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Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting

The Museum of Modern Art

February 14 – May 21, 2002

Entering the Dia Foundation’s 1995 exhibit of Atlas, the dizzying compendium of photographs, drawings, and collages that Gerhard Richter has been accumulating as source material for paintings since the 1960s, one encountered a relentless sequence of images hung in an elegant, proliferating grid that extended up and across Dia’s walls. The early entries of Atlas include pictures taken from old family albums, snapshots of the young Richter with friends, photographs of fashion models and athletes clipped from magazines, grisly images taken from the liberation of Buchenwald, and pornography.

Gerhard Richter, "Cell," 1988. Oil on canvas. 7 1/8 x 55 1/8". Photo John Wronn. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

As the years passed, Richter himself began clicking the photographs, at home and on vacation. These images are more formal, allusive, and classical in their aesthetic: cloudy skies, alpine peaks, massive icebergs, burning candles, his wife nursing their child. Gerhard Richter is by no means the first artist to keep an archive of photographs which serve as source and inspiration for paintings. Ad Reinhardt meticulously documented his wide-ranging travels in Asia, and his photographs of architectural details of Buddhist shrines often echo his austere abstractions. For years Leon Golub has clipped images from newspapers, sports, and Soldier of Fortune-type magazines, aspects of which then reappear in his figurative paintings. Richter’s use of photography is singular in part because, unlike Golub or, for that matter, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, his concern is less with the resonances of media images than with the dumb, style-less, mechanical point-and-click nature of the photographic representation itself. Many of the images in Atlas evoke paintings by masters like Johannes Vermeer, Georges de La Tour, and Caspar David Friedrich, and yet, taken as a whole, the small snapshots are impersonal and arbitrary, entries in a vast, center-less encyclopedia. Among the most telling pictures in it are details from abstract paintings. Removed from the luminous depth and presence of oil paint, the bright, beautiful strokes of paint are toxic conflagrations occurring far outside the mind and hand. Richter refuses any hard, theoretical distinction between painting and photography, and he does not allow either to have an authoritative relationship to the external world. The premises of Richter’s art are as skeptical as those of Descartes in his Meditations.


Gerhard Richter is one of the most important and controversial artists of his generation, and indeed the influence of Richter’s coolly alluring abstractions among younger artists over the decade is ubiquitous. Unfortunately, Richter’s paintings have largely been available to North American audiences in small, fragmentary gallery shows, and viewers have been unable to assess the full range of this complex and elusive artist’s output. Following the presentation of his fifteen October 18, 1977 paintings in the Museum of Modern Art’s Open Ends exhibition in 2000, which included a separate catalogue with an essay by Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting is an extensive, immaculately curated, and long overdue survey of Richter’s paintings. Born in Dresden in 1932 and trained at the Dresden Art Academy in an East Germany committed to Soviet-style Socialist Realism, Richter began his career as a muralist under the influence of Picasso and the great Mexican muralists. Richter’s departure from East Germany was in part precipitated by seeing paintings by Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock in Kassel, and later in Dusseldorf he was exposed to American artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as to European figures such as Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and the Fluxus artists. The impact of Pop Art, and of Lichtenstein in particular, on Richter’s first photo-based paintings is unquestionable. Nonetheless, although Richter, like Lichtenstein and Warhol, occasionally mined the popular media for images, such as in “Woman with Umbrella” (1964), based on a photograph of Jackie Kennedy, and “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), which echoes Warhol’s great 1964 World’s Fair piece, “Thirteen Most Wanted Men,” Richter’s procedures are not aimed directly at consumer culture, at the burgeoning “society of the spectacle,” but instead at the epistemology of picture-making. “When I draw from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated,” Richter writes in “Notes 1964 – 1965”, published in the volume of Richter’s writings and interviews, The Daily Practice of Painting. “The photograph reproduces objects in a different way from the painted picture because the camera does not apprehend objects: it sees them.” For Richter, the free-hand drawing and painting of an object uncritically introduces subjectivity, style, and value judgments about both art and the world he is determined to question.


In fact, Richter’s early paintings are least successful when their origin in newspaper and magazine images is most in evidence. “Cow” (1964), “Ferrari” (1964), and “High Diver 1” (1965), with their cropped, collage-like compositions and their use of fragmented text, all come off as dated and self-conscious. The two versions of “Toilet Paper” (1965) in the current exhibition, on the other hand, are bewilderingly powerful and uncanny. In one painting, the roll of toilet paper is depicted close up, the contrasts stark, shadows literally bursting back onto the blank gray wall, and in the other the roll is blurry and swiftly receding into indeterminate space. In “Uncle Rudi” (1965), the figure is set back midway in the picture plane, dressed in a Werhmacht uniform, broadly smiling, and behind him the wall and buildings are washed out. Unlike the soft distortions and sensuous grisaille of “Toilet Paper,” which evoke the painterliness of Chardin’s still lifes without revealing the artist’s hand, the horizontal blurring of “un-painting” in “Uncle Rudi” is more violent, erasing detail, pushing the figure farther and farther behind the painting’s sealed, glassy surface. In his illuminating catalogue essay, Robert Storr aptly invokes Roland Barthes’s insight that photographs are always melancholic reminders of death because they freeze moments in time that are lost. Richter’s use of blurring, in addition to persistently reminding the beholder that these are paintings despite the absence of painterly touch, sets the works in vanishing, temporal motion, so that the viewer is continuously trying and failing to grasp them. “I blur things,” Richter writes, “in order to make everything equally important and equally unimportant,” which means a roll of toilet paper can float in a penumbra of loss, and a Nazi uncle, who died after a few days at the front, can be devastatingly cool and indifferent. If painting copies of photographs provides Richter with a means to avoid the normative subjectivity of style, the artificiality of paint itself allows Richter to deny the viewer the comfort of the illusion of knowledge.


The most haunted sequence of gray, photo-based paintings from the mid-1960s is “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), painted from student photographs of the nurses murdered by the famous German serial killer, Richard Speck. The relatively small portraits are starkly contrasted, black hair and black eye-sockets and black shadows against a washed-out ground, shoulders and blouses just barely indicated by highlights. The feathered blurring and lack of rendered detail make the faces at once gentle and anonymous. The nurses are distinguished from one another by the refined gradations of gray and by the positions of their heads and eyes: the three portraits on either side of the series look inward, skirting the viewer’s gaze, whereas the two central portraits, shadows falling over their faces, cast almost brooding, wounded gazes at the beholder. Given the sterile, institutional character of the source photographs, and the highly schematic manner in which Richter painted them, at least when compared with the hyperrealist 48 Portraits (1971 – 1972), one would expect “Eight Student Nurses” to be cold and static. On the contrary, the affecting but unsentimental tenderness of these paintings comes not just from one’s knowledge that the subjects all suffered violent, senseless, early deaths, but from the way Richter’s subtle erasures and reversed distancing point toward lost lives that themselves cannot be represented. “Eight Student Nurses” might be taken as a confirmation of Benjamin Buchloh’s view that Richter uses bland photographs in order to demonstrate the irrelevance of painting after Duchamp and in the age of mechanical reproduction. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Richter’s withholding of visible touch or gesture should not mislead, for upon prolonged contemplation, the painting in “Eight Student Nurses” asserts itself as paint (rather than the chemicals which comprise a photograph), without bringing with it the ethic of subjective expression that painting has come to have. Richter does not self-hatingly reject oil painting, but systematically deflates it to the status of just another material, and, like Robert Ryman in a way, forces us to rethink the notion of the “painterly.” A connoisseur of the double negative, Richter pushes painting to its vanishing point in order to dislodge the nurses from the stasis of their photographs, to give them an active and unresolved life in the striving eyes of the viewer.


By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Richter was working in several directions at once: he painted portraits, townscapes, landscapes, color charts based on commercial color samples, and several varieties of abstraction. It is one of the achievements of Robert Storr’s curating and installations of the show to make such diverse types of painting resonate with one another. One of the effects of Richter’s use of grisaille and unpainting in works like “Cathedral Square, Milan” (1968) is to draw the viewer toward the ephemeral physicality of the painting’s skein. Richter’s illusionistic paintings demand to be scrutinized closely, and yet as one does so, the images dissolve into abstract gradations of tone, figure and ground collapsing into the flatness of the surface. Richter’s most successful early abstractions are, in fact, painted in an illusionistic style. In “Gray Streaks” (1968), for example, gray bands form nested rectangles which evoke Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, but here the bands squiggle and blur and have a soft, wormy, swarming volume. “Detail (Brown)” (1970), presumably a rendered detail from another abstract painting, is painted in palpably unpleasant browns and resembles a heavy, liquid chemical, slowly rippling and oozing, reacting in bleached stripes across the canvas. Richter’s initial forays into colorist abstraction are, however, halting at best. The illusionistic paintings based on photographs of details of free gestural abstractions, which he typically calls “abstract pictures,” have a theoretical interest for the way they objectify painterly gesture, and yet their strident colors and soft-focus shapes lack physical presence or depth. Richter’s directly painted abstractions of the early 1980s, such as “Clouds” (1982) and “Marian” (1983), with their aggressive, electric colors, big swiped strokes and skittering fragments of scraped paint, are graphic and mannered. Unlike the detail paintings and photographs, the gestural passages remain too close to the work of Franz Kline or the de Kooning of the mid-1960s to constitute a potent critique or transformation of gestural abstraction. At the same time they lack the emotional directness and authenticity of the best Abstract Expressionist pictures. Whereas the surfaces of the gray photo-based paintings and even of the more pristine and impenetrable color landscape paintings consist of subtly modulated gradations, the open spaces in paintings like “Clouds” and also of “Pavilion” (1983) are static, reestablishing a crude relationship between figure and ground, and fail to set in motion a dialectic with the viewer. In addition, Richter’s use of unpainting, of pulling and scraping off layers of pigment with a hard edge, is oddly haphazard, and appears to be stylized and decorative. Richter has painted literally hundreds of abstractions, and many of them appear to be simply cranked out.


Richter’s sequence of huge diptychs, “January,” “December,” and “November,” is one of the highlights of the retrospective as they are among the most dazzling abstract paintings of the past quarter century. Painted in 1989, a year after the completion of Richter’s great October 18, 1977 (1988) cycle, “January,” “December,” and “November” form a kind of three seasons, all winter, counting backward to the tortured “German Autumn.” In the right-hand panel of “December,” paint is pulled horizontally over the dominant, streaking downward motion, creating a clotted lattic spattered with fragments of orange and yellow, and in the center of the canvas, an almost phosphorescent white oozes beneath jagged islands of shiny black. The left-hand panel of “December” becomes more complicated, the pulling and tearing, the un-painting and erasure moving in conflicting directions, so that the wet blacks, whites, and yellows blend and smooth. The central segment extending between the two panels of “November” is slickly blurred, suggesting deeper spaces and shapes which evoke the most abstract passages in Richter’s gray photo-based paintings, especially October 18, 1977. Unlike Richter’s less compelling abstractions, in “January,” “December,” and “November” the hand is hardly even alluded to and the surfaces resemble distant, slow geological processes or chemical reactions. Whereas in the photo-based works, blurring distances the viewer from the object and collapses the figures into the ground, here similar procedures create a kind of physical sedimentation. Although named after cold, dark months, the oranges, reds, and yellows implying the lingering traces of autumn, the warmer colors are themselves so artificial and toxic they immediately deny any references to the organic. In an uncharacteristically frank conversation with Storr printed in the exhibition catalogue, Richter comments that “we only find paintings interesting because we always search for something familiar to us… When we don’t find anything, we are frustrated and that keeps us excited and interested until we have to turn away because we are bored.” Without compositional structure, apart from the gap between the panels which plays the same role as the “zip” in Barnett Newman’s abstractions, these almost alien canvasses invite the eye to settle on something familiar and knowable, and of course never allow it to happen. “January,” “December,” and “November” create fields of experience which, again, suggest the work of Barnett Newman, an artist Richter greatly admires, and yet Richter rejects transcendence, pulls back from the sublime, and his abstractions are too physically concrete to be purely optical. These paintings invite comparison with process art, but their magnificent unnaturalness make the relationship to matter in Richard Serra’s spattered lead sculptures and Robert Smithson’s flow pieces seem romantic.


Based on police and magazine photographs of the arrest, imprisonment, and controversial deaths of the principal members of the German Red Army Faction (otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Group), Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, Holger Meins, and Jan-Carl Raspe, the paintings which comprise October 18, 1977 (1988), named for the date Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe were found dead in their cells in the Stammheim prison, form one of the masterpieces of post-war art, in Europe and anywhere else. As it is currently installed in the Museum of Modern Art, the first painting of October 18, 1977 one sees is “Youth Portrait,” a portrait of Ulrike Meinhof based on a studio photograph taken shortly before she participated in Andreas Baader’s first prison break, transforming herself from radical journalist and filmmaker into a militant underground terrorist. The painting’s ground is an intense, saturated black, her thick dark hair set off by highlights, her hand in the foreground a featureless white curving beneath the mass of her folded arms. Her pale, slightly blurred face is serious but not so much thoughtful as restless and distracted, her eyes seeming to glance at the viewer then turn away. Like “Eight Student Nurses,” the painting in “Youth Portrait” is astonishingly tender, yet while Richter’s student nurses are receding into the erasures of the ground, “Youth Portrait” is a chiaroscuro painting in which the figure is wholly present yet threatened by encroaching darkness. The work is all the more heartbreaking in that it is paralleled later in the series by three paintings of Meinhof dead, laid out on the floor of her prison cell, the ligature with which she hung herself still tight around her strained neck. Depicted from the chest up, in profile from floor level, the ground in “Dead,” like that of “Youth Portrait,” is a dense, ominous black, and her clothes, neck, and face a stark but softened white. Each painting smaller than the previous, each painting darker, more blurred and featureless, Meinhof disintegrates into the grotesqueness and ambiguity of death and contested memory. Equally powerful are Richter’s memories. Equally powerful are Richter’s paintings of Gudrun Ensslin. Based on photographs of a defiant Ensslin being transferred in prison, in “Confrontation 1,” “Confrontation 2,” and “Confrontation 3.”  Ensslin is cropped at the waist and pushed up closer in the picture plane than in the source photographs. In “Confrontation 1,” Ensslin is in blurry motion, shadows streaking, and her expression is reticent and caught unawares, and in the devastating “Confrontation 3,” Ensslin is darkened and in profile, turned inward, cut off, and bearing down as she strides away. In “Hanged,” the most grisly painting in the series, Ensslin hangs, limp as a rag-doll and distorted beyond recognition, from a grate deep in her swarming, claustrophobic prison cell, a curtain-like band of black swinging out from the right-hand edge of the canvas. These are paintings of departure and failure. Meinhof, the intellectual, is overwhelmed by inner confusion and darkness; Ensslin, the naïve spirited ideologue, is savaged both by her absolutist ideology and by the unforgiving violence of the state.

When Richter paints the larger social and political context, Ensslin hanging in her cell, Andreas Baader’s prison library, the arrest of Holger Meins outside an apartment building in Frankfurt, the funeral of Baader, Ensslin, and Meins, the lateral blurrings become more deliberate, mechanical, and ferocious, the paintings more abstracted, as though Richter wanted to insist upon the equivalencies of state and terrorist violence literally erases humanity. In “Arrest 1” and “Arrest 2”, based on the capture of Holger Meins during which he was made to strip in front of a tank, guns trained on him, Meins himself is barely decipherable, just a smudge with a shadow, a tiny, helpless figure compared with the tank and the drably modernist apartment building. In what is the inevitable conclusion to October 18, 1977, in the enormous “Funeral”, Richter has abstracted together the funeral procession and the coffins, the crowds of people sympathetic to the Baader-Meinhoff Group, and the intimidating police presence, into a bold, encompassing act of mourning, a dark cross is clearly an addition, and it symbolizes not forgiveness, much less transcendence, but the need for mercy in the face of boundless human destructiveness. October 18, 1977 marked a return to a form of grisaille photo-based painting Richter had not practiced in years, but in these paintings his approach is palpably different. Whereas the meaning of his earlier paintings emerges both through the nature of the procedure and the subtle distortions in otherwise accurate copies, the October 18, 1977 paintings are openly passionate and interpretive, without taking ideological sides. Richter’s cycle of history paintings should have a special resonance for audiences in New York, for over the past six months we have witnessed both the ideological violence of extremists and the sadly normative violence of an imperial state.

The most recent work included in the retrospective from the mid-1990s on, is nowhere near Richter’s strongest, given the high standards set by October 18, 1977 and “January,” “December,” and “November.” In the series S with Child (1995), Richter attempts to wed his neoclassical impulses, familiar from his paintings of skulls and candles, with the hallucinatory and unnatural color and layering techniques of his abstractions, by smearing over Madonna and Childs of his wife Sabine and their son, but here the gestures seem arbitrary and mannered. The abstractions in oil on aluminum from 1997 to 1999, while visually appealing, are formulaic, the artist easily rehearsing familiar techniques. Nonetheless, the retrospective is littered with gems which are in danger of being overlooked. Of special interest are two small color landscapes which, though based on snapshots, are saturated with art-historical allusions: “Davos S” (1981) and “Iceberg in Fog” (1982). In “Davos S,” the sun is just burning through diffuse clouds above an alpine peak, and in “Iceberg in Fog,” an iceberg floats in the sea, obscured by a wraith of bluish fog. Both images have a radiant, steely, classical beauty, and while they evoke the allegorical landscapes of Caspar David Friederich, they neither make reference to a human presence nor defer to human meaning. These are images which, like nature, exist in and of themselves, at once beautiful and unforgiving. Similarly, Richter’s famous 1988 painting of his daughter, “Betty,” has an astounding classical beauty reminiscent of the work of Vermeer. Wearing a jacket decorated with constellations of bright red flowers that are as tactile as the fur in Titian’s portraits of noblemen, Betty leans back toward the viewer, her head turned toward the gray-green expanse of one of her father’s monochromatic painting’s. Unlike “Youth Portrait,” “Betty” is not menaced by darkness, but still, the focal point of the painting is the unseen statement on the subject’s face, her eyes trained on an image of nothingness. Richter has repeatedly commented that he would like to paint like the Old Masters but cannot, and this is not simply an admission of technical inadequacy: what neither Richter nor any modern is able to have is the Old Masters’ certainty, their stable, anthropocentric, and religious vision of humanity and the world. Even the most unembarrassedly lovely paintings in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting are haunted by ambivalence and absence.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail


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