JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 overpainted color photographs, framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the small side conference room. All of the works are oil paint on color photographs, made in 2014 or 2015. Physical sizes are roughly 5×7 or reverse, and all of the works are unique. (Installation shots below.)
The show also includes 10 oil on canvas paintings in the main gallery, 5 lacquer behind glass paintings, 3 oil on canvas paintings, 5 oil on wood paintings, and 2 oil on aluminum mounted on wood paintings in the smaller front viewing room, and 40 pencil on paper drawings in the back gallery.
Comments/Context: Tucked back in a side conference room, off the connecting hallway between the two galleries in Gerhard Richter’s big new show of paintings and drawings, a group of the artist’s recent overpainted photographs linger like an adjunct to the main attractions. Richter has been squeegeeing leftover dollops of paint onto color snapshots (his own family pictures and found images alike) for years now, so these works offer a current update on a process he has been exploring on and off between larger projects since the late 1980s. Their gestural immediacy, some made with just a single splash or sweep of paint, give them the feeling of improvisational sketches and quick experiments, where the intersections of painting/photography and of representation/abstraction provide a fleeting flash point for impromptu creativity.
Although there just a few more than a dozen works on view, there is enough variety to provide a range of examples of Richter’s aesthetic strategies. Perhaps the most obvious technique is to use the paint as a force of deliberate interruption, where the underlying photograph has an implied narrative which is partially obscured by Richter’s intervention, thereby introducing uncertainty and ambiguity into what was once a simple document. Two art gallery/museum snaps are made particularly opaque, the object of attention roughly blocked out, leaving the now untethered people staring into dappled expanses of white nothingness. A walk in the woods photo is similarly hidden by a scrim of blue, orange, and green, offering us just a dog sniffing the dirt path. And dense splotches of red and white cover the top half of a marshy water view, the structure/landscape in the background largely left to our imagination.
Richter’s other main category of interventions surrounds a matching of visual patterns between the underlying image and the applied paint, and these works have more sublety. In some cases, the application of the paint creates lines, ridges, and swarms of speckled lines that are then laid on top of dense forest views, where the repeated verticals of tree trunks and the all-over spotting of leaves are echoed by the textures of the paint. In others, Richter seems to have intentionally opted for a closer parallel, where the brown furrows of a plowed farm field are covered by an intermingled spread of green and brown, the crinkled bark of a snowy tree seems extended by a jumbled pull of blue, green, and white, and the delicate sprays of a grassy meadow are repeated in a veiled cloud of white paint.
And in one work, Richter goes even further, toward an additive approach to layered composition. In it, a sweeping vista of mountains and water is doubled by a lumpy undulation of orange and blue, the blob creating a second horizon line in the sky, while an electric splash of swirled yellow and green decorates the foreground. Here we see Richter using abstraction to augment representation, modifying the original visual narrative and taking it somewhere else.
That such a simple set of gestures could create such a multitude of interest and grace is what has made these overpainted photographs so enduringly vital – their transformations are at once elementally straightforward and surprisingly nuanced and sophisticated. This new set of examples finds Richter continuing to both intuitively test the limits of such a limited process and to deliver stand alone artworks that mix the mediums of painting and photography with elegantly refined intelligence.
Collector’s POV: The overpainted photographs in this show are priced at €60000 each and were all sold at the time of my visit. Richter’s photographic works have become regularly available in the secondary markets in recent years, particularly the large edition photographs of tiles/fragments of his abstract paintings. Recent prices have ranged from roughly $10000 to $400000 with a few multi-print grids up over $1 million.