In Vienna, German artist Daniel Richter (b. 1962) is famous, but not for his art. He is known because of his snobbish attitude and rowdy lifestyle. Reportedly, he once took his students at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna on an excursion to the Venice Biennale, where, apart from seeing the show, they crashed VIP parties through the venues’ back doors.
His painting, however, has not been exhibited much in this city where the artist has been teaching and working for eleven years. The 21er Haus has mounted a show, titled “Lonely Old Slogans,” of about fifty works spanning Richter’s career from the 1990s to today. Neatly arranged in thematic and roughly chronological groups, the show guides visitors from Richter’s early abstract works to his figurative, neo-historical paintings from the 2000s, which often combine fictional elements with media images, to his latest works oscillating between abstraction and figuration. The groupings are installed within booths, while paintings from his figurative phase are also placed on the walls outside the booths.
The orderly installation counterpoints the cheerful chaos exuded by the works. Whatever the phase, Richter’s crowded canvases are always excessive. Sometimes, despite their ample size, they seem too small for their contents. The bright, bold colors can be harsh and abrasive. Full of references to pop culture, comics, politics, and art history, the paintings have usually been heavily worked with brushes, palette knifes, oil pastels, and rollers. In Die Idealisten (The Idealists), 2007, three figures gesture in front of a massive building that is on fire; each is dressed in a head-to-toe outfit of a primary color. The red- and blue-clothed characters are too absorbed playing air guitar even to notice the destruction behind them, but the yellow-dressed one adds to the chaos by throwing stones at the building. In the back, a ghostly woman resembling Justice standing on a ladder is thrown off balance, barely able to maintain her position. The artist’s signature appears on a depiction of a kicking boot in the lower left; a blue dove rests on top of the shoe.
When Richter turned from abstraction to such theatrical and bluntly political scenes of doom, he immediately became the darling of collectors, who preferred the easily decipherable figuration. In Die Idealisten, self-involved punks do not notice that the world is falling apart, and even Justice is powerless. The painting could be read as a kind of farewell to Richter’s past as part of the punk scene, which he now realizes won’t correct society’s ills.
The decision to deviate from a strict chronological arrangement serves the work well. Some of the history paintings are encrusted with drippy, knobby paint and echo the style of the early abstractions, for example. While in the former you search for worldly references, in the latter you attempt to parse techniques. These include pouring, incising, and moving paint around with the hands, as can be seen in the pinkish Europa, immer Ärger mit dem Sogenannten (Europe, always a hassle with the so-called, 1999).
Exhibition curator Axel Köhne emphasized how the reception of Richter’s work changes over time, in response to new media images and world events. According to Köhne, people originally interpreted the flat orange form on which the figures sit in the 2001 painting Tarifa as a flying carpet. Today, however, in light of the migrant crisis, it can be seen only as a boat crammed with people on a black ocean. Regardless of shifting interpretations, all of Richter’s works are politically rooted. He has given his early abstractions and his latest semi-abstractions––such as Werden die Roten die Schwarzen schlagen? (Will the Reds Defeat the Blacks?, 2015), which features colored forms loosely based on various historical maps of Poland––suggestive titles to convey the critical nature of even these more ambiguous-seeming works.