Scaling Richter

Every decade or so, New York gives it up for a German artist. In 1979, it was Josef Beuys at the Guggenheim; in 1988, Anselm Kiefer received the full-on treatment at MOMA. Now it's a critical lovefest for Gerhard Richter—a Gerhard-is-God moment. This German painter—the only non-expressionist of the three—is currently the subject of an ultra-elegant 40-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Just recently, he's been called the "greatest modern painter" and compared to Vermeer, Cézanne, and Picasso. The show was preceded by simultaneous appearances on the covers of Artforum, Art in America, and The New York Times Magazine.

Yet, in spite of the exhibition's emotional highs, and notwithstanding my love of "Atlas" (his giant compendium of photographs, seen at the Dia Center for the Arts in 1995), I find much of Richter's work strangely unsatisfying, mechanical, and dour. He is praised for being exceptionally "changeable," but his veerings between abstraction and representation have a predictable rhythm.

Richter's early, photo-based grisaille paintings, derived from images in magazines, travel brochures, history books, and whatnot, are iconic but often anemic. The hazy landscapes, begun in the early '70s, look like a conflation of photorealism, calendar art, and pre-impressionist nature painting raised to a slightly higher level. The abstract paintings, of which he produced more than 250 between 1993 and 1998 alone (Barnett Newman produced 107 paintings in his lifetime), are mostly pop, static feedback and flashy, sexy technique. They sometimes look like what used to be called Lyrical Abstraction, or the emperor's new clothes.

Is this a Gerhard-is-God moment?: Horst and His Dog (1965) and 256 Colors (detail, 1974) at the Modern.
photo: Robin Holland
Is this a Gerhard-is-God moment?: Horst and His Dog (1965) and 256 Colors (detail, 1974) at the Modern.

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Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through May 21

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Still, all of this is done so well—with such intelligence, doggedness, and self-conscious belief in painting's power—and it's been so influential that not granting Richter his due is foolhardy, blind, and more my problem than his.

No matter whose problem it was, it lasted until about three-quarters of the way through this show, when I was taken aback by the 15 paintings installed in the 15th gallery. Here, Richter at last accomplishes what he had been trying to do for almost 30 years. With October 18, 1977 (1988), also known as the Baader-Meinhof paintings—a group of modestly sized, mostly black pictures of individual figures, hazy crowd scenes, a broken record player, jail cells, and buildings—Richter slips stealthily between the photographic image and the emotion behind it. He combines the deadpan quality of his grisaille paintings with the romanticism of the later landscapes, portrays ideology without being ideological, and merges the personal with the universal, the known with the unknowable.

Here, Richter finally succeeds in his quest to make subject matter matter less than the larger issues surrounding it, and the effect is shattering and satisfying. You don't have to know about the young terrorists he depicts, their arrest, their possible murder by German authorities, or the upheaval these events unleashed to grasp that these blurry images deal with death, wasted youth, and what Richter called "the terrifying power that an ideahas."

The paintings in October 18, 1977clearly meant a lot to Richter as well; "They set a new standard for me," he said. In the next gallery, Richter rises to this new standard with January, December, and November, three powerful abstract paintings from 1989. These paintings form a dauntingly beautiful Bermuda Triangle: Rothko crossed with Serra. Each work is a wintry 10-by-13-foot diptych of rich black with cascading sheets of white and erratic flickers of color. Januaryis like a frozen waterfall; December, a scattering of ashes; November, a wall of rain. All look like photographs of spectral events, or scenes from some epic abstract movie. So rudimentary and undeniable are these paintings that they seem less like modernism and more like so-called primitive art—beyond words, no explanation necessary.

Richter had finally lost his cool; the whole show flashed before my eyes. What had felt like a ramble past his greatest hits, suddenly seemed rife with struggle. I better understood the tango I had been having with his famously enigmatic art—with his obsession with absence, his double-edged sensibility and its tension between abstraction and representation, color and grisaille, fuzziness and the hard-edged. These two galleries are the high points of the show. From here I reconsidered the work that came before, and thought about the work to come.

Curator Robert Storr—who also wrote the catalog's penetrating 80-page essay—set it up this way. Installing the show in strict chronological order, and not dwelling on any one theme for long, effectively streamlines the story. So much so that at the opening, rival international power factions complained that Storr made Richter look "too smooth" and that he "left out pictures." True. For every color chart, chair, landscape, cityscape, shadow painting, finger painting, farm scene, porn picture, or nude Storr chose, dozens, if not scores (and in the case of the abstracts, hundreds) exist. It might have been nice to see more color-chip paintings, mirrors, or portraits. But MOMA isn't some huge Kunsthalle, and 188 paintings is enough.

Storr's smoothing out cuts away the fat and still illustrates how Richter has his ups and downs—how he searches, repeats himself, and fails (see especially the galleries with work from the early '80s). This installation brilliantly demonstrates that painting, even in the hands of the "greatest modern painter," can take a long time to get good at.

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