Gerhard Richter at the Tate Modern

About a week ago, on a Sunday afternoon, Sarah and I took about a three-mile walk from our flat in London. We walked along the Thames toward central London to the west. We passed the Tower Bridge along the way, and our journey ended at the Tate Modern art museum. It’s a wonderful, overwhelming place. My previous visits there have left me emotionally exhausted after only an hour or two of taking in the work of artists like Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, David Smith, and Ai Wei Wei. I told Sarah that one of the great things about living here now is that I can make regular visits to the Tate Modern, and just focus on one artist or one room at a time, so I don’t get so wrecked.

There’s a special collection going on through the end of the year, showcasing the work of one of my favorite artists, Gerhard Richter. Throughout his career, he’s produced a wide range of landscapes, photo paintings, and a unique kind of abstract painting that employs unconventional tools, like blades and squeegees. The image I’ve used here is in the latter genre, and is part of a six-painting series that Richter did called Cage. Let me just say that photos of his work can’t convey the power of standing in front these pieces. For one thing, each of the paintings is more than 9-1/2 feet by 9-1/2 feet, so they’re a lot to take in. They’re also deep with color and texture and imagination.

Some people have difficulty appreciating modern abstract art, because it appears haphazard or random, or because they want to know “what it means.” For them, it seems that a still life painting of a bowl of fruit conveys more meaning than a pile of ceramic sunflower seeds. As someone who knows relatively little about the world of fine art, I sympathize with that desire to understand art, but I also find that if I’m willing to put some time and effort into really interacting with abstract art, I’m rewarded with an experience that is emotionally and intellectually challenging. And yes, sometimes I like to look at it because I just think it’s pretty.

In Richter’s abstract work, there are layers of color, interrupted by areas where paint has been scraped or gouged, allowing other colors to pull through to the surface. Some of the color schemes are congruent and soothing, while others are full of conflict, even violence. As these colors and layers and textures interact, what you find is a narrative, and a history of meaning that you provide for yourself as you interact with the painting and the artist. I find Richter’s painting forces me into my own story, and the ways that my experiences interact with one another as life goes on – times when I thought I was seeing things clearly become complicated as other events take place. Ultimately, I believe that God is making something beautiful come of these experiences, whether I can see it taking place at the time or not. More than once I found my eyes filling with tears that I had no words to explain . . . and I’d look over at Sarah, with tears in her eyes as well.

Several years ago, before I had ever heard of Gerhard Richter, I acquired a series of three paintings by a lesser-known American artist who paints in the style of Richter. Sadly, those paintings are locked away in a Seattle storage unit, but I’m eager to return to them some day. Until then, I’ll have to just visit the Tate Modern every so often.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a video of Gerhard Richter at work:

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