Over the past several years the prolific, celebrated German painter Gerhard Richter has twice figured prominently in art world news. In 2017, he announced that he had made his last paintings, a series of 47 abstractions. He was 85 and said he found painting tiring; forthwith, he would devote his energies to drawing.
Then last fall, it was announced that Richter had left his longtime New York representative, the Marian Goodman Gallery, where he had shown since 1983, for a younger blue-chip franchise, David Zwirner in Chelsea.
These unexpected developments meet in Richter’s current show in New York: His first appearance with Zwirner presents 14 canvases from his final series, as well as three very recent series of works on paper, a total of 76 (!), all 8 by 11 inches, and one of his austere glass sculptures.
Occupying four spaces on the ground floor of Zwirner’s main headquarters, this is a beautiful show. It might be summed up, with apologies to B.B. King, as the chill is gone. The latest canvases aren’t exactly on fire, but they certainly smolder. Their surfaces are unusually dense, worked over, for Richter, even passionate. Of course it’s refreshing to see them in a different space, but that doesn’t explain why it’s so thrilling to let your mind and eye absorb them.
The Richters here, executed in 2016 and ’17, come in different sizes and color combinations.Credit…via David Zwirner
It may be because Richter is not predetermining a system of size, color and technique and then executing it — usually the case with installments of his long-lasting “Abstract Painting” series, which he began in 1976. (Maddeningly, they all have the same title.) The most familiar earlier in the series paired big slashing abstract brushstrokes with sudden expanses of deep illusionistic space. The blank Photo Realist sky seemed to taunt the abstraction. This combination was transgressive and ironic at a time when a flat, closed paint surface was still revered. Their sameness made them seem formulaic, as if produced on an assembly line.
In contrast, the Richters here, executed in 2016 and ’17, are much freer. They come in all different sizes and color combinations and seem to have been made up as the artist went along. This means that you can take little for granted; you start anew, as Richter must have, with each painting. It also helps that there are only 14 works — small compared to so many shows of his at Goodman.
From afar, each painting resembles its own united, alluring front that can seem almost knit together. But each presents so much information that you have to move in close for further contemplation and deciphering, trying to figure out how the paintings were made and which of their weird little details are accidental, which deliberate. They can feel almost like exquisite texts to be read. But instead of words, you follow painterly events of different sizes; one color gives way to another; smooth passages blur adjacent colors and then break apart into patchy areas that resemble reptile skin or tiny islands that expose multiple layers of color. Sometimes the blue layer with which Richter usually starts a work is visible, or it may be scraped far down to reveal nearly bare canvas.
Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting),” from 2016.Credit…via Gerhard Richter and David Zwirner
In the large, gorgeous painting in shades of purple and yellow on the wall opposite the entrance, there is a single flutter that can suggest an enlarged eyelash — a completely random brush stroke. But hold on, there’s a tiny line that can only have been made on purpose running across the lashes — a cord that turns them into the bristles of a tiny broom.
Some of these paintings repeat the opposition of planned and unplanned more aggressively. A midsize, mostly yellow square canvas is deliberately split vertically. The left side is itself divided, too, into wide, orderly brushstrokes that resemble floorboards; horizontal above, vertical below. In the painting’s right half, a skirmish of tiny reptilian patches dominates.
There is so much paint on some of these surfaces it seems possible Richter resisted letting them go. Painting is hard to leave; but this idea, which he would probably find sentimental, evaporates when you learn that he decided they would be his last only after they were finished.
It makes perfect sense that Richter, who is known as something of a control freak, would prefer to decide for himself which will be his final paintings, leaving nothing to chance, nothing unfinished in his pristine studio. In a 2002 profile of the artist in The New York Times Magazine, the critic Michael Kimmelman observed, “Only operating rooms are this immaculate.”
Six examples from Richter’s 31-work “Mood” series flank a doorway to his latest sculpture, which suspends three panes of clear glass nearly 10 feet tall from a steel armature.Credit…via David Zwirner
If you’re really looking at the paintings, the show’s first gallery will take some time to get through. But there is much more to see, maybe too much. The second gallery holds a suite of 23 drawings from 2022; they glower and churn, evoking those that Victor Hugo made in the mid-19th century.
In the third gallery, 53 pencil-only drawings from 2021 have a delicacy reminiscent of Ingres and frequently seem to give glimpses of mountain ranges and forests. Both series are shot through with carefully ruled lines — an abstract architecture that keeps such suggestions at bay.
The latest example of Richter’s glass and steel sculpture — this one using three panes of clear glass nearly 10 feet tall — offers relief from the plethora of the drawings. Their main visual event is nothing but subtle, floating reflections, starting with your own but also challenging you to see more. They belong to a Minimalist tradition that includes the white paintings that Robert Rauschenberg first made in 1951, which were animated by viewers’ shadows, and Robert Irwin’s barely-there perception-sharpening installations of the 1970s, which could be made with as little as wire and duct tape.
“22.9.2022 (6),” an ink and pencil drawing from 2022.Credit…via Gerhard Richter and David Zwirner“18.7.21,” from 2021, is all-pencil.Credit…via Gerhard Richter and David ZwirnerRichter’s “Mood 5.1.2022 (2),” from 2022, part of a series of 31 drawings in colored ink converted into picture-perfect inkjet facsimiles.Credit…via Gerhard Richter and David Zwirner
On display in the show’s final gallery is “Mood” from 2022: a series of 31 works that began as drawings in colored ink. A reflection of Richter’s lifelong penchant for technical experimentation, they are in fact inkjet prints of the drawings, so accurate their fakeness is impossible for most of us to discern. The artist could not, so he made them art, in an edition of 8. As with all the drawings here, these are installed in the order in which they were made. And so the most interesting aspect of the facsimiles is that they trace a development from rather innocuous clouds of billowy, blossomy color reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler, to something grittier, more fraught and much more engaging. It may be Richter’s genius to prove that his materials always have more to say.
Through April 22 at David Zwirner, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan, 212-727-2027, davidzwirner.com.