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  • Christian Hain

"We Need Another Museum in Potsdam, but A SAP!" Gerhard Richter’s Abstraction

(Potsdam.) It’s hard being a billionaire. Oh, sure: in the beginning it’s all fun and smiles, but wait for the day when you already own a super-yacht, and a couple of private jets, you bought a professional sports team or two, more five star hotels than personal residences (investment!), and recently had to add a fifth storey to your automobile collection’s garage while an architect of world renown finished the plans for a new stable to accommodate your wife’s thoroughbreds – And still: It won’t get any fewer.

Sitting there in your living ro- salon! drawing room! and watching the time pass, each minute on another platinum Patek, or pocket Breguet, what are you going to do with, and about, it all? Other than a divorce, that in truth would only double the problem (and besides, you’ve been smart enough for that contract). The traditional German way would be to stash it all away in your (quite literally) bank and try the best you can to forget how effin' rich you really are, all the same drawing your last ever whiffs of satisfaction from the perusal of your bank statements. And whatever you do, never stop working twenty hours a day! As I said, that’s the traditional German way, and, to be precise, it’s followed through right from the start, before even starting to spend anything at all.

Mr. Hasso Plattner made his fortune not in a traditional way, not strictly spoken. Yes indeed: It’s bookkeeping, but also a software - a software for bookkeeping! Almost a modern man, Mr. Plattner, one of the five co-founders of SAP – that’s the company your company pays for the tech to keep their books (unless that’s Oracle) - decided to go for art. And no digital art, no, far from it, for the most part not even contemporary, but classic, and modern, art. Paintings, obviously (he’s German after all). And if someone like Hasso Plattner decides to go for something, he won’t do it by half. A petty collection could never be enough, his proper museum it must be, and rightly so: anything apart from a museum that carries your name, the name of your company, or neither but everybody still knowing perfectly well what and who this is all about, would merely reap condescending sneers from the pals in the polo club. Thus, Mr Plattner decided to gift suburban Berlin with Museum Barberini.

Located some 35 kilometres down the river - Spree or Havel, I could never tell, they might even be the same -, the Royal Prussian residential city of Potsdam can justly be called “Berlin’s Versailles”. It's also Berlin Inc’s boardroom, the capital of clubbing’s VIP lounge for those who cannot stand the noise anymore. Arriving at Potsdam main station – there’s regular S-Bahn service -, and searching their way into the town centre, visitors immediately realise one thing: Potsdam is Berlin in clean.

Looking around awestruck, admiring the most fitting choice of a “law firm specialised in inheritance law” that moved in next to a bank in a wonderfully restored period villa, letting your gaze wander, and linger on all these sparkling white period villas around, on white marble and grey granite, cosy mansions and sumptuous chateaus, muttering once more to yourself: “Sooo, Potsdam is where Berlin’s money hides!”, you feel a suspicion rising in your mind: Could this not be too perfect? Too white, too clean, too good to be true? Lifted beyond authenticity? How much of Potsdam survived that war (and ensuing Socialism); are these in the end nothing but pretty rebuilds, a mimicry, a toy town of copies, a brain- and soulless fake, marketing: a pretty front of lies, and nothing behind? Would anybody notice, or care, if it just were empty film sets, a charade of facades?

Let’s embrace (metaphorically) the sorry remains of a historic wall, that stands shivering in the shadows of its more shiny pseudo-peers – a wall preceding that famous Berlin one by centuries, visibly historic, "historic" as in “genuine”, as in “past with a patina”, or so it seems at least; it might have been a garden pavilion once, an aqueduct, a bridge, or whatever, we're not choosy. Next you discover a - badly executed, twelve year old beginner’s - graffiti on the rooftop of a new apartment block, or office tower that is still under construction, and you wonder: Is there not a third, a middle, path between glorious past and - well: present?

More or less following the map you’ve saved in your mind before leaving home (the phone having crashed once again; see below), you cross a bridge – there’s a lot of water, of rivers, lakes and rivulets in and around Potsdam -, then stop short at a plastic public map. It’s very clean, and very clear, with all major sights inscribed except Barberini that they somehow forgot to mention, but anyway, you still know where it should be, approximately, but much worse: How in the world could they omit your proper position? ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! Twenty meters further on the burning asphalt of the Potsdam stone desert – Summer ‘18 is still how we’ve always dreamt a summer to be before apocalyptic fear was brought upon us again, and now we only ever compare the experience to how it must feel on the wrong side of an oven door, your eyes espy the letters: “Museum of Film”, and you hesitate only for a moment: No, you did not fall into a wormhole that spit you out on Potsdamer Platz in central Berlin again, this must be another “Museum of Film” – then return to the map. This museum is marked on there, so you can trace your way and finally, finally, arrive at Barberini Museum, having performed the grand boucle of downtown Potsdam. Maybe the better, and certainly more comfortable – also the most stylish! – way to get here would be by boat (Riva, what else?).

Having said that in his arty acquisitions, Mr. Plattner targets classic and modern art, Old Masters, Im- and Expressionism, safe values and fail-proofed pieces of history: neigh riskless investments - this exists indeed, much to the contrary of bug-free software, - like every good collector, he’s into Gerhard Richter too. Barb’s latest show is about him, a master of today.

But first comes a pleasant surprise on ground floor: a much lesser announced photo show by Pieter Henket who brings Congolese mythology to life, or to photography at least. Gerhard Richter occasionally does photography, too. And like all he does, it's great, but I don’t want to forestall here. Barbie decided to call his show Abstraction, and accordingly put only abstracts on their walls, yet you’re encouraged to discover, or imagine, - mentally paint! - landscapes and other figurative motives into them. He’s fine with it. He said so much in the press conference, although he did not say much else. Richter doesn’t like to talk. He’s been there, he honoured the parasites of the press (and insignificant bloggers) with his luminous presence, and it was a pleasure, an honour!

Only not to him, apparently. Talking is not painting; he doesn’t approve. And who would begrudge him it, in the light of questions such as: “What do you think of when you’re painting?” (German TV; the equivalent of asking an athlete after the match: “How do you feel?”). “You’re frquently referred to as ‘our days’ Picasso’, but contrary to the numerous Picasso museums all around the world, there’s no Gerhard Richter Museum yet?“ - “Picasso, yes he may do this, but not me. No, my works need others around them.” Next question. Nobody insisted, how in a solo show, his works are never among, or simply with, others. Nobody inquired into his thoughts about art collectors building their museum to celebrate themselves, either. Or how come that in Berlin, there’s no parallel sales show in a commercial gallery, contrary to his (management’s) habits.

That press conference by the way started with three announcements, or wishes, on behalf of the artist, as expressed by a curator:

- No photos on arrival.

– No interviews or questions after the event.

– No autographs.

(- He’s a star, indeed.)

As soon as the maestro entered, the (un)friendly photo fire started. Perhaps this was one reason why he didn’t like it. In the end, we were treated to some bites of information, for instance the surprising, and slightly unsettling, news of Richter’s admiration for Victor Hugo’s excursions into painting.

Abstraction is a huge show with so many works, you’d rather not start calculating. Insurance fees must be high enough to ruin every common millionaire. But it’s not what this is about, really not. Or actually..., it might be, but the art is great, truly, really, truly great. Forever exploring the potentials, incessantly shifting the borders of Painting - what is it, what does this mean: to “paint” a “thing”? - from most photorealist to abstract-iest, that’s what Richter's career is all about. Painting, it’s all he’s ever been interested in. Some works have never been shown in public before, not even at a gallery, having been sold before completion even (those annoying waiting lists that can turn billionaires into a common beggars), and rather not directly from the studio, or maybe even so: Richter is one of a handful of artists who could laugh in the face of any dealer who tried to impose market rules on them.

However, when curators were telling of their inability to procure certain works that they much wanted to show here, “because collectors didn’t want to leave their walls empty for the summer”, you knew they were either making fun of us, or there’s something wrong with Richter’s waiting lists. First rule of the art market: You’re not a serious collector unless you store your treasures in a Swiss warehouse and raise their value by the participation in as many museum shows as possible - You certainly don't put them on your walls (there’s too many of those, anyway).

Don’t worry, they still found enough lenders, more than enough, and the list includes some of the biggest names in the world of collecting, private or institutional, Migos, Prada, van Abbe, d’Offray (in person, not gallery), even the local heroes: Würth, Olbricht. The anonymous “private collections” mostly reside in Hong Kong or Switzerland, but that’s just business as usual.

Any Richter show offers a crash course in art history, it’s so easy to recognize other stars in his works, legends he casually cites without taking anything away from his own uniqueness, remixes that almost, sometimes, improve what has hitherto been deemed impossible to improve. An Untitled (Green) (315-1 thru 315-3; the nomenclatura of Richter’s art is a science all by itself) triptych of 1971 just screams Nymphéas, to name but one example. Where ends Mondrian, and where does Tetris start (848-11, 1997)? To see Dali in Abstract Panting (551-3) and (-8) of 1984, or Yves Klein in Elbe (Edition 155), 1957/2012, might take some more imagination, and effort.

Richter admits to having created his arbitrary (and yet: it ‘took him a long time to figure out the correct size of the fields and margins’) colour fields against the Constructivists who dared to ‘dictate which colour goes with what other’. He detests any kind of patronization, blaming this on his youth under Eastern German Socialist rule. He always manages to stay unique, and on top of the avant-garde. Out of time aesthetics, and in turn influencing others; in the eighties he painted Thomas Ruff’s Substrat photo series. A Gray (Bark) follows upon other neon colours of the eighties, the bubble-gum aesthetics, the neon yes: ugliness, of the seemingly blood-stained AB Stills. It’s legit to see tree trunks in, for example, 578-3, 1985, or and 568-1, 1984, but don’t go so far and suggest tapeworms (or only uninhabited intestines) in Vermalung (326-7), 1972 or Red-Blue-Yellow (339-4), 1972. There’s a certain organic-ness in Richter’s work.

Add tree trunks or blurry metal grids, the oil streaks of March (807), 1994, a not really diamond shaped central glass installation apparently celebrating non-Eukledian geometrics (this might be a most wrong metaphor, but hey, if I'd ever meet a Fields medal winner, I'd demand a captcha test to prove his humanity), and so much more.

Richter mourned the lack of natural light in the show, complaining about “restorers’ craziness” who constantly reduce the permitted lux value. He’d prefer it natural.

His works also refuse restoration, occasionally at least, he will have foreseen, or in the least should not be upset about, the inevitable damages coming to his works with time, you can easily discover shipped colours and tiny tears here and there on a canvas.

In case you wonder about that Museum name: The Barberinis were an Italian noble family meddling with the Medici and issuing one pope (Urban VIII), but went extinct in the legitimate male line in the early 18th Century. In the aftermath of World War II, their former Palazzo in Rome became a museum (National Gallery of Ancient Art – mostly Paintings) while the Soviets occupiers finished off their vacation home in Potsdam that had been severely damaged by a bomb raid. As Mr. Plattner decided to “rebuild” it with modern techniques you’re quite justified to say it's a fake. If he were not a bookkeeping engineer by trade, I’d call this a brilliant example of irony and humour, even the more so with Wikipedia telling us: “When the pope removed the ancient bronze beams from the portico of the Pantheon to procure bronze for the baldachin of St. Peter's Basilica and for the papal cannon foundry, an anonymous critic punningly wrote: ‘Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini’: ‘What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did’”.

But he probably wouldn’t get the joke.

One last thing: I’m really glad, I wasn’t invited to Barberini Museum’s inauguration about a year ago. Billy boy Gates stopped by - no, really, he did! - , and it might have taken all the security staff to keep me from asking him again and again, “but how to make as much money with absolutely, utterly, inferior, dysfunctional, trash products”. I might even have physically assaulted him with a Windows Phone (indeed, I am one of those). And finally, if you want advice: Don’t fall for Richter’s catalogue raisonné in five tomes, published over the past seven years (the last one is scheduled for this September). Many are still available at the official retail price of 249 Euros, others even at the reduced subscription rate of €198, and below. Smells of a publisher being too greedy and pushing a first edition of several millions, thus destroying every possibility of an aftermarket. But Germans are even less bibliophile than they are into art collecting. For pure information value: all works are online, on the artist's proper website, no need for that catalogue thus from a practical perspective, either.

Gerhard Richter, Abstraction, 30 June-21 October 2018, Museum Barberini, Potsdam

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



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