Now and then an amazingmuseum show comes by. You know the name, the work has been around for some time, so how come you didn't grasp before how good the artist is, and how wide the work's scope? That's how it is with the retrospective of the German painter Gerhard Richter, beautifully organized by curator Robert Storr for New York City's Museum of Modern Art. (It will be on view there until May 21, before traveling to Chicago, San Francisco and Washington.)
It has to be said right off that, in America at least, Richter was easy to miss. Think the words "new German art," and you think "neo-Expressionism." Think that, and the heart sinks. Heftige malerei, the German critics used to call it, "heavyweight painting," and it was certainly crude enough for three drunken gnomes and a village woodcutter. Inch-thick paint (the stuff that used to mean "sincerity" in the 1980s, remember?) and sculptures mutilated from tree roots with chain saws. All this rhetoric, now so comic, had its equivalents in the States (think of Julian Schnabel and his pretensions), but Germany was its homeland, or Heimat, if the word didn't still sound residually Hitlerian.
And the task, of course, was to get away from Hitlerian resonances. National Socialism seemed to have poisoned German culture at the root, but to go "international"-either by doing American-style abstraction or by imitating American Pop Art, the latest international style-was unthinkable; it was to lose the possibility of Germanness. A few artists of Richter's generation found a way to use this. Richter, in cahoots with his then friend Sigmar Polke, developed a kind of bony, disenchanted Pop Art. They called it, in ironic tribute to the Socialist Realism then mandatory in communist countries, Capitalist Realism.
Fastidious and intelligent, Richter's art looks unblinkingly at the world through pre-existing images-amateur and police photos, news clippings and the like-that have no glamour, that intend to sell nothing (unlike American Pop Art) and that are, in effect, the very scurf and dandruff of common life. At the same time they are very German, being pure vernacular. Like most photo-derived art, Richter's reproduces poorly. He has not shown much in the U.S. He is not about lapel-grabbing fictions of urgency; in fact his work, when first seen, looks quite eerily cold. He is not doing pastiche reruns of early 20th century German Expressionism.
This last fact is rammed home early by a painting, Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, enlarged from a snapshot of Richter's uncle grinning broadly, about to go to the front in his uniform. The uniform is a double-breasted Wehrmacht overcoat, for Uncle died for his Fhrer. It comes as a shock. What is that damn Nazi doing in the Museum of Modern Art? His real home is even more jarring: Richter gave the painting to the memorial in Lidice, Czech Republic, commemorating one of the horrific slaughters of World War II. The image, taken from a family photo, is out of focus, deliberately blurred by dragging a brush through the wet paint or wiping a cloth over it. It looks like memory trying to be recaptured, wavering up to meet us through layers of consciousness and efforts of repression. But it is not in any real sense "expressive." Richter is the man who notoriously said he could find more interest in the dumbest amateur snapshot than in the finest Czanne. This with a straight face too.
Richter was brought up in Dresden, among whose ruins he studied at the Kunstakademie until 1962, when he was able to make the move through the Iron Curtain to Dsseldorf in West Germany. His elders, like nearly everyone else's, were good Nazis. The war is featured in much of his early work: we see Allied fighters in formation above a landscape; we see incontinent B-17s excreting their long wobbling sticks of bombs over Germany. We also see the aftermath of the war and signs of reconstruction-those repellently blank official buildings that were the heraldic signs of Germany's Wirtschaftwunder. We see a naked woman (Ema, Richter's first wife) walking down a staircase, and we are reminded of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and of its sheer inadequacy as a trace of human experience. We see the blurs into which the blond head of Richter's daughter decomposes in Lesende (Reading), 1994; we are reminded of the attentive silence, as well as the pose, of a Chardin; and we wonder how much more indeterminate the image would have to be before its attentiveness came to pieces. And in seeing these things we also witness the difficulty of seeing anything. Blur and imperfection: Are they in the paint, or in our eyes? What is the "straight" truth?
Apart from his marvelous qualities as an imagemaker, Richter is a laudably litist person, skeptical and independent minded, to whom mass anything-thought, feeling, ideology-is the enemy. This is what shows in the 1988 series of 15 paintings titled October 18, 1977, a sort of impersonal collective elegy for the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang members who killed themselves (or, according to another but less plausible version, were murdered by the authorities) in their cells at the Stammheim prison in West Germany. The deaths of the Baader-Meinhofs were for years the hottest political subject in Germany, and Richter chose the coolest imaginable way of dealing with them, so blurred, low toned and oblique that some are almost beyond interpretation (one painting, for instance, merely depicts the plastic record player in which a handgun was smuggled to a gang member).
The images are taken from the most banal police and official photographs. But the profile portraits of the dead Ulrike Meinhof-like the barely perceptible vibration in darkness that is all Richter shows of the hanging body of Gudrun Ensslin-have a deeply haunting intensity about them. This is the kind of unutterable sadness, one imagines, that Andy Warhol would have given his soul to evoke in paint, but Warhol didn't have enough soul.
When the Baader-Meinhof paintings were shown in New York some 10 years ago, they came under clumsy attack from right-wing critics. Here, went the cry, was the pseudoradical art world up to its nefarious tricks, making heroes out of terrorists, blah, blah and blah. Nothing, of course, could have been farther from the truth. Richter is not, and never has been, a radicalism groupie; he's not even a man of the left. He is a remarkably measured and thoughtful painter who despises theatrics, especially the theatrics of violence that play a low, deadly game with human life in the name of idealism, as the Baader-Meinhof gang did.
It's no mystery why some nostalgic radicals think of Richter as a capitalist stooge, while some conservatives fancy he's a leftie. The reason is, he's doing something right, and that something lies beyond politics, in the domain of real and noble painting.
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