Museum of Modern Art, 340 pp., $75.00
For his admirers, Gerhard Richter’s appeal lies in the way he shows how all the standard ideas about artistic identity have been played out—and at the same time points to his steady stream of new work and says, in effect, “But look, I’m still making it.” Painting representationally one day and abstractly the next, often changing his style, even his manner of wielding his brush, and, perhaps most potently, often using photographs as the basis of his paintings, so that the properties of painting and of photography can seemcompletely jumbled together, Richter, it is thought, creates a universe with seemingly no solid ground anywhere. And this sense of indeterminacy is what, for those who have responded to the German artist over the past number of years, whether artists or art historians, curators or collectors, is so charged and of the moment about his work.
Richter’s huge retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is certainly one of the more eagerly anticipated art events New York has had in a long while, if only because few of us had a sense of how his unusual career would add up. The artist, who is seventy and has lived for many years in Cologne, has had gallery shows here on and off for years, and a suite of paintings, entitled October 18, 1977 and concerning the fate of the West German student terrorists the Baader-Meinhof group, has been seen a number of times previously in New York and is owned in its entirety by the Modern. But the artist’s exhibitions here only began on a regular basis in the 1980s—he had been showing in Europe already for two decades—and it hasn’t been quite clear how the primarily abstract paintings that comprised most of his New York gallery exhibitions squared with the rare looks we have had of his earlier, more representational work, let alone with the paintings about the student terrorists.
The Modern’s show, organized by Robert Storr, who has also written its catalog (and is the author, too, of an earlier study of the Baader-Meinhof paintings), doesn’t dispel the idea that the painter is nerve-wrackingly hard to pin down. But his achievement, it turns out, is far less of a piece than might have been thought. The artist we encounter is capable of true, even staggering leaps. His Baader-Meinhof paintings, now seen in relation to all his art, seem more special and yet also a fitting continuation of related early pictures. These early works, in turn, like those of the terrorists, are mostly based on black-and-white photographs taken from newspapers or magazines (and, additionally, old family snapshots); and they, too, present, unobviously and challengingly, a view of a troubled European world.
But another Richter we find at Storr’s show hardly touches any emotion. Over the years, he has experimented with pictures that are all gray and with pictures that are themselves literally color charts. He has based paintings on curiously tepid color photographs that he takes himself, and made abstractions, both in brilliant colors and in beguiling grays, that are strangely unresonant. This Richter is somehow classy yet neutered, much the way John Singer Sargent is.
To an unusual degree, Richter’s work, which on the one hand grapples with an inhospitable and unresolvable universe and on the other is content demonstrating sheer technical mastery, seems an emanation of his life story. Born in 1932, in Dresden, he spent nearly the first thirty years of his life living under dictatorships, first Hitler’s and then, without a pause, that of Moscow’s East Germany. When he and his first wife escaped to West Berlin, in 1961, months before the Wall was erected, he may already have had in him the beginnings of the working principles that form a backbone to his thinking. Ideology of any stripe was, understandably, the enemy. “I want to leave everything as it is. I therefore neither plan nor invent; I add nothing and omit nothing,” he wrote in notes to himself dated 1964–1965 (and found in The Daily Practice of Painting, a collection of these notes and interviews). “I steer clear of definitions,” he continued the following year. “I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.”
What Richter found in the West was an ambiance that virtually goaded him to “steer clear of definitions.” He settled in Düsseldorf, which in the early 1960s was perhaps only a few steps behind New York as an airing ground of vanguard ideas in art. And perhaps the most liberating idea of the time was the desire to have art be about more than merely the delectation of the unique, handcrafted art object, be it a painting or sculpture. In the States and in Europe, the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the emergence of a growing sense that art might be more vitally present in a gesture, or in a “performance” of some public or private act (which might be indistinguishable from an enigmatic cabaret routine), even in a written outline of intention. Eventually to be known as conceptual art, and to some degree installation art, the new tendencies were in many ways the offspring of Marcel Duchamp. He had, after all, been for decades a living embodiment of the idea that an artist’s thought was as much his product as anything he might fashion with his hands.
In his notes and interviews, Richter shows himself to have been deeply engaged by Duchamp and his many heirs, including Rauschenberg, Cage, and Joseph Beuys—who in the early 1960s was teaching at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. At times it has seemed as if Richter were a conceptual artist himself. Painting in strikingly different ways simultaneously, he could be taken as someone whose point was precisely to undermine the age-old belief that an artist has a single voice, or vision, which gradually becomes more unified. Richter’s pictures, over the years, were, in fact, often seen in exhibitions with artworks that had little to do with painting. When he issued an “artist’s book” in 1978, it presented 128 black-and-white photographic details of the surface of a single unidentified painting of his—a provocative gesture that has the effect of shredding the painting in question, and in some sense painting in general, into the completely ungraspable.
Always elusive, though, and as unwilling to be thought of as a descendant of Duchamp as he was loath to remain in the German Democratic Republic, Richter has spoken of the Old Masters, for instance, with a keen appreciation. He takes pride in having been completely loyal to the art of oil painting during a time and a European milieu where paintings were the last things adventurous artists believed were relevant forms of expression. Yet for all the contradictions in Richter’s outlook, he seems fundamentally to be a man of two extraordinarily different educations, one of a bleak, totalitarian indoctrination, the other of an ivory-towered realm where any artistic whim could be law. That the painter’s center can be so hard to find may stem from the way his two educations so suffuse one another, making him at once a rearward-looking, unliberated “East German” and the canniest, most forward-looking “West German.”
Richter’s genius was to see that, as he began showing in the early 1960s, the “passivity” that be sought could come from basing his paintings on photographs. In retrospect, working this way was one of the livelier art ideas of the decade. Not that it was invented then. The English painter Walter Sickert, a stranger to writers about Richter, had taken the practice to a high level of achievement already in the 1920s, making paintings from tabloid shots, from photos he’d commission from professional photographers, even from a movie still. In the 1960s, though, the idea took hold, with Andy Warhol and Richter and later Malcolm Morley and Chuck Close, among others, each developing it in his own way. Richter and Warhol, who was doing it before the German artist, were the closest. They operated rather like Sickert, audaciously plucking their subjects from the least esoteric sources.
Yet where Warhol’s most vibrant photo paintings of the time are equally affecting and glamorous, funny and stylish in their design and color, Richter’s are unhappy at heart. They’re also pronouncedly blurry, which is not generally the case with Warhol, Sickert, or Morley. Richter’s photo paintings are out of focus, literally and in the poetic sense of conveying something lost, inept, and ungraspable; and this sense of a blur may be his most tangible contribution to painting. He might even be called the Master of the Blur.
Richter’s photo paintings at the Modern’s show—including Uncle Rudi (grinning in his Nazi outfit); Horst and His Dog (a ramshackle old guy, and the artist’s father); a perfectly dreadful, faceless administrative building; a murdered Frankfurt prostitute named Helga Matura; a sexy girl student, wearing only stockings, her legs spread wide open; and, perhaps best of all, a motorboat ride taken by four revelers—lift us, as a novel would, to a time and a place. We immediately feel as if the German past of forty years ago is our past. There’s a striking physicality to these pictures. The oil has been handled in such a way that it conveys now the glossy coatedness of a photo, now the inky bunching up of too many velvety blacks, while in Motor Boat the pale but frighteningly engulfing waves are like the most diaphanous watercolor curtain.
Among the last paintings Richter made when he was still in his early phase of working from photographs were often vast aerial views of cities and also of the Alps. These black, white, and gray paintings, where the paint is brushed on in quite different ways in each, are among the highlights of the show. They’re the works where both sides of the artist feel equally present and forceful: the disengaged stoic contemplating one losing situation after another and the artist who, like so many (particularly American) painters of his time, believed that a painting’s meaning was inextricably bound up with how its surface was treated. Townscape Madrid is made up of quickly applied, blocky, self-contained, yet smudgy, strokes, making the picture look like a paint-by-numbers work in the process of coddling, while Cathedral Square, Milan has been created exclusively from wavy and feathery strokes, to the degree that the picture seems more marcelled than painted.
Both pictures come into greater focus and then lose their focus as you get closer to or further away from them; and the experience, especially with Milan, is a tingling joy. This is a roughly nine-by-nine-foot and generally soft gray work, so that when you are inches away from its surface and then turn your head in any direction you find that the image has practically disappeared, and you are completely surrounded by the most gently wavy whiteness. Take a few steps back, and the image of urban power miraculously darkens and knits itself together again.
With Richter’s aerial views we are in the realm of pictures that appear to change their very makeup as we are different distances from them. The views seem oddly and refreshingly of a company with works by such other masters of optical hallucinations as Bridget Riley, Chuck Close, and Salvador Dalí—an intriguingly disparate group. Richter’s photo paintings of cities and the Alps would seem as if they had no overt social content. But the artist has said that he was drawn to the subjects because they were “dead …stony wastes, arid stuff,” which apparently means that they roused for him some of the mixed feelings that he brought to his picture of, say, his Uncle Rudi.
When Richter began painting primarily from his own photographs, though, a practice begun in 1966, with Ema, Nude on a Staircase (he was clearly talking back to Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending a Staircase), everything gets too cozy. At least as judged by the works at the Modern, the brash tension that he achieved when he painted from photos that connected with public life was lost. (Warhol, too, lost the tension in his work when he began making paintings from his own snapshots.) Richter’s own photos are generally in color and are softly focused, and the subjects he has treated most include cloudy skies, country roads, lit candles, skulls on a table, icebergs, portraits, and the sea. No matter what the motif, though, the paintings he makes of them tend to a wan, misty ordinariness. When Richter or commentators refer to these paintings, which on occasion might feature pale greens, mild brown, or a soft rose, we hear the words “romantic” and “beautiful” and “Caspar David Friedrich,” or else “nostalgia” or “kitsch.” That’s largely where the discussion ends, with the implication that these truly are romantic or nostalgic pictures and that the artist, by a kind of fiat, has reintroduced them into the discourse of modern art.
Yet standing before Richter’s barns or candles gives me barely a textbook-like sense of nostalgia or the romantic. I see simply flat banality. There’s only a faint sense that the language of photography is meeting the language of painting. Ultimately, it is dismaying that such work receives high critical approbation while purely representational artists of these same years, who give us peppier or more personal landscapes or still lifes or views of this or that on a regular basis, will be lucky to have a single picture of theirs ever hanging in the Modern.
Richter’s abstractions, which he began in the middle 1970s and which probably now represent the bulk of his work, are generally more expansive. They have tightly luscious surfaces and, sometimes tropically bright in color, they are consistently pretty. But what they are about is hard to determine. They can resemble Abstract Expressionist pictures that are all impulsive gesture, though they are made slowly and unimpulsively. Their creation involves a careful setting down of different layers of color over time. In his pieces of the past fifteen years, which now may be Richter’s signature work, the artist lays down colors and then, with a squeegee or spatula, wipes them out, leaving a streaked whitish world with lovely oil blobs or pitted zones dancing through the shallow creases, an image that resembles a stunning version of your TV on the fritz.
To commentators over the years who have similarly wondered what Richter’s abstractions are about, he has suggested that they are nature pictures; and a number of the large ones in the Modern’s show do con-vey the atmosphere of, say, a South American rain forest. Three enormous, wall-filling, primarily black examples, entitled January, December, and November and set in their own space at the exhibition, have an undeniable physical power, and make us feel we have actually entered some gorgeous and possibly malevolent physical terrain. But surely Richter’s abstractions cannot be so many examples of disguised natural sites (or street scenes in the rain). The possibility suggests a low order of the “uncertainty” that is said to be his chosen subject.
That Richter truly holds radically diverse impulses within himself, and that there is something profound about his refusal to be categorized, is brought home by the fact that almost two decades after he gave up working from found photographs he returned to the practice with his paintings about the Baader-Meinhof group. Of all the stories connected with the left-wing student activists of the late 1960s and 1970s, theirs was one of the most sensational and the grimmest. After a spree that included robbery, bombings, fugitive existences, and murder, and landed them in prison with life sentences, they (or, at least, some of them) were found dead, or dying, in their cells, on October 18, 1977. And in his black and pale gray paintings, where whatever we can perceive has the bodilessness of a mirage, Richter seems to say that death itself—not how the students died, or if they were martyrs—is his theme.
The significance and unusualness of these fifteen pictures is underscored at the show, because by the time he made them, in 1988, Richter had become a different artist from the man who created Horst and His Dog or the “stony wastes” of European cities. He hadn’t, of course, in these years, turned away from representation; he apparently has never given up on working with photographs of people or the natural world. But his art had lost any real sense of having public, or discomforting, issues in it, which is exactly what the terrorist pictures supplied. One wonders whether the revival of European and American painting in the 1980s, which included the work of Anselm Kiefer and David Salle and was, very often, about history, society, and memory—and which appears, in his Daily Practice of Painting, to have distressed and unsettled Richter as nothing else—was a factor in his returning to his past and making his own kind of pictures about history, society, and memory.
All this isn’t to say that the Baader-Meinhof paintings represent the height of Richter’s art. Taken one by one, these works, which include an arrest scene, a moment or two in the prison, and then images connected with the deaths of the group members (which the government termed suicides), aren’t overwhelming. Only the large painting of the funeral of some of the members, a ghostly yet hectic image that is the end-point of the suite, is in a class with, say, Richter’s Motor Boat or his Townscape Madrid. The terrorist pictures were conceived as an ensemble, and it is as a group that they have their power. Richter, whose mother’s father was a concert pianist and who refers to music a number of times in his notes and interviews, works in a musical way here. He conveys a real sense of pauses, repeats, and an underlying rhythm.
Much of October 18, 1977 is taken up with pictures saying the same thing, only varying the delivery slightly from work to work. There are two nearly identical images of the dead Andreas Baader, three slightly different sized versions of the same image of the dead Ursula Meinhof, and so on. Highly artful, even precious, as the presentation might be, the pictures create an unbudgeable world of their own. It is surely an inspiration that the first picture in the group is from what appears to be a formal studio portrait of Meinhof as a young woman, shyly present and presumably at that point not a member of any outlaw gang. Immediately and wordlessly, we are in the world of students and of youthful assumptions about the world.
It isn’t necessary to be well informed about the Baader-Meinhof material to be engaged by the pictures. But anyone’s experience of the works will be enhanced by Robert Storr’s Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977, a one-of-a-kind volume that recreates the period’s crazed idealism and its “dismal” results in a muscular and driving prose. Storr writes with a sure hand about how the group came together, how events speeded up, how much tension, bravado, and failure colored the whole enterprise. He shows the ways the paintings are about unknowability, and thus embody the sense of painful irresolution of those years of student unrest that surged from 1968 onward. Storr rightly says that Richter, in his nearly indecipherable images, “summons the subject by depicting its imminent disappearance.”
But Storr’s writing in his catalog for the Modern’s show is less persuasive. There are certainly brilliant formulations here; Storr’s is one of the sharpest minds in American art museums. Yet Richter, in Storr’s eyes, appears to do nothing that does not quiver with significance. There’s an absence of criticism; and we lose a sense of Richter’s real achievement in the whirlwind of higher values that Storr creates. We hear that the painter is “one of the great colorists of late twentieth-century painting,” but we don’t know how this literally plays out in relation to other painters. About Richter’s recent little photo-based pictures (sometimes streaked with paint) of his wife and their infant, or of the baby himself, Storr rhetorically asks “what other major artist of the last fifty years has dared to paint anything so overtly suggestive of a Madonna and Child?” or “who has painted anything so like family-album baby pictures?”—questions that put an unsupportable burden on these quietly charming works. When the painter’s blurry and retiring 1996 self-portrait is considered, we hear that it is “reminiscent” of Velázquez and Zurburán, and about a more focused and rather genteel 1994 picture of his wife reading, that it is “astonishingly close” to Vermeer.
Given that the victory Storr wants to supply Richter is that he is our supreme artist of uncertainty, negation, and doubt, he might have had us feel this more if his Richter were less an Olympian and closer to the artist we find at the show, who conveys such radically different degrees of emotion. Yes, Richter can conceivably be compared with Velázquez, Vermeer, and Zurburán. But his art becomes a stranger and more real affair when we try understanding how his unfocused image of Milan, say, makes us think of Riley, Close, and Dalí.