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Art Review: Gerhard Richter

Drawing Against the Grain:
Gerhard Richter on Paper

“I could do that,” a girl of about 11 declared to her father as she glanced at Drawing III, one of four large-format drawings that covered the far wall during the exhibit, Gerhard Richter “Lines which [sic] do not exist” [1] at The Drawing Center [2].  “That’s where you’re wrong,” he countered, though never explaining how a collection of graphite lines, smudges, shadings and erasures, representing nothing recognizable, qualified as accomplished art.

Of this group (all 2005, graphite on paper, 59½” x 40⅜”), Drawing II garnered more interest from some viewers, one of whom when asked expressed appreciation for the variety of lines, contrast and use of erasures.  The best of the four, the drawing achieved, in two central areas of smudging and erasure, effects similar to those found in many of the artist’s abstract paintings from 2000.

Arranged on the walls around the rest of this nonprofit exhibition space, smaller drawings and occasional watercolors rested on individually constructed, lipped,  wooden shelves painted white.  In an arrangement governed by no particular ideology, the display reflected the artist’s well-known approach to art making.  Never one to run with the crowd, Gerhard Richter [3] has always found his own way in his explorations of the infinite possibilities of paint and other media.  The idea for the physical presentation and absence of order, according to Brett Littman (The Drawing Center director), belongs to the current venue; though Richter approved the show, he did not hang it like he has done elsewhere.¹

Gebirge/Mountains (1968, graphite on paper, 19¼” x 21½”), permanent loan from a German private collection, courtesy Kunsthalle Emden.

This show, featuring less well-known aspects of Richter’s practice, displayed over 50 mostly small format works on paper that included wanderings with graphite pencils, sticks and perhaps powder–with minor assistance from an electric drill–and a few ink and watercolor pieces.

The title refers to a statement by the artist on the difference between his paintings and drawings in their closeness to representation.  Because of the use of color in his paintings, even abstract ones, they come closer to reality, he believes, in a way that his drawings don’t.²  Richter uses the traditionally held belief that lines don’t exist in nature to position his drawings further from the real world than his paintings.

Because Richter was born in Germany in 1932, his personal history coincides with that country’s descent into the darkness of first the Nazi era and World War II, then the partitioning of Germany and Berlin into the Communist east and capitalist west.  Raised by a mother who spoke contemptuously to her son of her absent husband–drafted, then captured during the war–Richter confirmed not so long ago what his mother had always intimated, that the man who raised him was not his birth father.³

Not surprisingly, Richter developed a deep and abiding suspicion of any ideology– political, intellectual or artistic, and an allegiance to none.  In striving in all his endeavors to steer clear of any identifiable attachments, he has created a unique and varied body of work.

Explored in the thoughtful catalog written by the curator, Gavin Delahunty, Richter’s relationship to drawing begins with a certain skepticism about its potential for flaunting virtuosity and his lack of faith in his own facility for it.4 A review of the exhibit’s offerings belies that self assessment and lends credence to Littman’s suggestion that the artist is “self negating.”5 Here Richter has plenty of company; artists criticize their work far more harshly than others.

Far from reflecting lack of skill, Richter’s works on paper suggest a child playing with new toys, though for this artist the novelty never seems to wear off.  From the first to the last, each piece illustrates an experiment in the application of graphite (and sometimes watercolor and ink) in Richter’s determined search for the beautiful image.

22.4.1990 (1990, graphite on paper, 8¼” x 11-11/16″), courtesy Kunsthalle Emden.

The first hint of that exploration appears in a drawing at the very beginning of the exhibit.  In 22.4.1990 (8¼” x 11-11/16″), the viewer encounters delicately applied dabs of graphite of differing weights progressing from darker to lighter as they march across the page from left to right, interrupted along the way by randomly spaced vertical erasures that lend the image depth.

Taking that inquiry further, in 1.6.1999 (8¼” x 11-11/16″) Richter adds scribbled graphite lines of assorted weights over a lightly shaded horizontal swatch covering a bit more than half of the drawing’s lower portion and the considerably darker one above it.  Using an eraser, he creates two shining orbs in the dark, two smaller ones in the light, and horizontal and vertical lines–the sum total of which suggests a landscape on another world.

27.4.1999 (5) (1999, graphite on paper, 8¼” x 11-7/8″), private collection.

In discussing abstract art, Richter has described it as “narratives of nothingness” that prompt viewers to search for recognizable patterns.6 But he has also acknowledged the importance of landscape throughout his ouevre7, which invites the question: How many of these drawings hide attempts to capture the essence of reality beneath abstract imagery?

20.9.1985 (1985, graphite on paper, 8¼ x 11-11/16″), courtesy Kunsthalle Emden.

The only clearly representational image in the show, 20.9.1985 (8¼” x 11-11/16″, graphite on paper) highlights Richter’s exquisitely sensitive line.  In it, a bare-breasted woman reclines on her back with her left arm extended toward the edge of the picture plane, bending at the elbow to run parallel to it and ending with the hand holding open  a book.  Varying line weights and delicate hatch marks combine to form a landscape that ends with several horizontal lines above the woman’s contour.  Cutting off the head with the left edge of the paper enhances the perception that the image represents more than a woman lying on the beach.  It hints at the inherently abstract nature of reality.

The delicacy of Richter’s application of graphite on smooth and toothed paper, coupled with the experimental nature of his mark making, lends his drawings lightness of being.  While some fall short, many come close to that beautiful abstract reality Richter courageously pursues.

¹ Brief interview with Brett Littman, September 11, 2010.

² Gavin Delahunty, Gerhard Richter “Lines which do not exist,” 2010, 20.

³ Michael Kimmelman, “An Artist Beyond Isms,” The New York Times Magazine, January 27, 2002, 21.

4 Interview by Robert Storr in “Gerhard Richter: The Day is Long,” Art in America, January 2002, 72.

5 Littman, 2010.

6 Kimmelman, 24.

7 Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, 2009, 269-277.


Gerhard Richter “Lines which do not exist” [1]
The Drawing Center [2]
35 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10013

Catalog available.