As the last major show before closing for construction, MoMA has chosen a very ambitious project: a retrospective for Gerhard Richter, one of the most complicated and varied figures in twentieth (and twenty-first) century painting. This survey begins with Table (1962), Stag (1963), Mouth (1963) and Coffin Bearers (1962), four important works of Richter's first mature phase, the photorealist works. Interestingly, everything before these works is ignored, following Richter's own catalogue raisonne, which begins with Table. The first space also shows several panels from Atlas, Richter's collection of clippings and photos used as source materials. Paring the sources with finished works underlines the striking literalness of his paintings from this period, and highlights the deliberateness by which Richter translates the details from photograph to painting; several photos are gridded for enlargement by that rather old-fashioned method.
|Detail, Eight Student Nurses|
The next galleries on this level continue to deal with the photorealist works, including the anti-Duchamp Nude Descending the Staircase (1965), Uncle Rudi (1965) and Eight Student Nurses(1966). These galleries are fabulous; the lowish ceilings and smaller spaces allow for more intimate interaction with the works than the large airy spaces on the level above. They also appear to be themed in some sense. One space shows the military aircraft paintings and Uncle Rudi, while another pair of spaces juxtapose what could be the two sides of Richter's Pop: happy, affluent consumers aboard a Motor Boat (1965) and contemplating a Ferrari (1964) advertisement pared with, in the next room, mugshots of murdered nurses, Jacqueline Kennedy and the prostitute who "briefly caught the attention of Germany1," Helga Matura. These morbid/tragic works make his affinity for Warhol, who, for Richter, "legitimized the mechanical," clear; Storr goes so far as to compare Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men with Eight Student Nurses. The difference of course, and a main divergence from American Pop, is Richter's distinct use of the mechanical, the readymade and appropriated imagery. Instead of rejecting th handmade artwork, Richter uses wellpainted, "beautiful" works to begin with, then removes or destroys the details, with razors, squeegees, etc. Also important is his insistence on using singular images and not collage, as seen in Dead (1963) or Egyptian Landscape (1964), where the composition is carefully considered and includes the surrounding magazine text and white space. Both he and Warhol remove emotional content via fetishizing the image; in Warhol's case by endless mechanical repetition, Richter by only copying ready-made photos, never working from life, using "photography to get to painting 2," and hiding behind the photo to remove much of the 'artistry' from his paintings.
Another key difference between Richter's photo/realist/pop and American Pop is his "tender portrayal of his own private reality3." Among the earlier photorealist works, the pieces focusing on Richter's family are rather extraordinary, including the relationship between Aunt Marianne and Mr. Heyde, both of 1965. In an interview, Storr tries to make the connection between Heyde, a Nazi neurologist, and Richter's mentally ill aunt, casting Heyde as Marianne's executioner4, something that Richter claims was an unconscious coincidence:
RS: So you didn't know who Heyde was?
GR: I'm sure I knew it. But I repressed it right away, and it became a picture like every other. I tried to show that this was a guy like every other guy that gets arrested.
When pressed about and the implication thereof, he has strong words for Storr:
GR: I never knew what I was doing. What am I supposed to say now? Now I could lie here, like I am on an analyst's couch, and try to figure out my actual motives with the help of others and make sense of them. Is that what we want to do now?5
While these particular works are (most unfortunately) not included in this show, several other pieces work in the same way, namely Uncle Rudi and the paintings of military aircraft. War, personal and world history are contemplated in these works, with Uncle Rudi sitting apart as a profound and depressing example. Instead of using something blatant like a series to concentration camp photos (which he tried to do on several occasions), Richter has taken family snapshots and mass-culture news photos to discuss issues in a delicate and somewhat subversive manner; he says "this painting-- Bomber-- was forbidden. [sic] You could only take it as a joke.6" Of course, it's not a joke; this seriousness, again, sets Richter's brand of Pop in a class unto itself.
Below the staircase, set between the six other galleries on the second floor, stands 256 Colors (1974), one of only two of the Color Chart paintings in this show. Granted, these works are variations on a very similar theme (and as such are somewhat boring), but the inclusion of such a small number belies the large quantity of these works, of which twenty-six were made in 1973-74. While they may look related to Albers or Ellsworth Kelly, Storr claims that these works "parallel LeWitt's use of systems to discipline sensibility, preempt taste, and sublime the artist's drive to assert himself,7" again subverting the artist-as-decision-maker status, like we saw in with the use of appropriated subject matter (photographs), while concurrently using color, painting's essential element, to make interesting and beautiful work.
|Detail, 48 Portraits|
Above the stairs hangs the 48 Portraits (1971-72) cycle, the "most sustained and unified series of painting the artist had so far [in 1972] undertaken8." and it is presented in a manner different but somewhat similar to its presentation at the 1972 Venice Biennale, on a curved wall, with Kafka in the middle staring straight ahead, and the heads to his left and right gradually turning as nearly frontal poses flowed into three-quarter poses9.
A photo in the catalog shows the work installed at the Biennale, arranged in a large room in one row, whereas the MoMA installation is in three rows, wrapping around the stairwell on three walls. It seems strange that while Richter took the care to select photographs of these figures that lent themselves to this clever presentation, Storr claims that "Richter has [since the Biennale] laid them out or ranked them in ways that avoid such visual gags10." Despite this, the cycle is arranged in this show such that fortunately the "gag" is left intact.
On the third floor, the diversity of Richter's work explodes into a cacophony of conflicting projects, like mismatched dishes at a yard sale. The first gallery shows the aerial city shots and Himalaya (1968); the next, some landscapes; then, further along, one of the bizarre Annunciation after Titian (1973) pieces and the vague Tourist (with 1 Lion) (1975) are pared with the Balthusian Betty (1977) and Red-Blue-Yellow (1972). This second gallery was the most troublesome for me; there was nowhere to start, nowhere to go, nowhere to end— especially in contrast to the more reasonable spaces on the floor below. The insistence on chronological presentation makes this work extraordinarily difficult to contemplate; even a reading of the catalogue essay and a second visit did not help to make total sense of the installation scheme. Where some galleries are subtly thematic, like the early photorealist galleries or organized by subject, like the removal of October 18, 1977 series to its own space, the others seem random and incoherent, as if the on-paper justification was upheld at the sacrafice of what is acutally pleasing or interesting to view.
But, back to the work. Storr's discussion of the Annunciation reveals some of the ideas behind this bizarre work; Richter copies the Titian like a student, trying to live up to the technique of an Old Master: "[his] subversive attempt to paint beautiful pictures represented something more than a private digression from avant-garde practice. It was, instead, a quiet act of defiance directed at those who traditionally claimed a monopoly on 'subversive' means and ends11." Of course, there's nothing in the gallery that would lead the viewer to make these connections, so the work on the wall looks randomly selected and like just another of the weird tangents Richter has gone off on. In reality, the work makes a lot of sense in relation to his oeuvre.
The October 18, 1977 (1988) cycle is (perhaps) Richter's most "important" work, is set down between rooms containing the candle and skull pieces on the one side and various Abstract Pictures on the other. Fortunately, the views from this gallery are limited, so this series is physically set off from the other work, and the series can be contemplated as an entity unto itself. Here Richter returns to monochrome photorealism to discuss specific sociopolitical issues; also, he again focuses on the German history/world history using appropriated photos, this time in the mode of classical history painting, a "lapsed genre" in the twentieth century. Like the 1960s photorealist works, the 'truth' of photography is belittled by the selective destruction and re-construction of the 'true' image.
Simple and spectacular, the smallish side space that holds November, December and January (1989) creates an almost claustrophobic (but not quite) sense of the viewer's immersion in the works, something not present in the other big galleries on the third floor; in this case chronology-as-installation is useful and underlines a subtle point: "It is as if, after a hiatus, Richter had shifted gears aesthetically to record the rising anguish of the 'German Autumn' of 1977 as it passed into a long dark winter of discontent12." Blanket, a manipulated early version of one of the October 18, 1977 pieces, is shown in this gallery, tying nicely back to the previous cycle. In the next gallery, Abstract Picture (1992) is certainly the best example of the densely layered style of works like AB, St. Bridget (1988) and January, a technique which Storr describes as "every positive application of paint awaits its invigorating negation, a seemingly arbitrary adjustment [sic] also sheers ridges of oil color in stacatto patterns and opens up crevices in still-wet pigment13"; it lives up to the assertion of Richter's abstracts being "flat illusionistic rendering[s] of expressionist painterliness14;" the paring of illusionism with the struggle between positive and negative gestures is present in one way or another in all of Richter's work.
As if trying to encapsulate the retrospective into a shorthand summary, the series of works in the last gallery, S. with Child (1995), touch on several of these common elements in Richter's work: the use of photography and the implication of "mindless reproduction," his adoption/appropriation of classical tradition, and his compulsion to destroy things; here, several works bear the marks of the paint film having been scraped away. Richter holds himself to a ridiculous standard of classical quality, and destroys work less than perfect: all but two have been skimmed or scored by a blade. "They are a little damaged," he said. "I really want to make beautiful paintings, [but] I couldn't quite hold it; they're not as beautiful as Vermeer." And so he attacked them with a palette knife: "I had no choice. I didn't want to15."
This create/destroy cycle is deployed over and over again and is not limited to the photorealist works, but the cycle of 'positive' production and 'negative' elimination of detail works in many situations, from the Pop works, to 48 Portraits to October 18, 1977 to the Abstract Pictures, since "for Richter as for Warhol, the transforming moment is when the second stage of the process selectively reinforces or diminishes the details of the first stage, while giving rise to the pictorial byproducts that instantaneously become part of the final result16."
Richter's production is extraordinarily complex and, granted, is hard to organize into any reasonable scheme, however grouping by chronology is unreasonably and artificially conditional, and makes the exhibition significantly harder to grasp. That said, it's hard to tell if there is a better way to do it. The paradox lies in categorization; dividing the work into units that make sense, like landscape, abstract, Pop, etc. imposes an artificial barrier to understanding that Richter's work does not follow a straight line, and does not fit into a linear progression of style. As mentioned before, the grouping of the early photorealist paintings into loose thematic groups works quite well; it took my second trip through the show to recognize that was what was going on. Treating the works upstairs similarly would be good and might prevent such mishaps as hanging Venice (Staircase) (1985) in a room otherwise dominated by the early eighties Abstract Pictures. Sure, it makes sense on paper, but is jarring in person.
This show calls attention to just how hard it is to talk about Richter, and its various strengths and shortcomings certainly underline the inherent contradictions and complexities of his work and certainly supports Richter's claim that
what I'm attempting in each picture is nothing other than this: to bring together, in a living and viable way, the most different and the most contradictory elements in the greatest possible freedom17.
Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting
(New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 38
2 ibid., 36
3 ibid., 40
4 ibid., 40
5 Storr, Robert. "Interview with Gerhard Richter," Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 289
6 ibid., 288
7 Storr, Robert. Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 51
8 ibid., 61
9 ibid., 63
10 ibid., 64
11 ibid., 65
12 ibid., 78
13 ibid., 73
14 Ibid., 15
15 ibid., 73
16 ibid., 74
17 Buchloh, Benjamin. "Interview with Gerhard Richter," Gerhard Richter: Paintings, (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1988), 19-29.