History in a Blur

History in a Blur


It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but penetrated through and through by our historical situation. Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images. For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own historical moment becomes an artist’s subject. It was particularly rare in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era conscious of itself through his art.

German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in postwar Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art. Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside his images to realize the violence to which they refer.

Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which continued to exemplify Hitler’s aesthetic well after Nazism’s collapse, than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art. It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to destroy. The content of Documenta 1–Modernism of the twentieth century before fascism–could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But Modernism, and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York School–Abstract Expressionism–that some internal pressure began to build in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time. The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic Republic.

It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go abstract–or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist, the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to identify oneself with Art Informel–the European counterpart of the loosely painted abstractions of the New York School–as many German artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political matter in the 1970s. If ignorant of the political background of such choices, visitors to the magnificent Museum of Modern Art retrospective of Richter’s work since 1962–the year after his momentous move from East to West–are certain to be baffled by the fact that he seems to vacillate between realism and abstraction, or even between various styles of abstraction, often at the same time. These vacillations seemed to me so extreme when I first saw a retrospective of Richter’s work in Chicago in 1987, that it looked like I was seeing some kind of group show. “How can you say any style is better than another?” Warhol asked with his characteristic faux innocence in a 1963 interview. “You ought to be able to be an Abstract Expressionist next week, or a Pop artist, or a realist, without feeling that you have given up something.” For most artists in America, it is important that they be stylistically identifiable, as if their style is their brand. To change styles too often inevitably would have been read as a lack of conviction. But what the show at MoMA somehow makes clear is that there finally is a single personal signature in Richter’s work, whatever his subject, and whether the work is abstract or representational. It comes, it seems to me, from the protective cool to which I referred–a certain internal distance between the artist and his work, as well as between the work and the world, when the work itself is about reality. It is not irony. It is not exactly detachment. It expresses the spirit of an artist who has found a kind of above-the-battle tranquility that comes when one has decided that one can paint anything one wants to in any way one likes without feeling that something is given up. That cool is invariant to all the paintings, whatever their content. As a viewer one has to realize that abstraction is the content of one genre of his painting, while the content of the other genres of his painting is…well…not abstraction. They consist of pictures of the world. So in a sense the show has an almost amazing consistency from beginning to end. It is as though what Richter conveys is a content that belongs to the mood or tone, and that comes through the way the quality of a great voice does, whatever its owner sings.

Before talking about individual works, let me register another peculiarity of Richter’s work. He paints photographs. A lot of artists use photography as an aid. A portraitist, for example, will take Polaroids of her subject to use as references. The photographs are like auxiliary memories. With Richter, by contrast, it is as if photographs are his reality. He is not indifferent to what a photograph is of, but the subject of the photograph will often not be something that he has experienced independently. In 1964 Richter began to arrange photographs on panels–snapshots, often banal, clippings from newspapers and magazines, even some pornographic pictures. These panels became a work in their own right, to which Richter gave the title Atlas. Atlas has been exhibited at various intervals, most recently in 1995 at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, at which venue there were already 600 panels and something like 5,000 photographs. These photographs are Richter’s reality as an artist. When I think of Atlas, I think of the human condition as described by Plato in the famous passage in The Republic where Socrates says that the world is a cave, on the wall of which shadows are cast. They are cast by real objects to which we have no immediate access, and about which, save for the interventions of philosophy, we would have no inkling. But there is an obvious sense in which most of what we know about, we never experience as such. Think of what the experience of the World Trade Center attack was for most of us on September 11 and afterward. We were held transfixed by the images of broken walls and burning towers, to use Yeats’s language, and fleeing, frightened people.

The first work in the exhibition is titled Table, done in 1962. Richter considers it the first work in his catalogue raisonné, which means that he assigns it a significance considerably beyond whatever merits it may possess as a painting. It means in particular that nothing he did before it is part of his acknowledged oeuvre. Barnett Newman felt that way about a 1948 work he named Onement. He considered it, to vary a sentimental commonplace, the first work of the rest of his artistic life. Next to Table, one notices two photographs of a modern extension table, clipped from an Italian magazine, on which Richter puddled a brushful of gray glaze. Table itself is an enlarged and simplified painting of the table in the photographs, over which Richter has painted an energetic swirl of gray paint. It is easy to see why it is so emblematic a work in his artistic scheme. Whatever the merits of the depicted table may have been as an object of furniture design, such tables were commonplace articles of furniture in middle-class domestic interiors in the late fifties. In 1962 it was becoming an artistic option to do paintings of ordinary, everyday objects. We are in the early days of the Pop movement. The overlaid brushy smear, meanwhile, has exactly the gestural urgency of Art Informel. So Table is at the intersection of two major art movements of the sixties: It is representational and abstract at once. Warhol in that period was painting comic-strip figures like Dick Tracy–but was dripping wet paint over his images, not yet able to relinquish the talismanic drip of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, in 1960 he painted a Coca-Cola bottle with Abstract Expressionist mannerisms–a work I consider Table‘s unknown artistic sibling. Richter gave up Art Informel in 1962, just as Warhol dropped Abstract Expressionist brushiness in favor of the uninflected sharpness and clarity of his Pop images. By 1963 Richter had begun painting the blurred but precise images that became his trademark. Richter’s marvelously exact Administrative Building of 1964 captures the dispiriting official architecture of German postwar reconstruction, especially in the industrial Rhineland. And his wonderful Kitchen Chair of 1965 is a prime example of Capitalist Realism, the version of Pop developed by Richter and his colleague, Sigmar Polke, in the mid-sixties. Richter and Warhol had fascinatingly parallel careers.

The deep interpretative question in Richter’s art concerns less the fact that he worked with photographs than why he selected the photographs he did for Atlas, and what governed his decision to translate certain of them into paintings. There are, for example, photographs of American airplanes–Mustang Squadrons, Bombers and Phantom Interceptor planes in ghostly gray-in-gray formations. Richter was an adolescent in 1945, and lived with his family within earshot of Dresden at the time of the massive firebombings of that year. The photograph from which Bombers was made had to have been taken as a documentary image by some official Air Force photographer, whether over Dresden or some other city. The cool of that photograph, compounded by the cool with which that image is painted–even to the hit plane near the bottom of the image and what must be the smoke trailing from another–cannot but seem as in a kind of existential contrast with the panic of someone on the ground under those explosives falling in slow fatal series from open bays. But what were Richter’s feelings? What was he saying in these images?

And what of the 1965 painting of the family snapshot of the SS officer–Richter’s Uncle Rudi–proudly smiling for the camera, which must have been taken more than twenty years earlier, shortly before its subject was killed in action? Tables and chairs are tables and chairs. But warplanes and officers emblematize war, suffering and violent death. And this was not simply the history of the mid-twentieth century. This was the artist’s life, something he lived through. We each must deal with these questions as we can, I think. The evasiveness of the artist, in the fascinating interview with Robert Storr–who curated this show and wrote the catalogue–is a kind of shrug in the face of the unanswerability of the question. What we can say is that photographs have their acknowledged forensic dimension; they imply that their subjects were there, constituted reality and that the artist himself is no more responsible than we are, either for the reality or the photography. The reality and the records are what others have done. He has only made the art. And the blurredness with which the artist has instilled his images is a way of saying that it was twenty years ago–that it is not now. Some other horrors are now.

The flat, impassive transcriptions of Richter’s paintings are correlative with the frequent violence implied by what they depict. That makes the parallels with Warhol particularly vivid. It is easy to repress, in view of the glamour and celebrity associated with Warhol’s life and work, the series of disasters he depicted–plane crashes, automobile accidents, suicides, poisonings and the shattering images of electric chairs, let alone Jackie (The Week That Was), which memorializes Kennedy’s funeral. Or the startlingly anticelebratory Thirteen Most Wanted Men that he executed for the New York State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Compare these with Richter’s 1966 Eight Student Nurses, in which the bland, smiling, youthful faces look as if taken from the class book of a nursing school–but which we know were of victims of a senseless crime. Warhol’s works, like Richter’s, are photography-based. The pictures came from vernacular picture media–the front page of the Daily News, or the most-wanted pictures on posters offering rewards, which are perhaps still tacked up in post offices. These were transferred to stencils and silk-screened, and have a double graininess–the graininess of newspaper reproduction and of the silk-screen process itself. And like Richter’s blurring, this serves to distance the reality by several stages–as if it is only through distancing that we can deal with horror. I tend to think that part of what made us all feel as if we were actually part of the World Trade Center disaster was the clarity of the television images and the brightness of the day that came into our living rooms.

Whatever our attitude toward the prison deaths of the Baader-Meinhof gang members in 1977, I think everyone must feel that if Richter is capable of a masterpiece, it is his October 18, 1977 suite of thirteen paintings, done in 1988 and based on aspects of that reality. These deaths define a moral allegory in which the state, as the guarantor of law and order, and the revolution, as enacted by utopian and idealist youths, stand in stark opposition, and in which both sides are responsible for crimes that are the dark obverses of their values. But how fragile and pathetic these enemies of the state look in paintings that make the photographs from which they were taken more affecting than they would seem as parts, say, of Atlas. Who knows whether Richter chose the images because they were affecting, or made them so, or if we make them so because of the hopelessness of a reality that has the quality of the last act of an opera, in which the chorus punctuates the tragedy in music? There are three paintings, in graded sizes, of the same image of Ulrike Meinhof, who was hanged–or hanged herself–in her cell. The paintings do not resolve the question of whether she was killed or committed suicide. They simply register the finality of her death–Dead. Dead. Dead. (Tote. Tote. Tote.)–in a repetition of an image, vanishing toward a point, of a thin dead young woman, her stretched neck circled by the rope or by the burn left by the rope. That is what art does, or part of what it does. It transforms violence into myth and deals with death by beauty. There was a lot of political anger when these paintings were shown in 1988, but there was no anger in the gallery on the occasions when I have visited it in the past several weeks.

By comparison with the ferocity of human engagements in the real world, the art wars of the mid-twentieth century seem pretty thin and petty. But it says something about human passion that the distinction between figuration and abstraction was so vehement that, in my memory, people would have been glad to hang or shoot one another, or burn their stylistic opponents at the stake, as if it were a religious controversy and salvation were at risk. It perhaps says something deep about the spirit of our present times that the decisions whether to paint abstractly or realistically can be as lightly made as whether to paint a landscape or still life–or a figure study–was for a traditional artist. Or for a young contemporary artist to decide whether to do some piece of conceptual art or a performance. Four decades of art history have borne us into calm aesthetic waters. But this narrative does not convey the almost palpable sense in which Richter has grasped his times through his art. One almost feels that he became a painter in order to engage not just with how to be an artist but how, as an artist, to deal with the terribleness of history.

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