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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.

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?

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.

But back to that set of glass paintings.Hinterglasmalerei is an old folk-art tradition that has now and again been taken up by modern artists, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky among them, as well as, in recent years, the English artist Simon Periton. There's nothing folksy about Richter's use of the medium. Sindbad (2008) is not the most important work in the show, though it consumes the most wall space; but it's one that you have to come to terms with if you really want to understand Richter. That's not easy, because it represents a side of his work that is hard to warm to--I was tempted to say impossible, but art lovers are an unfathomable lot. Its colors are brash, garish and arbitrary, more like those of Richter's abstractions of the late '70s through the mid-'80s than his work of recent years. These aggressively ingratiating, cheerfully clashing hues are really hard to take. As with his color charts-- represented in this exhibition by the small square 25 Colors (2007)--they represent the perversely antithetical stance toward color that has periodically been his: to reach the neutrality of gray by forcing bright colors into a situation where they neutralize each other. But because each of the ninety-six panels that make up the work is a little bigger than a sheet of letter-size paper, and because the paint is sealed away behind glass, their ferocious neutrality is in itself neutralized and contained. Rather than overwhelming you, as Richter's abstractions of the early '80s might have, their intensity gets under your skin retroactively, after you thought you were already thinking about something else.

Most of the abstract paintings Richter has been making of late are not like that. They use or are dominated by a limited number of colors, and by moving these colors back and forth across the canvas so that they sometimes mix and sometimes emerge separately, Richter almost automatically evokes a specific atmosphere, a mood, a condition of light and space. In that sense they are closer to traditional painting, no matter whether abstract or not, than a work like Sindbad is. And yet their very profusion, and the fact that they have been produced by semi-mechanical means, with the paint moved around by a squeegee, suggests that at another level the same arbitrariness is at work in these paintings as in the color charts, the early abstractions or Sindbad. For works like those, as Richter wrote to Buchloh in 1977, the premise is that "I can communicate nothing, that there is nothing to communicate, that painting can never be communication, that neither hard work, obstinacy, lunacy nor any trick whatever is going to make the absent message emerge of its own accord from the painting process." Not surprisingly, Richter soon discovered that a message does emerge from the painting process, that something is communicated. In most of his current abstract paintings, which somehow manage to assert themselves as sheer obdurate matter and radiant quanta of space and light at the same time, he allows that message to emerge--but washes his hands of it. It's not his message but rather something that occurs almost naturally. "Using chance is like painting nature," Richter has written. "No ideology. No religion, no belief, no meaning, no imagination, no invention, no creativity, no hope--but painting like nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, thusness."

In one thought Richter goes from nihilism to Romanticism. Likewise in his painting. And if his hope of painting in a way that parallels the processes of nature seems to echo Jackson Pollock's famous boast when asked whether he worked from nature--"I am nature!"--it's no accident. Commentators on Richter's abstract paintings have often emphasized the radical distinction between them and the work of the Abstract Expressionists, with which they might superficially seem to have much in common. After all, the apparent spontaneity of Richter's paintings is not based on the immediacy of the artist's gesture, as with Pollock or Franz Kline, but is highly mediated, not only by his hands-off working methods but by his basic tendency to subsume the space of painting to that of photography rather than of nature. True enough. But in this case, the superficial view contains more truth than the sophisticated one. The most powerful works in the Goodman show were several very large paintings whose surfaces were nearly white, though of a quasi-white highly variegated, with a great deal of color within or beneath it, surfacing in ghostly demarcations. Contrary to what Buchloh claims in his catalog essay, they bear little or no connection to the Neo-Dada tradition of Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings of 1951 or Piero Manzoni's "achromes" of the late '50s. In these paintings, Richter achieved, as he has rarely if ever done before, an effect of sublimity such as commentators on the Abstract Expressionists often speak of, though the painters achieved it but rarely. Read Richter's notes again with this in mind and you'll realize that he sounds like a painter of the 1940s more often than you'd imagine. When he speaks of painting as "an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surrounding," it might as well be Willem de Kooning talking. Richter's best works might surpass any but the greatest of the Abstract Expressionists, but that's not because his project is radically different from theirs. It's because his is theirs in extremis, pursued with a deep-seated suspicion of its impossibility and an even more vigilantly maintained No. It's the drama (and dramatization) of that self-consciousness that's so exhilarating.

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