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.
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 idea has.”
The paintings in October 18, 1977 clearly 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. January is 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.
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.
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.