite in terms of either abstraction or process painting. Perhaps the idea of the Cage tribute paintings is too obvious a link, for me, to the Black Mountain School and a very American idea of Abstract gesture as mystery. I don’t believe Robert Storr when he says Richter is careful not to go for the same evocation of the mysterious as Mark Rothko; rather I think Richter has calculatedly modulated this idea of mystical abstraction for younger generations. I prefer artists such as Raoul de Keyser in terms of their ability to collapse the idea of the abstract sublime in to something small scale and apparently normal. Thomas Nozkowski, an American abstract painter also selected by Robert Storr for his Venice Biennale, is another great example of this approach, an artist who has disentangled himself from the rhetoric of the New York School of abstraction from within it. In short, I am drawn to artists who make work that is very aware of the problems inherent in its position as much as its making. Mary Heilmann still seems to me to be a very limber artist in these terms and there are many artists in my generation and younger who take on the same fluid approach to quotation and variation in their work.

I hope this is of some use, there is also a review I wrote of an exhibition at Mummery Schnelle Gallery about recent British Abstraction on the abstract critical website which you might be interested in. It’s called School Studies and the exhibition was called What if it’s all true, what then?  which  included great people such as Jon Thompson, Alexis Harding etc.

best wishes,

andrew bick
—– Original Message —–
From: “——-”
[email protected]
Sent: Thu 22/09/11 3:16 PM
Subject: Fwd: For the attention of Andrew Bick

Mr Andrew Bick

Dear Sir

I am a Fine Art Student and I so need help.

I am trying to write my final dissertation on how totally abstract paintings are being interpreted right now and I have chosen to discuss the squeegee abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter because they are so open ended.  I am really struggling to find artist’s reactions to these paintings and so as an acknowledged British abstract artist I am contacting you.  It would really be valuable to me if you could make some comments on how you perceive and understand his Cage paintings (or any others which really get to you).  Or even if you find them incomprehensible that would be useful to know!

What else can I say, you were a student once…………

Good luck with your work

Kind Regards



  1. Francesca Simon said…

    I agree with Robin Greenwood that the artist’s intentions and their relation to the finished work is an interesting topic but in Richter’s case it seems to me that the primary interest is in observing him developing one process or particular technical expertise after another; he is an artist driven by materials and discovering what he can do with them. John Holland says the resulting paintings, “never resolv[e] into much more than artful experiments in ‘picture-making’’; a bit harsh but right. But I also think that advances in abstract painting may come through process. Do we need to dignify his work with conceptual interpretation?
    For me the best painting was ‘Hanged’, from the Bader Meinhof series. Viewed from close up, where figuration dissolves, this became a fluid abstraction.

    • Mary Romer said…

      Francesca, I have now only just been to the Richter exhibition and agree “Hanged” was the best painting, along with the two pictures titled “Arrest” shown together in the Baader Meinhoff series. I find them compositionally excellent, the nearest Richter gets to a real sense of what I understand to be abstraction. I do however, get huge pleasure from the Cage paintings, but I am willing to accept that they are perhaps just wonderful ‘decorations’ on a massive scale that I enjoy losing myself in. I would be interested in what your views are on the Cage works?

  2. Luke Elwes said…

    Sam, it would be difficult to identify a school of Richter, but as I walk around the show I can instantly see elements of his practice being deployed by at least half a dozen painters I know. They respond to how, not why, he makes an image. Where he freely lifts from others, so others lift from him. It is the recurring visual tropes in his work rather than the developmental arc of his career that appeals. By refusing to privilege one approach over another, he gives painters license to move beyond the critical terms (and therefore value judgements) that pertain to ‘abstraction’ and ‘figuration’.

  3. Robin Greenwood said…

    Lee, I’d just so really like to know why you think ‘Toilet Paper’ is a ‘fantastic’ painting, because I’ve walked passed it a few times now, thinking it was profoundly uninteresting. What other ‘fantastic’ paintings would you rank it alongside? ‘Las Meninas’? The Moroccans? Something of that order?

    • Lee Triming said…

      Robin, it’s hard to pin down what I like about that painting. I could say that it’s something to do with its mix of simplicity, elegance and banality; that I like how the toilet roll seems to float in space like an unglamorous magic trick; that I enjoy the way that, despite the fact that a toilet roll painted in such a somber way ought by rights to collapse into screeching camp, it somehow manages not to be funny: and that’s all true, but still falls short of why the image holds me. I’ll only add to this that, while I’ve no interest in making any claims about the historical importance of this image (or indeed of any of Richter’s oeuvre), I can say that if I were taken into a room and told that I had ten minutes left to live and could spend that time looking at either ‘Las Meninas’ or Richter’s loo roll, I’d choose the latter without missing a beat.

      • Robin Greenwood said…

        Fair enough, its your choice. Just hope I’m not in the same room when the time comes. It would be a long ten minutes with that loo roll.

        To be serious, your likes and dislikes (especially at such a moment!) are entirely to be respected; so is it that you don’t think ‘Las Meninas’ is any good, or you just don’t like it? And athough you would choose the loo roll, how would you rate it, objectively? Is it better than ‘Las Meninas’? Or is that not a good question?

        And why are we discussing the relative merits of two figurative paintings on the abcrit website? Well, I think there is something in this, should you care to continue…

  4. Sam Cornish said…

    Hi Lee,

    The nineties in painting is one of my blind spots (before I was old enough to be interested and sometime after the artists who I know more about historically). I would be interested to see a few examples of painters you thought were influenced by Richter, to both good or bad effect.


    • Lee Triming said…

      Hi Sam

      Thanks for asking – this gives me the chance to contextualize that comment in a way the word count for this piece wouldn’t allow. I was in art school doing my MA in the mid-90′s, and a ridiculous percentage of the painting going on there at the time was utterly beholden to Richter. It was these young, emerging artists whom I was thinking of above: it seemed at the time that every show you went to contained at least one fuzzy black and white painting of an oddly cropped photo or newspaper article – there were legions of these, though I’d be at a loss to name any of them now (I found it too dull to take note of who was making these identikit paintings at the time). To look at Richter’s more lasting legacy would require considering his influence in a more subtle way, and I’m not a historian and wouldn’t presume to do that. I do however remember thinking at the time that Brad Lochore was someone who seemed both indebted to Richter without being enslaved to him (though I’m not necessarily as interested in his output now as I was then.)

    • Luke Elwes said…

      If you want to see the influence of Richter’s work on a younger generation – the shuttling between figuration and abstraction, the dispassionate paint surface, the use of photographic sources, the political references – you could look at the paintings of Wilhelm Sasnal, currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery.

      • Lee Triming said…

        yes, i’m really looking forward to that show – i thought his work at sadie coles earlier this year was a bit patchy, but there were some strong paintings in there.