Allegories of anarchy: part of a new wave of German painters, Daniel Richter, who is the subject of a current traveling show, creates large-scale pictures that combine political themes, Felliniesque fantasy and quasi-abstract elements
Art in America, Dec, 2004 by Raphael Rubinstein
"Pink Flag--White Horse," a traveling Canadian exhibition of about 26 large canvases by Daniel Richter, marks the first time that paintings by this 42-year-old German artist have been shown in North America (between venues, 12 of the works were on view last summer at David Zwirner Gallery in New York). Richter is one of a number of German painters who have emerged on the international scene in the last few years. The most interesting members of this stylistically diverse group include Kai Althoff (who is the subject of a current traveling U.S. show), Franz Ackermann, Katharina Grosse, Bernhard Martin, Neo Rauch and Thomas Scheibitz, all of whom have had solo shows in this country.
Over the last 20 years the most influential contemporary painters have been German: Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and the late Martin Kippenberger. If readers doubt this assertion, I challenge them to name three painters of the same period from any other country whose achievement and influence is comparable. It seems to me, an outsider with little firsthand knowledge of the country, that German painters benefit from a number of factors: first, they live in a society in which, traditionally, culture has been held in high esteem; second, the German educational system recruits many of the nation's best artists by paying them well and giving them plenty of time, while teaching, to continue their own work; third, Germany's particular historical experience, from the debacle of Nazism to its prolonged frontline status in the Cold War, has provided both a wealth of material to address and a certain obligation to tackle large subjects. As a result, there has arisen in Germany a kind of painting culture that seems to foster grandly ambitious, highly accomplished work, of which Daniel Richter (no relation to Gerhard) is the latest but surely not the last exemplar.
While the full show includes paintings made between 2000 and 2004, the canvases at Zwirner all dated from this year. Among them was White Horse--Pink Flag, a large vertical oil on canvas with a title nearly identical to the traveling show's title. It's one of Richter's simpler compositions: against a dark blue ground, a pair of horses, one white and one brown, have reared up to battle each other. The body of the predominantly white horse features a patchwork of pastel blues, pinks and yellows that might have been laid down by Kandinsky; the skin of the brown horse has been painted light to dark, with emberlike reds glowing underneath heavy brown and black brushstrokes, an effect reminiscent of 1950s paintings by Norman Bluhm and Sam Francis. The blue ground behind them is the color of a pair of brand new Levis. It takes a little while to notice a Lilliputian rider perched on the head of the brown horse.
The pink flag of the title, which is really closer to red, flies from a pole that rises somewhat incongruously from underneath the rough arch made by the rearing horses. This image reproduces almost exactly the banner on the cover of Pink Flag, the influential 1977 debut LP by the English punk band Wire. Lest there be any doubt about the connection, the lyrics to the album's title song (a fragmented account of some unnamed colonial apocalypse) are reprinted, presumably at Richter's request, on the first page of the "Pink Flag--White Horse" catalogue. In the recording, the song's lyrics are set to a relentlessly repeated single guitar chord and churning drums.
Although none of the Conrad-meets-Genet imagery in Wire's "Pink Flag" shows up in Richter's painting White Horse--Pink Flag, which seems a quasi-heraldic allegory of some epic struggle, many of his canvases share the song's atmosphere of anarchic violence. The allusions to Wire also evoke the years Richter spent immersed in Germany's leftist punk scene, designing posters and record covers for various bands. If punk music is important to Richter's art, so, too, is the recent past of German painting, which he absorbed firsthand as a student of Werner Buttner and as an assistant to Albert Oehlen. From the latter, he borrows the notion of each canvas as the crazy sum of many coexisting paintings; from Polke he takes large scale and an oblique approach to current events. Richter also seems to have looked profitably at Leon Goinb's late work.
When Richter emerged, in the mid 1990s, he was painting abstractly. Although he has been emphatically figurative since 1999, his paintings frequently include large areas in which he still operates as an abstract painter. The two horses in White Horse--Pink Flag are examples of this approach, as are the bodies in one of the Zwirner show's most powerful paintings, Dttisen. Occupying the foreground of this 8 2/3-by-11 1/2-foot painting is a crowd of garishly colored figures. While their heads, masklike faces and upraised arms (it's hard to tell if they are waving their arms in protest, surrender or celebration) are distinct and easily identifiable as such, their bodies meld into a frieze of stained and splattered shapes that are hardly recognizable as human bodies. It's a chromatic riot of high-key violet, blue, green, orange, yellow and red shapes. Colors eat into the contours of neighboring shapes like sulfuric acid poured onto Styrofoam. The scale of the painting encourages viewers to lose themselves in this expanse of heavily painted non-objectivity. In places, particularly in the lower right corner, Richter adds globs of thick paint to the canvas, further emphasizing material over image. By contrast, the modernist office buildings partly visible above the massed figures are rendered in a schematic black-and-white linear fashion.
But if large areas of Richter's paintings suggest the postwar German abstractionist Ernst-Wilhelm Nay on a particularly potent dose of LSD, his imagery shouldn't be dismissed as merely a peg on which he hangs his brushwork. For one thing, his quasi-abstract passages seem allied to thematic concerns, suggesting through his treatment of human bodies in works such as Duisen and Ebb that the figures are being viewed through heat-sensing surveillance equipment or, alternatively, that they are victims of some soul-destroying virus. Such associations jibe with Richter's sci-fi vision of a chaotic, violent, perhaps post-apocalyptic society.
Wisely, Richter is selective about when to let loose with his paint-handling. Not every canvas features the kind of visceral extravaganzas of biomorphic form as Duisen or White Horse--Pink Flag. Quite often, he will employ a more sedate, conventional style for his figures, both animal and human. The menagerie of dogs, birds and a single horse visible in the 11-by-8 1/2-foot vertical canvas titled Halli Galli Polly are rendered in an illustrational manner; similarly, nothing about the human figures in the paintings Nerdon and Tefzen suggests abstraction, although other parts of those paintings do. (A word of warning: Richter's titles generally don't offer much interpretative help, depending, as they often do, on arcane or private references.)
Richter's image-making seems just as adventurous and serious as his paint handling. This is a painter who is deeply involved with contemporary events--his canvases have addressed such topics as terrorist bombings, the plight of North African immigrants trying to reach Europe and the challenges facing Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The title of the Zwirner show, "The Morning After," may to allude to the latter subject. At the same time, Richter is an unbridled fantasist, a highly theatrical picture-maker with a taste for the Felliniesque. In Tefzen, a bald, feather-adorned showgirl shares the canvas with a blue lion, a dead clown, what looks like a stage set for a TV spectacle, and assorted beasts and men. This painting displays Richter's usual pictorial flair: he sneaks in a bird painted with Audubon-like precision next to the dead clown, visually rhymes the rhinestones on the showgirl's costume with a surrounding pattern of splattered white paint, and depicts a dog's head in the lower right with an astonishingly deep, velvety brown. Tefzen also features one of his favorite compositional devices, an obliquely angled rear plane that suggests deeper illusionistic space and a subtle sense of disorientation.