"Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting"

"Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting"

The Museum of Modern Art

February 14 to May 21, 2002  



an art review by Jeff Smith


...The Last Show On Earth (Where are my Glasses?)



In 1882, Nietzsche announced the death of God. By 1962, many German artists were declaring the death of painting as well. It is, however, comfortable to note that at least in German ideology, painting has outlived God by 80 odd years, no small feat. The new Richter retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art opened its doors to the public on Valentines Day to present 180 paintings by the now 70-year-old German painter, Gerhard Richter. Critics and art-historians have run Richter's photo-realist and abstract images through the semiotic gantlet over the years in a desperate attempt to classify and cement Richter's place in the history of art. At times critics have resorted to the use of such irrelevant terms as capitalist-realism, conceptualism, and even abstract expressionism to describe Richter's work. This retrospective, the MoMA's last show at its present location, if nothing else, has proved that these paintings have made it through the maelstrom alive, kicking, and unnamed.


Since the early 60s, Richter has been taking found art to new heights of evasiveness and contradiction. Richter's works from tourist snapshots, family photo albums, newspaper clippings, and a daunting array of other images, all sourced from his seminal scrapbook "Atlas," to create both the first and last photo-realist paintings. Although Richter's primary concern in these works seems to be exploring his relationship with reality through a camera, slide-projector, and canvas, he might take it the wrong way if you called him a realist, in fact, he might take it the wrong way if you called him anything but Mr. Richter.


Richter's involvement in the German Pop Art movement is, however, one useful way of examining his work through the context of a time. Firstly, taking a typical Warhol print like little electric chair, which fashionably sold for $2,300,000 at Sotheby's last June, we see a detachment and sarcasm towards an emotionally and philosophically charged symbol. The bright colors and objectification of a killing machine relate specifically to Richter's intentions. The sardonic qualities inherent in this and other aspects of American pop art are completely isolated from any perspicacity in Richter's paintings. He attempts to strip pictures of their connotations and present them as free-floating images, unallied to the people and events they depict. We see sarcasm being taken to new nihilistic heights.


The Baahder-Meinhoff series, recently acquired darling of the Modern's collection, displays Richter's sense of technical and social contradiction. The events of October 18, 1977, recreated 11 years later, put Richter's cold analytic eye on one of the most significant and elusive events in recent German history. Based on the seemingly forced suicides of three German rabble-rousers turned terrorists, Richter has reproduced fifteen images taken during the media coverage of the event. They are completely analytic. They operate without sentiment or ephemeral hindrance due to their housing in the MoMA, thousands of miles and thirty-five years away from their subject matter. German neo-expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, with whom Richter is often erroneously linked due to their proximity in a hodgepodge 88 show at the Guggenheim, often attempted to rationalize or at least openly display their inability to come to terms with their father land's plagued political history. Contrarily, there is a lucid detachment in Richter's series 48 portraits, depicting German geniuses of literature, philosophy, music, and science. Their staggeringly stern and unresponsive grisaille objectivity both acknowledges German history and also negates it of any use in Richter's paintings. It displays the impossibility of a German, who grew up under Nazi rule, to rationalize his country's unfortunate past in juxtaposition with the great achievements of singular Germans. We end up with a group of images that looks like a yearbook from some perversely ingenious all-star German high school. In a short conversation with Robert Storr, curator of the show, he described the exhibition as essentially neutral territory for paintings like the 48 portraits and the Baahder-Meinhoff series, which Richter does not want to be seen as purely topical or didactic. This creates a polemic for viewing Richter's work which, at times, attempts to re-invent history painting.


Given the recent history of New York City, a thing that neither Storr nor Richter could have planned for, as this show was conceived of nearly five years ago, it is difficult for museum goers to visit the Richter show without being affected by a multitude of war related images and a whole room devoted to depicting the untimely deaths of a terrorist group. The very idea of lens-assisted painting was also complicated last year by Hockney's thesis statement turned monograph "Secret Knowledge." He tells us that the appearance of lens distortions and photo-realist characteristics has existed for not forty years, but closer to 600, and what's more, it most likely originated in a specifically northern-European climate. This complicates our viewing of any German photo-realist history painter (if there are any others) by ten fold. Richter is also a self-proclaimed lover of the old masters, a blurred image of Titian's Annunciation bears testament to this on the third floor of the MoMA, and we can only speculate how these theories affected him. The smaller work, Betty from 1988, recalls the all too well painted draperies and print fabrics of Ingres, another artist that Hockney includes in his thesis. History seems to affect at least as many changes to Richter's paintings as his paintings have to art history.


The only truly neutral works in the show are generally not gray. Richter's abstract pictures are pieces in which we see a striking beauty. Painted with large wooden squeegees, the same tool Richter uses to add the photographic blur to his photo-realist works, these pictures hit something completely abstract yet not expressionistic as these bright colors and painterly qualities would usually connote. These images convey nothing except a record of a chess match that Richter seems to be playing with the canvases.


There is also a specifically photographic quality to some of the newer abstractions, brought to mind by color choices, dynamic contrast, grid formats and marks that often bear no resemblance to the brush stroke. This is especially apparent in the smaller, planned out abstractions near the exit of the exhibition, which differ significantly from the larger spontaneous works. The abstract pictures, however impressive they are at times, seem to occupy the back seat in most critical reviews of his work. Many may negate them as programmatic and less varied in content and ideas than the photo-realist works, but they each contain a struggle to say as little as possible about painting as a whole and merely exist as images. The painted glass pieces take his nearly decorative motive even further and pose difficult questions about the prerequisite. They deserve, and have received, an equal place alongside any other works in the show.


Richter's place, however, will be firmly cemented in Art History after this Retrospective. All of the images in the retrospective demand a distinctively foreign method of evaluation. They ignore the formalist systems of appreciation with which one confronts Boccioni's Rise of the City, the first work one sees after exiting the last room of the exhibition. The contrast is startling. The first significant showing of Richter's work in New York has let us see in the words of curator Robert Storr, "not a conceptualist who happens to paint, but a painter who thinks.