Scaling Richter

Richter claims to be "indifferent" to subject matter. Yet several works within steps of the exhibition's entrance contradict these assertions. Horst and His Dog(1965) is a portrait of the artist's father looking like Krusty the Clown. Next to this is Uncle Rudi(1965), a picture of his smiling uncle in military garb. Both men were Nazis. Richter himself was enrolled in the Hitler Youth. His mentally deficient aunt was killed in a Nazi euthanasia program. No wonder he "hates" ideologies. He lived through the Third Reich, and under Communism until 1961, when he emigrated from his birthplace of Dresden to the Rhineland (where he still lives). Nearby are three paintings of American and British warplanes and pictures of a German prostitute who was brutally murdered and eight student nurses, themselves the victims of a mass murderer. "Indifferent," indeed.

Which leads to the inevitable comparison with Warhol. Born within four years of one another—Warhol in 1928, Richter in 1932—the two artists share a fascination with photography, mechanical reproduction, popular culture, and multiple styles. Both are Dr. Deaths; both painted accidents, murder victims, skulls, and Jackie Kennedy. But the differences between them are significant. Warhol painted his mother, celebrated pop culture and was engaged with it, and loved color. Richter painted his father, is always at a remove from popular culture, is wary of color, and is rarely celebratory. Nevertheless, something celebratory has crept into Richter's work of late, albeit with a twist. While he continues to crank out abstractions, a more personal side of Richter has emerged. In the final galleries are pictures of the artist Isa Genzken (his ex-wife, whose radical politics, I believe, prodded Richter into making the Baader-Meinhof series), theoretician Benjamin Buchloh (whom Storr calls "the artist's longtime sparring partner"), and his current wife, the painter Sabine Moritz, and their infant son, Moritz.

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.

Details

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

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The half-dozen portraits of mother and child are tender, even sugary, and recall Mary Cassatt. They also attest to the distilled calm of a lifetime of experience. Yet there is a dark side to this softness, a bittersweetness. These are more than pictures of an artist looking lovingly at his family. Now 70, Richter is painting a son he may never see as an adult and a wife who, in all likelihood, will not grow old with him. Even when he paints directly from the heart, the ghost of absence is never far behind.

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