When it comes to discussing the intent behind his work, Gerhard Richter is affably taciturn.
Anyway that seemed to be the case at the opening of “Gerhard Richter – Beirut,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in the Middle East, nowadays up at the Beirut Art Center.
The closest he came to discussing artistic intent arose in response to a question about “performativity” in his work. After a second or two of quiet translation from exhibition curator Achim Borchardt-Hume, Richter erupted into brief denial, paused to soak up a little more translation, then fell back into polite silence.
Whether Richter is a performer or not, it was refreshing to encounter an artist who, when provoked to philosophize about his work, simply shrugs.
The work in this show, which Borchardt-Hume selected in conjunction with the BAC’s Lamia Joreige and Sandra Dagher, is thought provoking.
The theme binding the exhibition is the multiple relationships between painting and photography. It is largely comprised of an assortment of Richter’s “overpainted photographs.” Complementing these are several photographic studies of his own paintings.
These works can be said to have arisen from Richter’s ongoing conversation with painting and photography – or rather the dialogue between the two forms that he animated. The aesthetic that developed from this conversation is at once wide ranging and transparent.
The one work that can be seen to be new here is “War Cut” (2012), in which 216 photographed details of Richter’s 1987 “Abstract Painting” are juxtaposed with New York Times coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A major part of the overpainted photographs is series called “Museum Visit” (2011). The documentary basis of this work was the Tate Modern’s 2011 retrospective of Richter’s work, “Panorama.”
Richter photographed the museum and its environs – focussing on the public moving through and around the structure while pointedly ignoring the art that is the putative reason for their presence, and the building’s present raison d’etre – then used these as miniature canvases.
The artist’s non-figurative painting upon these photos of one of the world’s best-known citadels of art offers a strong conceptual premise for a conversation between the two forms, and questions about figurative representation and abstraction.
There is little formal consistency in the overpainted photos. Some of the pieces in “Museum Visit” involve a single monochrome layer – sometimes more or less effacing the image beneath, at others translucent, like a gauze curtain of color interposed between onlooker and image.
Other times there is more complexity in the application. Both in the Tate series and in many of the other overpainted photos, the multicolored interventions tend to be more complex in their hues and textures than the photograph beneath, moving across the surface with the three-dimensional corporality that’s not unlike liquid marble.
Moving beyond “Museum Visit,” Richter’s photographic canvasses vary from intimate family photo-like images, to candid group shots to landscapes.
When the artist has not utterly effaced the photograph, the works offer a master class in the eye’s prejudice toward figurative interpretation. The more photo there is, the greater the brain’s demand that the work be representational.
When the paint is translucent, the eye wants to see a curtain of colorful fabric. When, as in “13 Sept, 2009” the paint has a more sculptural aspect, it becomes an object that the human residents of the photos assess, or ignore.
“21 September, 2009,” a shot of a freshly tilled field with paint applied to the bottom of the photo, suggests the impossible vista of a sudden precipitous drop – as though a gigantic knife had cut into the soil to reveal the green-brown corruption beneath.
Richter’s photos of his paintings – both figurative and abstract works – offer an interesting counterpoise to his overpainted photos. Again the works reflect both the artist’s bias in favor of painting in a somewhat different key and the lure of figuration in the eye of the onlooker.
Representational works like “Uncle Rudi” (2000), “Mustang Squadron” (2005), and “14. Feb. 45” (2002), based on a wartime aerial photo of Cologne, and “Betty” (1991), a photo of Richter’s 1988 painting of the same name, are almost dizzyingly realistic.
Intellectually speaking, it’s obvious that “128 Details from a Picture (Halifax 1978)” is a photographic study in abstraction. Yet there is something in the conjunction of image and title that makes this work – at least for someone raised on the Atlantic coast of Canada – as much an abstract representation of ice floes.
Richter makes no conclusive declarations one way or the other. Rather he suggests dozens of ways to rephrase an unasked question.
“Gerhart Richter – Beirut” is up at the Beirut Art Center until June 16. For more information see http://beirutartcenter.org.