I declare this with certainty because I have just spent my day consulting Richter’s defenders, lots of them, and, as a result, remain astonishingly uninformed about him. I came out of Richter’s new Whitechapel display annoyed and baffled; I came out of my encounter with his defenders annoyed and baffled. His code is an unbreakable one. That is why I am as suspicious of him as a mouse is of a barn owl, and why I wouldn’t have him in my top 100, let alone the premier six. It would be like letting a Stasi agent into the house.
Why the melodrama? Why the portentous tone? That’s easy: Richter’s art is rooted in the 20th century’s blackest compost. Getting to grips with him is a spectacularly serious undertaking. He was born in Dresden in 1932. His mother was the daughter of a concert pianist, and his father, a teacher, was a member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, which is a typically extended Germanic way of saying something quite simple. He was a Nazi. Apparently, one of Richter’s uncles — in his Hitlerian uniform — appears somewhere in Atlas, the giant archival collection of Richter’s cuttings and snapshots that has now arrived at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in a photo taken just before this uncle was killed at the front. I could not find him. Looking for a specific image in Atlas is a needle-search across a field of haystacks. I found the acrobatic scenes from German porn films. I found the Auschwitz dead (next to the porn films). I found Richter’s nude photos of his two wives. But I couldn’t find the Nazi uncle.
After the war, Dresden found itself slap in the middle of the GDR. But Richter doesn’t much like to remember those strict communist days. There is almost no information available about them. For what it’s worth, I believe that the unbreakable reticence of his art, its resolute blankness, has its origins in survival strategies learnt during this grim East German teenhood. I remember myself staring into the faces of East German border guards on my visits back to Poland, looking for some twitch, some half-smile, some crack of communication, and finding none. They stood there, in their Richter-grey uniforms, aggressively reflecting my spirit of inquiry straight back at me.
I recall this here because a couple of Richter’s paintings at the Whitechapel are mirrored monochromes that do exactly this: they reflect your world back at you, aggressively, arrogantly, accusingly. One of the things that intrigues Richter observers is the ease with which he switches from figurative paintings to contentless monochromes. But it’s all a question of scale. Either you show the whole border guard or you zoom in on a small patch of his uniform. Both images mean the same.
We know that Richter enrolled in the Dresden art school and learnt how to be a social realist. We know that he worked for a while painting political banners for the GDR. We know that he decorated the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden with murals. And we know that this complex compliance gave him the space he needed to escape, which he did, in 1962, taking his wife with him to West Berlin and leaving everything else behind. I give you this potted biography in lieu of a detailed exhibition description because Atlas, which he started in 1962, is a biographical archive that reeks of this history. Its pores are clogged with it.
When I walked into the Whitechapel Art Gallery and confronted all these snapshots, graphs, plans, portraits, stretching depressingly through every vista — 5,000 images in all, I read, all collected in identical frames — it reminded me of the communist police stations I used to have to register at when I visited my Polish family: the notice boards, the clerkliness, the uniformity and, above all, that unmistakable sense of information being recorded, filed, classified and kept. Atlas may be many mysterious things, but one of the things it certainly is is depressing documentary evidence of the truth that you can take an artist out of East Germany but you cannot take East Germany out of an artist.
Scattered among the archive images are a dozen or so of the paintings Richter has produced as a result of all this endless archival inspiration. Every painting forms a small oasis of pleasure in the stretching desert of homework. Thus, a bit of nosing about in the picture lists finally turns up the original photo of the vase of yellow tulips that prompted Richter’s blurred tulip painting. A blurred, caught-in-the-headlights image of Brigid Polk, the German Warhol groupie who used to inject herself in the butt by stabbing a heroin-filled syringe straight through her Levi’s, is the first of these finished paintings you encounter and remains the best.
Richter is pretty much a contemporary of Warhol, and one way to see him is as the German Andy — serious where Warhol was jokey; grey where Warhol was lurid; portentous where Warhol was light-fingered. Both these lapsed popsters were chiefly interested in the act of turning photos into paintings.
Where Warhol distorted his photographic sources by screen-printing them, off-register, Richter’s trademark is a moody blurring of the edges, which gives his image a sense of surveillance: of slo-mo observation. Quotidian snippets emerge from this deliberate blurring, looking mighty and historic. It is like that endlessly rerun footage of Kennedy being assassinated. It’s just badly shot television imagery. But it has a historic potency that no specially erected Kennedy memorial on Capitol Hill could ever match. Richter’s portraits of the Baader-Meinhof gang, his masterpieces in this genre, have it too. Unfortunately, they are not in this show.
Instead, Atlas features seemingly endless groupings of the banal things Richter is interested in. At the beginning, there are family snapshots and wartime cuttings. As the show progresses, his own photographs of places he has been and people he knows come to dominate. His poor wives get to have their naked selves paraded before the world, as do his babies. Hundreds of views of mountains and sea horizons flood the panels, and make them tedious. All of which prompts the question: why should any of us find this interesting? At best, if you know the finished paintings inspired by the cuttings, there is some modest extra knowledge to be gained from searching out their inspiration. But when even this tiny pleasure is denied us, we are left with a vast exercise in vanity exhibition-making. We have been spared his shopping lists. But not much else.