Richter’s scale

Measuring the value and meaning of images

Editorial Staff
March 11, 2010

What is an image, anyway? And in the context of art, can it ever really ‘disappear'? These and other provocative ideas are at the heart of the current show at the Centre for Contemporary Culture La Strozzina, the Foundazione Palazzo Strozzi's younger, hipper cousin located in the cavernous spaces below its ground floor.


Continuing in the expertly curated and art-star-laden vein of the centre's last show, Manipulating Reality, this show, Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of the Image in Contemporary Art, similarly addresses art's central role as translator of the human experience. Richter, who is arguably one of the world's most important living artists, has made a career out of questioning our relationship with visual forms of representation-our perception and manipulation of them; their intrinsic nature and value-and he has inspired a generation of younger artists in the process.


The Dresden-born artist has long confounded and bemused critics for his label-defying work. The subjects of his 40-year-plus oeuvre include everything from landscapes to still lifes, his style alternating between extremes of realism and abstraction, his materials ranging from oil on canvas to film. However, his role as a painter is what predominates. Richter is in fact widely credited with being a key force in rejuvenating painting as an art form and saving it from extinction, especially during the ‘painting-is-dead' phase of the late twentieth century.


The current show, which runs though April 25, uses Richter's self-proclaimed emphasis on the image, rather than its subject, as its focal point. Early in his career, Richter explored this concept by creating paintings based on photographs and then blurring the edges. Works like Porträt Liz Kertelge and Familie Schmidt from the 1960s therefore have a sort of push-pull appeal. While inviting in their naturalistic familiarity, they also keep viewers at arm's length, never allowing them to fully grasp the details-much like our own fuzzy process of remembering people and places.


Central to Richter's work has also been the intention to validate and identify beauty in the ordinary and the everyday. The quiet street scene in Wilhelmshaven or the distant bridge in Brücke (am Meer) are thus elevated by his intimate, soft-focus brush and unconventional viewpoint.


The Strozzina exhibit complements Richter's pieces with those of seven other artists who deal with related issues in various mediums. The definite showstopper among these is Briton Antony Gormley's Clearing, which was designed especially for the show and involves the viewer as its protagonist. The participatory sculpture, an abstraction of the human form made of common metal tubing that fills the room in winding concentric shapes, satisfies the urge of anyone who has ever wished to touch hands-off art, not to mention climb inside it.


Do not skip the show's excellent didactic panels; otherwise you will miss the ah-ha moments that come when some of the less-accessible works are explained. U.S. native Scott Short's stark black and white canvasses, for example, come alive when you discover the process he used to create them: photocopying white paper again and again, until black patterns began to emerge, which he subsequently replicated with his brush.


With Richter's concentration on the image itself as a starting point, these seven artists take that theme and run with it to startling new places where the image's very existence and role are challenged.


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