MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NYC
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.