Betty, 1977, Gerhard Richter’s first portrait of his daughter. © Gerhard Richter/Museum Ludwig/Private Collection

Walking through Panorama, Tate Modern’s Gerhard Richter retrospective, is like turning the dial on an old radio. Things erupt from the static as you swim between stations. Suddenly there is a voice, a garbled news broadcast, a shrill single tone, a story being told, music, then silence. Little wonder Richter admires John Cage; following Cage’s dictum, Richter is a painter who professes to have nothing to say, then says it.

Whenever you think of Richter as one kind of artist, he turns out to be another. However bewildering this can be, there is a consistent tone of voice, whatever his subjects. It is something much more than style: here’s a skull, some morbid candles, a flayed abstraction; how about some white fluffy clouds, isolated in their painted skies? At 80, Richter still surprises me. His continuing inventiveness and constant doubt, the variety and stern pleasures of his work give me a bleak sort of hope. This is hard to explain. I do not know what that hope entails.

The present exhibition is more than a blow-by-blow account of Richter’s development since 1961, when the artist, by then a successful young mural painter, crossed from East Germany to the west and re-embarked on a career full of interesting confusions, cross-currents, contradictions and detours. The exhibition makes a kind of cumulative sense. (The longer Richter works, the more sense his art makes.)


Adrian Searle