Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting
Museum of Modern Art, 340 pp., $75.00
The Daily Practice of Painting
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.