Writing Archive

Dead Certainty and the Art of Gerhard Richter

newCrit, May 9, 2002

Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting has received many reviews, few of which have been neutral. At least one was deifying: Michael Kimmelman's New York Times Magazine cover story, which portrayed the artist as a ponderous, meticulous Teutonic magus whose house is gray in every respect, right down to the sweaters on his apparently joyless family. The story and the accompanying photographs went out of their way to reinforce Richter's persona as the Anti-Van Gogh, cool to the point of frozen, brilliantly applying his antiseptic steel scalpel to the perhaps-dead body of painting. (Like one of those horror movie villains, painting seems to crawl out of the grave as soon as it's declared dead.)

On the other hand, there was this:

"Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter. His retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art until May, is a colossal bummer - a hymn to deracination, a visual moan. This seventy-year-old artist works in paint on canvas, but what he sends out into the world are not paintings so much as they are Neo-Dadaist puzzles engineered to inspire philosophical flights of fancy among art professionals who are more interested in massaging their world-weary minds than in using their jet-lagged eyes." (Jed Perl, The New Republic)

A cinder block of a catalogue worshipfully written (and written and written) by curator Robert Storr, and Richter's own enigmatic, contrarian statements fuel the argument about whether these paintings are onanistic postmodernist exercises or genius itself. I decided for the sake of my own potential enjoyment of the show to pretend that this argument didn't exist. I was on vacation, for crying out loud.

However, I must contradict one idea in MoMA's press release that has been repeated here and there: that there is a large range of work in the show. This is decidedly false. There are paintings done from photographs, which have been more or less altered, and abstractions. Since the abstractions (especially the earlier ones) come off as severely altered paintings from the former category, the separation is smaller than it might seem. The images in the original sources vary, but whatever variety they might have offered has been crushed flat by a double-whammy of photographic reproduction and Richter's ice-cold touch. He goes from landscapes to figures to still lifes, but because they all seem to be attempts by the artist to bounce painting off of photography in order to find out how much veracity can survive the collision, the changes in subject matter are incidental. All of the images take the same beating.

(Two curveballs in the show, a short series based on random colored rectangles, and another series in which glass was painted on the back with flat colors, might be said not to fit in the above categories. Both series are short and seem to have had little impact on the following work. They come across as limited ideas that didn't merit pursuit.)

Because of this emotional and visual flatness, most of the figurative paintings are boring. It's a little galling to watch the ante of the subject matter rise and rise, from rolls of T.P. to car ads to the painter's Nazi uncle to great thinkers to suspiciously killed terrorists, and see the same distancing painting strategy applied to all. The last of these, the Bader-Meinhoff cycle, are from photos of members of a group of idealists-turned-terrorists whose deaths while in custody, quite possibly at the hands of the state, created an uproar in Germany. They ought to be full of civic agony, but their agony is mostly aesthetic. They leave one with the feeling that a great wrong has been done - to the viewer. Richter points the mirror of painting at the mirror of photography, and the pity one might have had for the subjects is lost in the interminable reflections.

There are more than a few exceptions to the boredom. Some of the early paintings from magazine clippings which include the white of the page and surrounding text have a nice photorealist snap. One such passage of white has as much life in it as anything else in the room. But the major break in the figurative paintings occurs when Richter begins to work from his own photographs. Suddenly the paintings have an invested quality that was absent even from the Bader-Meinhoff work. At the end of the show he is painting his infant son repeatedly from the same photograph, and the result is touching. His questioning of the visual record as he smears the image into mush and puts it back together seems finally to have an emotion attached to it, and it resolves as a meditation on that particular moment of the dear child's life.

Early on Richter was blurring his figurative paintings with soft brushes, and this seems to be the genesis of the abstractions. The first ones are fuzzy, blobby things with no spine to speak of. Later ones have backgrounds which obviously began their lives as realist blue skies. There are also some awful pure abstractions, garish and full of inept, frenzied motion. The only good thing that can be said about them is that they are a remarkable change for a painter who had been working with gray for many years.

After a while Richter begins to have some success applying paint with squeegees. This results in some enormous and excellent paintings, three of which are represented in the show. The paint is applied with vertical and horizontal sweeps of the squeegee, layer smearing over layer in a manner that sometimes blends the colors and sometimes leaves them to contrast sharply. His palette is muted, black and white with intense colors showing through here and there. They are as good as any Clyfford Still I've ever seen, and share Still's ominous tone. In the Kimmelman article, Richter pooh-poohed people who admire the light in his abstractions (he thinks it's some kind of conditioned, automatic response for some reason), but the paintings are undeniably luminous. His color range has continued to expand as he works the squeegee to good effect, and while not all of the later abstract works are as great, their tone has become sweeter and some of them are beautiful.

The conclusion to be drawn from this show is that for art, certainty is death. Where Richter's technique is mechanical and his agenda decided beforehand, the paintings are weak. That the image of his uncle in Nazi regalia evokes mixed sympathies, or that the Bader-Meinhoff deaths were horrors, these are foregone conclusions. The blurring technique applied to them subsequently has no force.

But investigating what his son means to him brings Richter to a realm of ambiguity and psychology, and here is where the art lies. Instead of a left-to-right sweep of the blender brush, the image seems to have been pushed this way and that, as if he were trying to see how much of it could go and still picture his son. The technique serves the feeling, which is what technique is for.

And the abstractions are uncertainty itself. Able to influence the paint but not control it, Richter pushes his way to a resolution that can't be foreseen. Here is real courage, and real success. Should Richter have another forty years of painting, he couldn't hope for better.

Word count: 1218

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