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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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Richter has always sought order in his life, and he works in an orderly way. Elger (a former secretary in Richter's studio and now a curator at the Dresden State Art Collections and director of its Gerhard Richter Archive) mentions that as a student at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1961-64 Richter arrived at his studio every morning at 8, carrying a briefcase, like a businessman. No matter that it merely contained his lunch. Yet he seems regularly to have been attracted to those who flout the rules. His closest friendship from the academy was with a remarkable painter who took the name Blinky Palermo, a drug addict who died under mysterious circumstances in 1977 at 33. It's clear from the interviews how much Richter still misses him. One longs to understand this friendship more deeply. Similarly, one would like to know much more about Richter's second marriage, to another remarkable artist a generation younger than himself, the sculptor Isa Genzken. It is well-known in the art world that this brilliant woman, who represented Germany at the Venice Biennale in 2007, has struggled with mental illness. Elger makes no mention of it. One former art dealer has published reminiscences like this: "I last saw her in New York in the wee hours on the dance floor of a Chelsea disco. Later she moved to Berlin, and soon had been banned from clubs and bars for her agitated behavior. I heard she was screaming: 'fascist' at customers and I saw her dead drunk sleeping on the demonstration furniture of a design store in the middle of Wittenberger Platz." Perhaps knowing this merely satisfies the craving for gossip, as Richter would say; yet I would wager that his attraction to someone who was capable of such behavior (though the time eventually came when he could no longer handle it; he is now married to his third wife) reflects an intensity of his own, held in check only by his blessed rage for order. Richter later recalled Genzken as a "very strict" critic: "'That's ugly, terrible,' she'd say." Wouldn't it have been worth trying to get a deeper sense of those conversations, and of the mark Genzken's strictures might have left on Richter's work afterward?

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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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The impersonality of Elger's presentation echoes Richter's discretion. Yet these days the artist seems less enamored of his former pose of impersonality and removal. In the past he repeatedly let it be known that the imagery in his paintings--mostly derived from news photographs and other such publicly available images--had no personal significance. Notes written in 1964-65 make him sound like Andy Warhol, wanting to disappear into the common consciousness: "I want to be like everyone else, think what everyone else thinks, do what is being done anyway." Using found photographs was the key to this disappearance: the photograph "had no style, no composition, no judgment. It freed me from personal experience." Likewise the choice of subjects was supposed to be neutral: "Perhaps the choice is a negative one, in that I was trying to avoid everything that touched on well-known issues--or any issues at all, whether painterly, social or aesthetic. I tried to find nothing too explicit, hence all the banal subjects; and then, again, I tried to avoid letting the banal turn into my issue and my trademark. So it's all evasive action, in a way."

Yet among the paintings made from found photographs, there were always a few taken from family snapshots. How could those, at least, ever have been chosen quite so impersonally? Later Richter would change his story. Asked by Benjamin Buchloh in 1986, "So what were the criteria by which you chose photographs for your iconography?" he answered, "Content, definitely--though I may have denied this at one time, by saying that it had nothing to do with content, because it was supposed to be all about copying a photograph and giving a demonstration of indifference.... I looked for photographs that showed my present life, the things that related to me." Why did he pretend to indifference? Self-protection, he insists. Again and again, he says that his earlier professions of neutrality were essentially attempts to be left alone, to be able to work in peace.

Of course, Richter's aim was just as much to mislead himself as anyone else. We see this in an anecdote from a 2005 interview for Der Spiegel, in which he refers to an early painting of his father, Horst With Dog (1965): "When I painted it, I just thought it was funny.... But when I saw it displayed in New York thirty years later, I was a little shocked because it seemed to me that the father was portrayed as a predominantly tragic figure." If Richter ever really saw this painting as amusing, his capacity for self-deception is truly impressive. But today, one has to wonder what Richter's new mask of (relative) openness might be hiding. What if his former sense of his father as funny was not unconsciousness but cruelty?

Richter's passionate effort to maintain artistic autonomy at all cost, and to remain free of ideology, has been central to his life and work from the time he crossed over from East Germany to the West in 1961. In notes from November 1989--just days before the Berlin Wall was breached--Richter writes of a "survival strategy" involving "denial of the planning, the opinion and the world-view whereby social projects, and subsequently 'big pictures', are created." This is the typical postcommunist allergy to utopian projects. But his stance is also antipolitical: "Politics operates more by faith than by enlightenment, so nothing is going to come of that." Wherever Richter has faced an ideological demand, he has seen it as a threat. In his notes and interviews he is constantly railing against ideology. When an interviewer contrasts Richter's work with that of a painter who stayed in the East and found success under the communist regime, remarking, "Resistance to any kind of instrumentalization gives your pictures a completely different motivation," he responds, "I certainly did not want to demonstrate resistance because that would have meant countenancing that very instrumentalization. I just want to paint pictures."

Richter has certainly been painting pictures. The exhibition at Marian Goodman included forty-seven works, not all entirely abstract despite its title, dated from 2005 through 2009 (along with a single painting from 1976). One of them, a set of forty-eight small diptychs painted behind glass, could have been a small exhibition in itself. The quantity of work on view, incidentally, evoked another issue unaddressed by Elger's biography: the nuts and bolts of studio practice. Even for an artist as industrious as Richter, one has to wonder how he produces so much (and at such a high level). Some speculate that the abstract paintings, though probably not the now much rarer figurative ones, may be largely the work of assistants. There'd be nothing wrong with that. It's common in today's art. Everyone knows that Bridget Riley, for instance, has not set her hand to one of her canvases since 1961. It makes sense because the facture of her paintings is entirely impersonal. Spontaneity and chance have been abolished. That's not so of Richter's abstract paintings. Each is a compendium of miraculously controlled accidents. One would like to know more about the physical process of their making, including any division of labor involved.

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