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Evasive Action Painter: On Gerhard Richter | The Nation

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Evasive Action Painter: On Gerhard Richter

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MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NYCDetail from 909-6 Abstract Painting (2009), by Gerhard Richter

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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Sometimes you go to an exhibition not for pleasure but duty. It might be a little like going to visit an old uncle. You know he needs the company, and your affection for him remains undiminished, but you've heard all his stories and his complaints too often. I went to Gerhard Richter's recent exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York City in something like that spirit.

Partly it's the curse of the big exhibition. Maybe Richter's 2002 retrospective at MoMA exhausted my curiosity, all the more so because it seemed to come a few years too late. Richter had been, arguably, the world's most influential painter from the mid-'80s or so--once the tide of Neo-Expressionism had begun to recede--throughout the '90s, but as that decade reached its end, his influence had begun to seem too pervasive, his style too familiar. His very authority as an artist, along with his immense productivity, made him seem (not unlike Picasso in his day) ubiquitous as well as distant from the concerns of younger artists--a museum piece, in the negative sense. And the few exhibitions of his I had seen in the meantime--not to mention the isolated works that dotted the art fairs like so many trophies--had done little to challenge this impression. Certainly his 2008 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, "4900 Colours: Version II"--an extension of the color chart theme to which Richter has returned periodically since 1966--seemed like a literalization of the idea of painting as marking time, and of artistic production as little more than meaningless saturation of the environment.

How wrong I was. At least the experience of heading unenthusiastically uptown to Marian Goodman will serve me as a good reminder: by all means do your duty, if only because it might turn out to be a greater pleasure than you could ever have expected. The exhibition was breathtaking--but more about that later. After seeing it, I eagerly turned to a couple of new books on the artist, only to learn a different lesson: don't let your enthusiasm run away with you.

The more enlightening of the two books is Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961-2007 (D.A.P.; $55). It replaces an earlier collection, published in 1995 and now out of print, which for a long time was one of the books you were most likely to find in young painters' studios--in part, I suspect, because its title spoke to them so clearly: The Daily Practice of Painting was like a promise that the constant pursuit of the art, the everyday doing of it, might be more important than all the theory in the world, despite the fact that Richter had become the theorists' favorite painter--especially among those who barely deigned to acknowledge, otherwise, that painting is still a viable pursuit. I suspect the new book may not have the same impact, not only because of its poker-faced title--which is also misleading, since the book mainly consists of interviews, which are generally more engaging than the few writings--but because it is now too much of a good thing. Richter has given a great many interviews since 1995, and not all of them are required reading. A more judicious selection might have been useful, especially because Richter is such a slippery character. Nearly any statement he makes can be matched with one that says the opposite. Perhaps this equivocation or deniability is one source of Richter's success, his ability to represent so many different, possibly contradictory things to so many people; it's certainly a characteristic of his art and not just of what he says about it.

One might have hoped that Dietmar Elger's Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting (Chicago; $45) would put the chameleonlike painter into perspective, but no such luck. Anyway, the book isn't so much a biography as a chronicle of Richter's career as an artist. If you're interested in tracing the responses of the German press to Richter's exhibitions, this is the book for you. If you're more interested in tracking the various phases of the art itself--the paintings of black-and-white photos, of color charts, gray monochromes, intensely colored abstractions, photographically derived paintings in color, not to mention Atlas, his archive of photographs, which is both a work and a resource--you'll get some important detail from the book, but you still might be better off looking through a couple of the heavily illustrated catalogs of any of Richter's many retrospectives. But if you think a biography means a book that offers insight into the inner life of its subject, forget it. Someday Richter will have his Hilary Spurling or his John Richardson, but he's probably happy to reflect that he will never have to read it: "Biographical details have limited relevance when it comes to understanding a work of art." There's some truth to that, but only some. There are broadly two things one wants to understand about a painting: first of all, how should I look at it, what should I look for in it? And second, how did someone get to the point of being able, and of needing, to make it? In addressing the first question, biography is perhaps of limited use. For the second, it is essential. But the catch is that, because artworks, unlike the beauties of nature, are always imbued with intention--if only the intention to deflect one's intentionality and allow things to manifest themselves as if naturally--the two questions are really one.

Elger's lack of inquisitiveness weakens even the most biographically substantial parts of his book, such as the opening chapter on Richter's childhood in Dresden during the Nazi era and his young manhood in East Germany. He points out that the artist's parents had an unhappy marriage; Horst Richter was drafted in 1939 and spent the entire war in the army and then in an American POW camp, returning to a wife who considered him a failure and children who hardly knew him. The painter sees this situation of fatherlessness as typical of his generation of Germans, and it has left its traces on his subject matter--think of the doleful pantheon of white (or, rather, gray) European men in his 48 Portraits, from 1972--but more nebulously in the pervasive sense of melancholy that has marked much of his work, as well as in his discomfort with authority. But only in passing, in one of the interviews in Writings rather than in the biography, does one learn that Horst Richter was not Gerhard's biological father.

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