Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Richter, Gerhard - by Alissa Wilkinson

Gerhard Richter’s retrospective in the Tate Modern in London from 6 October 2011 – 8 January 2012

Pick Up Your Brush
by Alissa Wilkinson
Last Thursday I was at the Tate Modern in London for the highly-lauded retrospective of the work of Gerhard Richter, the German painter. Born in 1932 Richter has been working for nearly five decades in a variety of mediums and styles—from colour grids to highly detailed realism to total abstraction, and even some glass sculptures. The earliest works in the show are paintings of photographs; Richter painted the photos, then dry-brushed them to achieve a blurry effect. The show continues right into the present day with his marvelous, enormous series of ‘Cage’ paintings named for the composer John Cage. In between these are sculptures of glass, monochromatics that play with texture, neon abstractions, and a lot more. Richter could hardly be accused of sticking to a single style (as opposed to, for instance, the work at the MoMA’s retrospective of Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning, in which de Kooning largely sticks to the same abstract expressionist style even as it evolves and changes).
While Richter doesn’t have a single cohesive style—though he returns to certain techniques over and over—he does have a single force behind his work that fascinated me. From the very beginning of his work, Richter has always been dialogueing with the past. The second room in the exhibit is dedicated to work that Richter produced after seeing a touring show of French bad-boy artist Marcel Duchamp, he of the urinal titled Fountain. In response to Fountain Richter created a painting of a roll of toilet paper using his signature blurry style. Duchamp had painted Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), then decided painting was over and there was nothing left to do. In response Richter painted a soft, realistic, and quite lovely painting of his own wife descending a staircase. Painting, Richter was saying, has not ended. There is much more left to do.
Each of the rooms in the exhibit helped draw the link between Richter’s work and history—whether it was the history of art, artistic techniques or Richter’s own conflicted relationship with his country’s and family’s history in the wake of World War II. What was clear was this: Richter spends a great deal of time thinking about the history in which he finds himself. He is not the sort of painter who wants to do a new thing and therefore ignores the old. Yet he’s also not content to merely react or to rant; Richter dialogues with history and then pushes it forward. He looks backward, he looks forward, and then he picks up a brush.
That is, I think, exemplary behaviour for those who would pursue cultural change. It is not enough to want something new and just do it; we must know from where we come. We must read and pursue our histories. But to stop there, to either cling to or rebel against history, is insufficient. Pick up the brush.
Alissa Wilkinson is co-editor of Comment. She teaches English and humanities on the full-time faculty at The King's College in New York City. Her work on pop culture, philosophy, and fine art appears in publications including Christianity Today, Books & Culture, the Globe & Mail, WORLD, and Paste. In 2008, she founded The Curator and served as editor while on staff with International Arts Movement until 2010. Her current research interests include art's role in postmodern public life; the relationship between contemporary fiction and religion; Christianity and millenials; and technology and human flourishing.
This article was first published on January 9, 2012 on the website of Cardus,  Cardus is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. Drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought, we work to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events and publications, for the common good.