What Postmasters Gallery curator Magda Sawon calls the “canonization” of Gerhard Richter inspired her to respond with a witty, stimulating group show, “Richteriana.” The ongoing frenzy over the 80-year-old German painter includes Richter’s traveling retrospective, the $20.8 million sale of an abstract, and Corinna Belz’s reverent documentary Gerhard Richter Painting (2011). Because “Richteriana” qualifies both as an art exhibit and an argument, the works in the gallery walk a fine and squiggly line around many points related to Richter, his commodification, and his legacy. Depending on which piece in the gallery you consider, the show can seem like an attempted takedown, an homage, a refutation of the hype, or an update.
Most squarely in the delightfully saucy takedown category is a pair of works by painter David Diao. The first, Wealth of Nations (1972), is an 11 x 7 foot painting, a color field layered in large swaths. By showing it here, Diao suggests with this older painting of his that he arrived at the same methods before Richter got there—the Sultan of Smear didn’t leap into abstraction until 1976. Fair enough, but Diao’s bright yellow and blue rectangles recall the California light of Diebenkorn, or even Thiebaud, more than Richter’s ominous and distressed palimpsests. An artist needs more than a claim on a process and/or material to certify his or her relevance. Donald Judd didn’t invent the metal box, after all, but he did make us see metal boxes in a new way.
Diao’s Synecdoche (1993) is both sillier and more indignant than Wealth of Nations, which makes it funny in an Udo Kier kind of way (i.e., comically sulky). For this piece, Diao reproduces enlarged pages of a catalog essay about Richter, with Richter’s name scratched out and replaced with Diao’s, and reproductions of Diao’s paintings superimposed on the plates. The piece should make Diao seem bitter, but the move is so blunt that one has to laugh. With him, hopefully.
In his outlandish Destroyed Richter Paintings (2012), Greg Allen grapples with Richter’s work in a way that raises questions about authenticity and artistic production. Allen took several archival photographs of paintings Richter destroyed and sent the images to a painting factory in China, where anonymous art workers convert photos into oil paintings for a fee. While partially homage, this work invades the great man’s privacy on at least two levels: first, by showing us images he apparently didn’t want anyone to see, and second, by co-opting and outsourcing his technique.
For his part, Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience (ongoing) alludes to the legendary depth of the Gerhard Richter Archive. The Dresden institution houses Richter’s Atlas—a grouping of hundreds of paintings, more than 15,000 photographs, newspaper clippings, etc. assembled with an eye toward the rehabilitation of postwar German-ness. Echoing Richter, Elahi has also created a personal artistic wellspring that self-consciously attempts to reform his political identity. When he discovered himself on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, the Bangladeshi-American artist overloaded the government agency with data and images regarding his whereabouts. At Postmasters, Elahi exhibits 672 photographs of toilets he has encountered over the duration of the project. One begins to understand how he eventually made Uncle Sam say uncle.
As complex and questioning as Postmasters has made its vision of Richter, the show ultimately bolsters the image it critiques, emphatically proving Richter worthy of a probing and multifaceted investigation. One can imagine the calmly smiling master strolling through the show himself, nodding, perhaps laughing, remarking on its various angles and distortions, as if gazing at himself in a house of mirrors. “What is it like to be famous?” a reporter asks Richter in Belz’s film. With little hesitation, Richter answers, “Wonderful.”