· Gerhard Richter, Clouds (Grey, 1969), oil on canvas, 150 cm x 200 cm.
I was starting to write a post about my trip to Chicago, but got distracted when I emailed to a friend that I was going to Paris soon to see the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Beaubourg and drawing show at the Louvre, and she sent me this, a rant about the commodification of his work by Reuters' Felix Salmon.
Richter’s paintings being commodities has nothing to do with Richter, the artist. Clearly this was not the artist’s decision, nor his intention. Contrary to what Salmon has to say, a majority of us in the “making” part of the art world think Richter is very important, someone with a tremendous influence (the fact that the film, “Gerhard Richter Painting” is still running, after two months, at Film Forum, is testimony to that). I, for one, am grateful to have a model, someone to look up to, who's still producing great work at 80 or whatever.
But here’s the thing: Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol aren’t just good artists, they’re important artists — among the most important of the 20th Century. They permanently changed the way we look at and think about art: what it is, what it can do, what it should look like. Richter’s no slouch on that front, but he’s not in their league, and never will be.
So how does a financial writer get to decide which artists are “important” and which aren’t? I don’t see Reuters asking me for financial analysis.
The writer’s assumptions are faulty on several counts. Just because Picasso and Warhol took longer to be recognized in the 20th century doesn't mean that's what's necessary to be an "important" artist in the 21st century, when communication is so much faster, when the cultural world is so much bigger and more savvy, and when (as a result of Picasso, Warhol, and Duchamp) “difficult” is easy, breaking rules (or looking as if you’re breaking rules) is the order of the day, and “meaningful” is much harder to come by. Given his times, which have been characterized by cynicism (think Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst) and any sincere attempt at beauty has been taboo, Richter is actually radical. In this climate, to be unabashedly conscious of painting's possible emotional content, to paint landscapes, family portraits, candles—anything that, in other hands, would be seen as sentimental—takes a lot of courage; not to speak of working in several different styles when most artists and galleries saw, and still see, developing a single "signature" as the only route to recognition (think BriceMarden).
Further, his dealer is not Gagosian, who might automatically be assumed to be promoting commodification but Richter, since the beginning, has been represented by Marian Goodman, who has always demonstrated enormous restraint, and for whom the art always comes first.
So Richter makes a lot of paintings; let us not forget that it’s his passion, and he can afford to indulge it. The writer’s own examples, Picasso and Warhol, proved that it’s possible to be both prolific and “important.”
It's easy to bash success. But sometimes there's a reason for that success.
So what if collectors are having a feeding frenzy. I think/hope/pray that we're coming into a time when the spirituality in art (and, dare I say, b-b-b-beauty?) will again be celebrated, and Richter is leading the way.