BASEL - Gerhard Richter is a famously elusive and enigmatic figure, who generally resists too much explanation of his work. Only a few art historians, curators and writers have worked repeatedly with Richter in his long career, but perhaps the closest of all these relationships is that with Hans Ulrich Obrist.

This summer, the Swiss curator, currently co-director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, is collaborating with Richter again, on an exhibition at Basel’s Fondation Beyeler. The show, on view until 7 September, is an overview of the German painter’s career but focuses on works in cycles or series, from his earliest photo paintings, through the great sequences of abstract works to paintings made in the last two years.

Artist Gerhard Richter. Photograph © 2014 Gerhard Richter.

This latest collaboration comes nearly 30 years after the teenage Obrist first met Richter at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1985. Their first project together was a show at the Nietzsche-Haus in Sils Maria in 1992 that exhibited for the first time the overpainted photographs of the kind that had long been part of Atlas, Richter’s vast archive of source materials and small works. Obrist has consistently tapped into aspects of Richter’s output that are less celebrated and believes that this is key to the artist’s enduring significance: “The œuvre is so complex that there is an infinite possibility of exhibitions and books, because there are so many dimensions to the practice. One can return to his work again and again and see something different. His work is inexhaustible.”

Also crucial is the fact that Richter continues to produce art of real innovation and in great volume. “He’s now in his eighties,” Obrist says, “but he is one of the youngest artists I know, because he keeps inventing new dimensions for his work all the time. The last couple of years have been so amazing in that he has invented these Strip works, which play a role in this Basel show.” These works are based on digital photographs of an abstract canvas that Richter painted in the 1990s. He uses computer technology to enlarge details and produce mirror images of those details. Also in this show are Richter’s latest experiments with glass, in the form of standing sculptures and wall-mounted diptychs bringing together panels of differing shades of grey.

Hans Ulrich Obrist. Photograph © Kalpesh Lathigra.

The inspiration for the Basel show, Richter’s largest to date in Switzerland, came from his recent retrospective entitled Panorama, which began at Tate Modern in London and travelled to the Pompidou in Paris and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Obrist recalls, “When the invitation came from Sam Keller [director of the Fondation Beyeler] to curate the show, we first had a dialogue with Gerhard about what an exhibition immediately following this retrospective could be. And one of the things that goes through the entire trajectory, through 60 years of his work, is that within this thematic and stylistic variety, he often works in series and rooms.”

Gerhard Richter’s Betty (1988) is among the works to be exhibited at the Fondation Beyeler until 7 September.

He recalls that he first thought of the idea while viewing the Panorama show. “I was standing in front of his Annunciation after Titian and thinking how incredibly exciting it would be to see the complete cycle,” Obrist explains. The four Titian works and other groups will act almost as installations, so that “each of these rooms is like a chapter, a show within this show.” The bodies of work differ greatly. “If you think about in the 1960s, the Eight Student Nurses, this rarely exhibited work, or more recently, in 1988, the October series, they are cycles brought together by their subject matter, by themes and by content. And then there are the series of abstract paintings, like Cage, which is at the Tate, or Wald, which is at MoMA, where it creates larger physical, pictorial spaces, and where each image connects with the whole.”

Gerhard Richter’s
Verkündigung nach Tizian (Annunciation after Titian) (1973) is among the works to be exhibited at the Fondation Beyeler until 7 September.

Typically for Richter, there are hints at an even greater breadth within his work, as individual pieces punctuate the groups. “He had this wonderful idea that in each room, the cycle would be broken up by a counterpoint that allows us to show the smaller works, because often these smaller paintings, like the Betty painting for example, are extraordinary works, which aren’t part of a cycle.” This idea of breaking up bodies of work relates to an early conversation Obrist had with Richter, who has taken an active role in formulating the Beyeler exhibition.

Obrist has come to realise that Richter, in his work, but also what one might call his moral position, has had a lasting significance. “It’s interesting how many different artists can be inspired by different facets of his work,” Obrist says. “There are so many possibilities to connect to it. And that’s true for different generations. It was true when I started, and it’s true again for a new generation. What is so fascinating is that in 2014, Richter, in his eighties, has invented a new form of painting using digital technology. It is extraordinary.”

Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is the contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard.