Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Modern, London, 6 October 2011–8 January 2012.

John Timberlake

The only comic moment in Gerhard Richter: Panorama comes in the form of a double portrait of the artist with his long-term friend and interlocutor Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, outside the doors of an art school, but titled as if emerging from a church post-nuptially. There’s nothing particularly funny about two men getting married of course. Rather, the comic aspect comes in the form of the inescapability of the image itself.

A decade ago, Robert Storr’s exhibition of Gerhard Richter at MoMA New York featured the same painting. Storr’s 2002 show fashioned an alternative of sorts to the hitherto dominant account of the then 70-year-old, moving away from those critics who had sought to present Richter’s choices of media as merely contingent in a broader neo-avant-gardist project driven by the photograph as found object or readymade. This take on Richter is epitomized, if not indeed initiated, by Buchloh. It was Buchloh’s dialogues with Richter which, to a large extent, put the painter in digs in which he never actually seemed at home: the Frankfurt School. Indeed, there is something of the Pollock–Greenberg relationship here. The marriage was always dysfunctional, yet it did produce offspring – most notably in the publication of Richter’s Atlas with its partial correspondences with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas project.

As the well-known 1988 conversation between them shows, however, it was, paradoxically, Buchloh privileging the neo-Warburgian aspect of Richter’s project which left no credible place for the artist’s other concerns, reflected, most notably, in the increasingly large number of abstracts emerging during the course of that decade. This leads to accusations of cynicism, in turn pushing an increasingly contrary and obstinate painter to assert belief in content. Whereas Buchloh nihilistically instrumentalizes the paintings, aiming at the bankruptcy of the forms, Richter retreats into them, focusing instead on doubts of his own efficacy in the face of painting’s putative transcendent capacity. It was Buchloh, also, who sought to describe Richter as ‘the heir to an historically divided and fragmented situation, in which there was no pictorial strategy that had any real validity … meditating on what was once possible’ at the very same time as Richter himself sought to recoup Hans Sedlmayr. And this conjuring of ghosts is what clearly unites them, for if, in its morbidity, retreat and self-absorption, Richter’s practice has always been more tragically Barthesean than Benjaminian, then his principal leftist interlocutor has done little to change that.

In many ways, however, Storr’s 2002 curation did show Richter in a light more germane to the artist’s words, not the least because it showed just how inept the painter could be, and that made the work all the more interesting. Up until then there had been the sense that this was a practice as slick and peerlessly engineered as a Baader–Meinhof Wagen out-driving the cultural cops, with no space for error or miscalculation. However, as Storr seemed to recognize, such an account overlooked that which was becoming increasingly celebrated and sought after in Richter’s oeuvre, namely his celebrations of colour and painterly abstraction, and the apparent embrace of the reassurances of genre, rather than any problematization of such. Storr’s show celebrated a career of hard-won proficiency, not least by its inclusion of misfires such as sand added to oils to make a bad joke of a beach scene, lazy slurred photo pieces that weren’t a patch on what Malcolm Morley had done at the same time, and heavy-handed opportunist stabs such as a maudlin pair of painted glass monochromes shaped something similar to how the World Trade Center looked, up until that Tuesday morning a few months earlier. There, Richter was, indeed, presented as a painter’s painter, off-days and all. Nevertheless, this last point is not easily dismissed for the resonance it probably carries with a lot of artists working today. In a massively expanded commercial and institutional art world with its attendant pressures, Richter comes to represent certain ontological claims amidst the internal and external pressures to be a certain kind of artist: namely the putative necessity of studio time and studio practice, and the desire to apply individually honed craft skill in a manner seemingly relevant to the contemporary world. Among practitioners, as with painters such as Bacon or Freud, this is where the appeal of Richter’s conservatism lies.

This is, effectively, where Gerhard Richter: Panorama show takes its cue. Over the course of fourteen rooms of Tate Modern, and spilling out onto the concourse, the show chronologically charts Richter’s work through the early 1960s to the present as a series of unmitigated triumphs. In Tate’s website clip, its director, Nicholas Serota, states: ‘For Baudelaire, Manet was the painter of modern life, and for me Richter was always the painter of modern life.’ Misattribution aside (it was Constantin Guys, and not Manet, of whom Baudelaire made the claim), therein lies the rub, since in the course of this show, the contrast between Manet and Richter could not be more evident.

This is because, rather than comedically concretizing the false universals of genre and art history in the contingent particularities of medium, moment and context – as with, say, Manet’s Olympia or, curiously enough, as an earlier incarnation of Jeff Wall managed to do with his Blackpool Donkey take on Stubbs’s Whistlejacket – time and again Richter’s oils assume an elevatory function. So, too, Richter’s Atlas, of course: in marked contrast to Warburg’s innovatory collection of popular mediations of works of high culture, Richter’s latter-day project has gained its reputation on the exact inversion, an ultimately tragic vision in which the snapshot, with all its attendant cultural instabilities, transmutes into a putatively universal statement in oils about the human condition. In Richter, the family album is raided to ensure we all have an Uncle Rudi, snapped in his Nazi uniform, and we all have blond daughters, like Betty, turning preferentially towards our immortal abstractions rather than meeting our ageing gaze. Like insects trapped in amber, this mostly becomes a sequence of dead exquisites: mournful archetypes distilled from domestic life and tourist snaps, rather than the agencies and ruptures of photography per se. It is his masterpiece, October 18, 1977, one of the true great works of the last century, which remains the exception to this rule, precisely because its song turns inwards at the point where it takes on that larger political tragedy, drawing it back to the deflationary and unlikely, whilst avoiding the single definitive image through awkward repetition and non-progressive sequence.

This essayistic aspect is celebrated in this retrospective, but for the most part Richter’s fan-brushing and squeegee-ing often reads as no more than an increasingly cloying stylistic painterly conceit, which, rather like Turner’s sulphurous smogs, detaches from its historical referent. As evident in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2009, many rely upon a feathering back trick which might (just) be read as signifiers of the televisual or some strangely dot-free web-fed offset, so long as everyone present agrees. More often, now, it just looks teary-eyed. On those frequent occasions when a painting is more blurred or its blacks more dropped out than its photographic origin, there is an obstinate echo of Turner’s claim that ‘such things are, though you mayn’t believe it’. Looking more the result of inebriation than mediation, the vertical slurs of Demo (1997), a picture of a PKK demonstration in Cologne, bear this out, as surely as the artist’s insistence that he really did experience ‘feelings to do with contemplation, remembering, silence and death’ when knocking out the long sequence of candles ’n’ skulls in the 1980s.

This is not the first show to contrive Richter the enigma (as in Self Portrait, 1996) as Richter the innovator by suggesting he ‘raises questions’. There is an increasingly airless quality to the progression of rooms, ending, appropriately enough, in an enclosure of massive abstracts entitled Cage, a homage to John Cage. Perhaps by association this aims also to place Richter in a tradition. Nevertheless, the case that this is an artist who is still ‘Questioning Painting’ or ‘the Limits of Vision’ seems forced and unlikely. In the case of the former, there are black-and-white snaps of the surface of a painting, in Room 11, which, despite the blurb, actually don’t look like ‘landscapes’ because the plane of focus and depth of field are wrong; in the latter, paintings derived from micrography and two of the artist’s occasional forays into vitreous sculpture (Room 12) merely point to an occasional experiment, rather than a thought-out project of enquiry. This latter point is a shame: the glass and metal forms almost seem like apparatuses of some sort, and pushed further might have become interestingly madcap ocular contrivances. As it stands, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond the stultifying sense that this is a latter-day Vermeer’s take on Warhol, without even the possibilities or iconoclasms of the inverse.