Like everyone, I have always liked Gerhard Richter’s work. But not intimately, or personally, it never hit me between the lungs or slipped beneath my skin. But yesterday, I got it, I got why Richter is so important. And not in any particularly intellectual, or profound way, but I understood what essentially makes his work so accessible and interesting to all.
In almost every aspect, project and period of his career, Richter’s work concerns the uncertain: the fog; the mist; that impenetrable blur. This uncertainty is present in his early paintings from photographs, the grey scale paintings, the psychedelic squeegee works, the wavering panes of glass, the geometric designs, the celestial clouds and the gargantuan abstractions. Indeed, for Richter, life is always about looking through an opaque pane of glass: continually in pursuit of clarity, seeking to realise the real in the abstract. In its purest sense, this is all existence: the constant trundle through darkness in order to discover light; the relentless hope that the clouds will clear.
But equally, for Richter, ambiguity and unknowing is what energises life and prevents stasis. The ‘unknowing’ is always more important that the ‘knowing’. The incomprehensible is what motivates the human mind, not what it is that is already known. We are swimming underwater, perpetually within an arm’s span of the surface but just missing it every time.
And it is this nearly-, barely-thereness that characterises Richter’s oeuvre. We are motivated by our desire to know and to understand, but Richter’s work hinges on the failure of that desire: the impossibility of fulfilling it totally – an idea most accurately articulated in his paintings from photographs. We are only ever between remembering and forgetting, between sleep and wakefulness, between life and death, and it is precisely in the collision of these solid states that the ‘blur’ is manufactured. In everyday life, the ‘blur’ can be experienced as early morning bleariness, sunlight on water, night transitioning into dawn, glimpses, echoes, murmurs, whispers, shadows, intuition, superstition, curiosity, desire. In its finest moments then, Richter’s work concretises the tenuous and the fragile, giving shape and authority to those in-between moments that define and invigorate our very human existence. After all, we are all only but a collection of possibilities just waiting to be realised.