part provocateur, Gerhard Richter never fails to cause a commotion
or force an unexpected reaction. For an artist whose physical
demeanor exudes gentleness and restraint, this is a puzzling and
fascinating aspect of Richter's contradictory "oeuvre "
and mystique. There is a quote by Nietsche in the exhibition catalogue
that cuts to the heart of the confusion: "When we have to
change an opinion about anyone, we charge heavily to his account
the inconvenience he thereby causes us."
It is interesting to sift through a body of work that has generated
so much controversy. Richter's "take" on life appears
to be that of a man permanently focused on "the dark side
of the road," and he has consequently been called many negative
things: "dour undertaker, dry-eyed mourner, systematic debunker
of clichés and lethal parodist," among others, writes
Robert Storr, in the huge catalogue which accompanies the exhibition,
"Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting." Richter
does not make it easy for anyone who tries to understand him.
He does not give the game away or willingly show us his hand,
and he mischieviously delights in throwing would be "analysts"
off his scent.
The penetrating interview by Robert Storr in the catalogue systematically
reveals how elusive, and often frustrating, a subject Richter
can be. The artists' responses to Storr's questions are as zig-zagging
as his contradictory modes and genres of painting, which have
encompassed both abstraction and figuration, often simultaneously.
This inconsistency of expression ignites criticism from many in
the art world who crave a clear, "linear trajectory"
by which to evaluate Richter's, or any artist's, work. Trying
to "pigeon-hole" Richter would be a waste of time, so
be prepared before approaching the show to dispense with the idea
that what you are about to see will be the familiar step-by-step,
stylistically cohesive, chronological inventory of a major artists'
work. The infinite variety of styles is confusing for the uninitiated,
although the catalogue interview is the quickest and most effective
crash course in understanding the man behind the controversy -
and the art. The show is a brilliant combination of all that is
wonderful about Richter - without side-stepping the bad - and
Storr has deliberately maximized on the most controversial aspects
of his work, leaving viewers to make up their own minds.
It was standing-room-only
at the press preview at the opening of the show at Museum of Modern
Art in New York on February 13, 2002, where immense cameras came
close to causing concussions in the push to get a good shot of
the artist. Richter refused to address the gathering even when
asked to do so by Robert Storr, Senior Curator, Department of
Painting and Sculpture at MOMA, who was publicly challenged by
a reporter to invite the artist to speak; clearly Richter had
said in advance he would not talk directly to the press. He maintained
a dignified and guarded stance and quietly shook his head.
In his foreward to the catalogue,
Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New
York, provides the following commentary about the artist:
"No other artist has
placed more intriguing and rigorous demands upon specialists,
interpreters, followers, and average viewers alike - nor upon
himself. Richter is the author of pictures so different from one
another that at first glance they seem to be by different hands.
He has defined a vast pictorial and conceptual territory for himself,
and has given it specific dimensions in canvases that vary from
Photo-Realist figuration to total abstraction, from snapshot and
postcard banality to transcendence, and from serene or pyrotechnic
beauty to brooding austerity. Aprroaching this maze of paintings
can be confusing at first, but the more one looks and the more
the overt contradictions and subtle continuities of Richter's
oeuvre take on substance, the more enlightening the experience
becomes. In Richter's work there is pleasure and pain, sly wit
and high seriousness, but above all there is a demonstration of
the way in which painting's resources are constantly replenished
by the very problems it seems to pose, both for the painter and
the viewer. Nobody in our own time has posed them better or solved
them more inventively than Richter."
After being eulogized at
the press preview by Mr. Lowry, Richter delivered brief responses
one-on-one to German press in his own language, and with a wave,
departed stealthily, like his painting entitled "Stag (Hirsch),"
(1963, private collection), escaping the thicket of branches and
tree trunks in the forest, prominently visible past the crush
and the cameras in a nearby gallery. His relief at having survived
the public ordeal was palpable.
"Stag (Hirsch)" is perhaps Richter's
most accessible and most beautiful painting yet, intriguingly,
it has no other companion pieces stylistically in the show. It
is a work of great beauty and would have provided sufficient fodder
for most other artists for most of their careers. Many artists
experiment with different styles but then usually settle down
to a "signature" motif/style but Richter, it seems,
is often content to prove he can do something brilliantly and
then quickly moves on. Similarly, many artists are not consistent,
sometimes producing works that are not up to their highest standards
but Richter often produces works that are odd and "out-of-keeping"
with conventional notions of talent.
Richter manipulates reproductions
of images from sources as diverse as encyclopaedias, magazines
and newspapers, transforming them into cultural archetypes. The
previously mentioned stag alludes to the German fascination with
the wild, symbolized by the forest and the deer, a direct descendent
of Nordic legend and Romanticism. "For us Germans in particular,"
explains Richter, "relating to forests as strongly as we
do, the stag does of course have a symbolic quality. I wanted
to be a forester when I was young, and I was really excited when
I found a real stag in the forest and took a photograph. Later
I painted him, and the painting was a bit less romantic than my
The atmosphere was electric
for the first major retrospective of Richter's work in America,
where 188 paintings in a daring variety of styles are grouped
together under the title "Forty Years of Painting."
Richter must have been acutely aware of the significance of the
event, and to Storr's credit, he has done nothing to diminish
the possibility of further controversy in his selection and highlighting
of conflicting painterly styles and unsettling juxtapositions.
Two previous surveys of Richter's work were held over a decade
ago: in 1987 the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford showed 22 paintings
as part of their "Matrix" series on new artists, and
the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada in 1988 exhibited 88 paintings
by Richter that traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in
Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington
D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 2000, MOMA showed canvases
from his famous, and to some notorious, "October 18, 1977"
series, devoted to the Baader Meinhoff terrorists; all fifteen
of these important paintings are now in the collection of the
Museum of Modern Art.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, grew up under National Socialism
and lived under East German Communism for 16 years before moving
to West Germany in 1961. Here, he discovered Neo-Dada, Art Informel
and Fluxus and formed an off-shoot of Pop called "Capitalist
Realism" with his friends Sigmar Polke and Konrad Leug: this
was the only "movment" to which Richter ever belonged,
and it was brief. His greatest contribution to postwar art has
been his pioneering of realism through paintings copied from photographs.
Choosing to walk alone he has also created sumptuous abstracts
and Neo-Expressionist imagery. Richter's aversion to "groups"
or schools or ideologies of any kind is a byproduct of the experiences
of his youth.
Richter's images have regularly appeared in European shows for
the past twenty years, but a major retrospective of his work at
MOMA, is a confirmation of just how important Richter is now considered
by the powers that "make and break" in the art world.
His personal "history" is a fascinating read on its
own, and an eerie reminder of how the world repeats negative patterns.
Now seventy years old, Richter's paintings fetch awesome prices
for works by a living artist, setting records at Sotheby's and
Christies during the past two years. His "Three Candles (Drei
Kerzen)", a 1982 oil on canvas 49 1/4 by 59 1/2 inches sold
at Sothebys for May 15, 2001 for $5,395,750, breaking the previous
world auction record for the artist of $4,956,000 (see The
City Review article). And on May 15, 2002, a single candle
painting by Richter Gerhard
Richter, entitled "Kerze," a 35 3/8-by-37 3/8-inch oil
on canvas, executed in 1982, sold at Sotheby's above its high
estimate for $3,969,500 including the buyer's premium (see The City
On May 16, 2001, one
of Richter's best landscapes, "Buschdorf," a 40-by-56-inch
oil on canvas that was executed in 1985 and has an estimate of
$2,500,000 to $3,500,000, sold for $2,206,000 including the buyer's
premium (see The
City Review article).
Such prices reflect the
fact that many collectors believe him to be the one of the most
famous, and important, living artists in the world today.
Ironically, the candle paintings for which he is now famous were
poorly received in the early 1980s when they were first exhibited,
mainly because Richter was then immersed in vividly hued abstracts.
The sudden lane change to realistic subject matter in a painterly
style infuriated the avant garde. "Of the six I showed none
sold. They later became so expensive," notes Richter with
a laugh in his interview with Storr. The one "constant"
however, besides aggravating people, in Richter's stylistically
ricocheting career, are the abstract paintings, which grow more
lyrical and exotically hued as he gets older. This show has some
spectacular examples, including three gigantic oil on aluminum
panels in somber tones, "November," "December"
and "January," painted in 1989, which are now in the
permanent collection of the St. Louis Museum of Art.
Richter's stylistic flitting about like a butterfly landing on
this and that irritates and confuses viewers who are new to him,
and also many of those who are familiar with his work. He offers
no "security" to his audience: no reliable styles, familiar
subject matter, clear progressions from one step to the next.
Nor does he "baby-sit" patiently while you sit and try
and figure him out. You are on your own, take it or leave it,
and he's off onto something else or several things at once. But
beware of underestimating the depth of his vision or intent. Richter's
art is imbued with displacement, instability and, often, despair.
At heart he is a classicist and an idealist, but the viewer needs
to dig and to read in order to get close to him and his work.
The first clue to understanding his work is the blurred center
in "Table," (1962, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
on extended loan from a private collection), which Richter has
designated as number one in his personal catalog raisonné
It is a black and white copy of a picture clipped from the magazine
"Domus," in which he deliberately alters the objects
proportions, obliterates aesthetic lighting and eliminates photographic
detail: the blurry abstract cloud of paint obscures the table,
defining Richter's obsession with the disruption of the illusionistic
might strike some observers as a work in which the artist has
rubbed out the heart of his composition presumably in frustration,
or is just a very messy painter, Richter is capable of great subtlety.
"Iceberg in Fog (Eisberg im Negel)," shown above, is
a beautiful oil on canvas, 27 1/2 by 39 3/8 inches, private collection,
From the Pop Art and Photo-Realism of Richter's early 1960's work,
which some have compared with sepia family photos, but they are
newer, more edgy than that, the clinical gray canvases, gestural
paintings of the 1970s, photo-based still lifes and landscapes
of the 1980s, and the haunting and often sad portraits and equally
uplifting abstractions of the past 15 years, Richter has done
it all , creating a prolific body of work as daunting in size
as it is in diversity. Defining his work in words is a monumental
exercise in the powers of concentration and analysis.
At first glance, Richter's early paintings look like ghostly Warhols,
with the pigment drained out of them, and the emotional connection
between these two artists persists throughout the show. Both employed
different methods to "mechanize" their work: Warhol,
by silk-screening: Richter, by mechanical "wiping,"
and both borrowed freely from ready-made images in newspapers,
magazines and photographs. By force of circumstances, Richter
was unable to express himself as wildly and exuberantly as Warhol.
Both artists assimilated the public's strange and horrible fascination
with suffering and media exploitation of it. Richter is as immune
to this fetish as he is to the constraints of fashion or the expectations
of the avant garde elite.
At the same time as Warhol
was letting rip in New York, across the seas in Europe Richter
was breaking free of the creative shackles of East German Communism,
painting bombers, randomly selected images from newspapers, war
criminals, murdered prostitutes, nurses and terrorists and a fairytale
castle echoing legends and myths as old as the forests in which
it is set like a jewel. "Neuschwanstein Castle," (Collection
Frieder Burda), which is illustrated in the catalog but not included
in the show, was Ludwig of Bavaria's last "folly," which
in real life Richter calls a "hideous monstrosity,"
with the paradoxical seductiveness of the fairytale, bliss and
promise of happiness - the kind of castle featured in thousands
of childhood fairytale books. It is the seductiveness of the fairytale
that Richter finds dangerous - and kitsch. In this painting, it
was his intention to dispel unhealthy, habit-forming attachments
to outmoded and "monstrous" notions inherited from the
past. "Monstrous" is an adjective Richter uses frequently
about commonplace objects.
Warhol and Richter both painted Jackie Kennedy in mourning, but
Richter's Jackie ("Lady with Umbrella," oil on canvas,
63 by 37 3/8 inches, 1964, Daros Collection, Switzerland) is painted
from a newspaper photo taken moments after her husband was killed;
contrary to Warhol's "resolute" widow images of Jackie,
Richter's version is of a grief-stricken woman. "...it is
notably discrete by comparison to Warhol's many treatments of
the same subject - her hand covers half of her face and her name
does not appear in the title - and more subtly emotional than
Warhol's high contrast, grainy silhouettes of the bravely tearful
first lady. Taking advantage of the iconic nature of the source
as his foil, Richter turns things around to give us a respectfully
distant, gently brushed, almost tender likeness of a grieving
woman," wrote Storr in the catalogue.
Both artists were obsessed
with death and history - as portrayed in the media - turning ordinary
human beings and everyday happenings into the modern equivalent
of "history painting." It was no longer necessary to
be an important person, place or thing to be painted. Warhol has
his soup cans. Richter his toilet paper rolls. The most obvious
difference between them is that Warhol had a consistent Pop Art
style and his silk-screens were colorful, while there is absolutely
no artistic "pigeon hole" in which to slot Richter and
his misty palette, or "sfumato," denies excessive use
of color, except in his gestural abstracts, which take color to
its optimal brilliance and contrast. Richter uses paint like a
genie, his oils achieving magical nuances as they are dragged
across complimentary colors on slick aluminum or smudged and smeared
in delicate gradations of gray and white tinged with pink or lilac,
where Warhol deliberately mechanized and flattened the painterly
aspect of his colors through the silkscreen process. Warhol's
style was easy to classify, but Richter's is not.
Richter admits that he likes
Warhol's "Disaster" paintings and provides the following
interesting commentary in the catalogue's interview with him and
"I believe that the
quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate
on the essential. The hyperrealists didn't do that; they painting
everything, every detail. That's why they were such a surprise.
But for me it was obvious that I had to wipe out the details.
I was happy to have a method that was rather mechanical. In that
regard I owe something to Warhol. He legitimized the mechanical.
He showed me how it is done. It is a normal state of working,
to eliminate things. but Warhol showed me this modern way of letting
details disappear, or at least he validated its possiblities.
He did it with silkscreening and photography, and I did it through
mehanical wiping. It was a very liberating act."
artistic "smorgsboard" is strangely convincing, and
for all their detachment and darkness, his paintings can be disconcertingly
moving. Idealism, heavily spiked with skepticism, manages to cling
on by its fingernails and shine on through the desperation and
despair. At the press preview, the author Kurt Vonnegut pensively
absorbed a glorious, desolate "Seascape (Cloudy)," a
1969 oil on canvas, six feet 6 3/4 inches square, private collection,
Berlin, his expression conveying the combination of awe and perplexity
that is common to most viewers of Richter's work. The painting
is a technical triumph - and as beautiful as it is lonely and
depressing. Images of idyllic, natural scenery, devoid of human
beings, produce a gloomy sense of loss setting off opposing or
divergent emotions in the observer. Fragile and beautiful "Flowers
(Blumen)," a 1992 oil on canvas, 49 3/4 by 36 1/4 inches,
private collection, recall a corsage on a coffin and a happy young
bride's wedding bouquet, simultaneously. In the museum bookshop
a young salesgirl remarked that Richter's work made her cry and
she did not know why. Many of the cold, detached images for which
he is both criticized and famous wring unexpected emotion out
of many viewers. They do not offer escape or solace, just starkness,
which can be beautiful.
When Richter was questioned
by Storr why, in the midst of painting abstracts, he suddenly
began copying Titian and creating romantic landscapes, Richter
was candid: "the assertion of my freedom: 'Why shouldn't
I paint like this and who could tell me not to? And then the affirmation
was naturally there, the wish to paint paintings as beautiful
as those by Caspar David Friedrich, to claim that this time is
not lost but possible, that we need it, and that it is good. And
it was a polemic against modern art, against tin art, against
"wild art" and for freedom, that I could do whatever
I wanted to.'" For a man who had been so constrained in his
formative years, the idea of not having the choice to do something
made it the very thing he had to do. As this body of work at the
MOMA shows, it became one of major points he set out to prove.
Knowing the circumstances of Richter's "history" will
reveal why freedom is such a big deal with him and no small wonder
the young flock to see his paintings. A young Columbia graduate
at the exhibition in New York expressed genuine surprise at how
much he loved the show, and the endless lines at MOMA were packed
with young people. In the galleries, there were more young people
in clusters, arm in arm, staring fixedly at bombers, swirling
abstracts, seascapes and slain terrorists in clothes and hairstyles
reminiscent of the 60s and 70s, which somehow blend perfectly
with Richter's work. Misty images of toilet paper, as tenderly
and meticulously painted in 1965 as a still life by Chardin, were
especially fascinating. Needless to say the toilet paper images
are not as banal as they seem, as an ensuing conversation will
show: "It is important!" declares Richter.
In his "iconography of the everyday" toilet paper, light
fixtures, kitchen chairs, Richter turns the tables on conventional
expectations. The toilet paper is portrayed importantly, in two
cases in a quasi-Romantic glow that pre-date the glow of his early
70s paintings, which it is as a symbol of a new and affluent consumerism
and consumer goods. But in his 1965 painting of a chandelier entitled
"Flemish Crown," Richter does not wish to make the chandelier
important, because of the bourgeois values it represents. There
is, of course, a little gamesmanship going on. The chandelier
picture has only one subject, the chandelier, so it is not unimportant,
even if it is not a terribly flamboyant chandelier. Indeed, in
the extended interview printed in the catalogue, Richter describes
the chandelier as "a monster" and he also calls it "banal"
and terrrifying. "I didn't have to distort faces. It is much
scarier to paint people's faces as banal as I find them in photographs.
That is what makes the banal more than just banal." "The
Flemish Crown is a piece of a larger reality that is frightening,
not a symbol of something but part of the thing itself,"
Storr declared, to which Richter responded that "it is an
image of this horror, a detail of it." "Of ugliness?"
Storr asked. "Of the misery of this world," Richter
laughingly responded, adding "Perhaps this special culture...a
petit bourgeois culture...And although it was terrible, it was
never meant to be an accusation."
Richter's yearning for the
painterly excellence of the past as in Old Master paintings is
palpable and he pines nostalgically for those bygone days: "I
feel close to this idea of seeing the pain and loss in the world.
I can't paint as well as Vermeer - we have lost this beautiful
culture, all the utopias are shattered, everything goes down the
drain, the wonderful time of painting is over." That might
sound melodramatic and contradictory but Richter is dead serious:
"I still want to paint something like Vermeer. But it is
the wrong time and I cannot do it. I am too dumb. Well, I am not
able to." He does not rate his technical abilities very highly
compared with the Old Masters, and perhaps his paintings are the
swan song of figurative art, as video art, computer art and digital
cameras revolutionize our youth, capturing their attention for
hours which were once spent doodling or sketching or painting
or playing ball. But, if the enthusiasm of the young folks at
the MOMA show is anything to go by, maybe Richter can revive figurative
Looking around the modern art museums of the world today, realistic,
figurative painting is not highly visible. The Whitney Biennial,
for example, (see The City Review article)
this year did not overflow with fine draftsmanship or painterly
virtuosity, perhaps an indication that many viewers do not feel
the loss of fine draftsmanship and painterly techniques as keenly
as Richter and others.
For technical wizardry,
Richter's daughter "Betty," a 1988, 40 1/8-by-23 3/8-inch
oil on canvas (The St. Louis Art Museum), with her back turned
to the viewer in a red and white jacket, is a refreshing, "Old
World" exercise in painterly virtuosity, and an interesting
twist on Vermeer and Ingres.
Looking around the walls
of the galleries, it is hard to believe that Richter does not
consider himself much of a painter, but clearly he is hard on
himself and sets his artistic bar very high. With characteristic
bluntness, he continually dismisses his technical virtuosity,
although Shakespeare's quip, "Methinks thou doth protest
too much," hints that it is his secret obsession: "Unfortunately
I am not a virtuoso and that has always been my flaw. Today there
is almost nobody (or only a few bad examples) who has the virtuosity
to draw something. I depend on the photograph and mindlessly copy
what I see. I am clumsy in that regard, even though I seem very
skillful." Take a look at the small, rather mesmerizing portrait
of horizontally placed head of "Betty," oil on canvas,
11 13/16 by 15 3/4 inches, private collection, 1977, for an example
of magical brushwork, although the Old Masters might never have
painted their portrait subjects so "up close and personal,"
and at such a disorienting angle. Deliberate, of course.
Richter can draw and paint
in the old fashioned sense, even though his technical method often
involves "un-doing" his painted image with brush or
squeegee called mechanical "wiping." His tender and
optimistic portraits of his family (his wife, daughter Betty and
baby son Moritz) unleash his virtuosity, and there are enough
of them in the show to rekindle an interest in portrait painting,
long regarded the domain of the musty "old guard." Richter's
portraits are devoid of dismal or formal associations and are
wonderfully fresh, contemporary "takes" in the genre
of portraiture, which, for the most part, is now left to the family
photographer or only for the rich. Seeing Richter's portraits
of his family inspires a yearning to have similar portraits painted
by an artist by hand - like a craving for chocolate or a great
glass of wine. It is interesting that an artist who has raised
the mechanical photograph up into the "high art" world
of painting has simultaneously succeeded in elevating painted
portraits to an awesome new high they are stunning and completely
of their time. It is a paradox Richter must secretly appreciate.
Despite the stylistic variables
in Richter's work, for which he is pounded by critics, there are
no formaldehyde animals, organs in slimy green solutions or surgical
instruments in his creative vocabulary, and yet his imagery can
be as psychologically disturbing and unsettling as some of Damien
Hirst's most provocative work, although it would be impossible
to imagine any of the titles of Richter's paintings to sound like
Hirst's irreverent and often lewd one-liners. A sense of "aloneness"
and a total absence of human beings in his landscapes and seascapes
render them abstract, even though we "know" we are staring
at a meticulous reproduction of a stretch of ocean or an iceberg
barely visible through fog. "Seascape (Sea-Sea)," 1970,
(Staatliche Museum, Berlin) and the ethereal "Iceberg in
Fog" (1982, private collection, San Francisco) (shown higher
in this article) play tricks on the eye, causing viewers to linger
and take their time, drawn in by their mysterious ambiguity.
As he did in his early rendering of the fairytale "Neuschwanstein
Castle," (1963, Collection Frieder Burda), Richter persistently
stalks the assumption that "what we see is (not) what we
get," whether it is a photo-based painting from a newspaper
clipping, a faithfully rendered landscape (with a castle) or a
blurred copy of a woman dressed in an evening gown descending
a staircase ("Woman Descending the Staircase," 1965,
The Art Institute of Chicago) He heightens the tension between
the supposed truth contained in an image - we see it, we know
it, therefore it must be so - and the unreliability of those assumptions.
Richter chronicles many of the most horrific events of our times
as if they were "facts" recorded by a camera, his "neutrality"
posing as a stealthy disguise for questioning the truth or validity
of visual appearances; the non-descript, seemingly ordinary "Mr.
Heyde," (1965, private collection), who had in reality butchered
human beings when he was a Nazi doctor, and the eight fresh-faced
"Nurses," ("Eight Student Nurses," 1966, Kunstmuseum,
Winterthur), who look as though they are off to the prom, but
in fact the photos from which they are painted appeared in the
newspaper after they were brutally murdered in a serial killing.
Once that fact is known, the viewer is left in isolation to dwell
in the sadness of their unlikely fate. In "Helga Matura"
(1966, Art Gallery of Toronto, Canada), an indirect portrait of
a murdered prostitute, and the indirect portraits of the nurse
victims of the American serial killer Richard Speck, "Eight
Student Nurses" (based on Andy Warhol's mug-shots of New
York criminals "Thirteen Most Wanted Men," 1964), Richter
painted the victims instead of the killers. The eight separate
"nurses" paintings (presented as one work), eerily blurred,
were taken from nursing-school class pictures and, Mr. Storr comments
in the catalogue, "tend toward homogenization as does the
title which identifies the subjects as a group rather than as
Both the nurses and the murdered prostitutes fall into the genre
of "before-and-after" photographs used by the press
to sensationalize lurid events like murders and rapes: Storr observes
that "'Before' is normality (which upright citizens can snicker
over since they know what's coming, particularly when the victim
violated their codes) and 'after,' with the ghastly twist that
brings it about, is annihilation." Richter transposes the
photos without sentimentality or censure.
The nurses also represent a collective identity, their professional
stature commemorated by their uniforms and their "official"
hospital snapshots which look exactly like high school yearbook
pictures. However, Richter accentuates their unique qualities:
their expressions, hairstyles, or the tilt of their heads, to
turn the "homogenized" women into individual women.
This, writes Storr, "reminds the viewer that no matter how
they have been presented to us before, their deaths, like all
deaths, were the ultimate statement of their individuality and
solitude. Painting brings these qualities to the surface in ways
that photography and photomechanical means cannot and which each
generation of reproduction only exacerbates....Substituting the
hand-made mark for the consistent reaction of light on chemical
emulsions, or the consistent impression of dot-screens on paper
the canvas object for the serially printed sheet Richter's paintings
restore a sense of finitude to the human form that had seemingly
been superseded by the potential infinity of reproductions."
In paintings like 'Eight Student Nurses' Richter tries to inject
feelings into images conventionally emptied by over-exposure.
The "October 18"
series, featuring young terrorists from the 1960s known as the
Baader-Meinhof group, probes the ambiguities of visual appearances
extensively. Richter classifies his body of work as "before"
and "after the "October 18" paintings, which marked
a turning point in his career because the event affected him so
deeply. On the morning of October 18th, 1977, the bodies of three
prisoners, including Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ennslin, were found
dead in their cells in Stammheim prison; according to the "authorities,"
they had committed suicide. However, many Germans, including Richter,
believed that the prisoners were murdered. A year earlier, Ulrike
Meinhoff had died under similarly ambiguous circumstances.
Although Richter, like the German Nobel Prize-winning author Heinrich
Boll, abhorred their violence, he did sympathize with the idealism
and the youthful optimism of the Baader-Meinhof group and their
belief that they could change the world for the better. Most of
all, many people identified with their anti-authoritarian beliefs.
Six young people took on the establishment: "six against
sixty million" wrote Boll, and in the end they lay dead in
prison, along with their ideals and those of many of their countrymen.
Richter's intensely depressing painting commemorating the funeral
of Baader, Ennslin and their colleague Jean-Carl Raspe, titled
"Funeral," (1988, The Museum of Modern Art), shows an
event which drew crowds worthy of a beloved world leader, and
not that of a small gang of terrorists as Richter tried uncannily
to "unmask" life's strangest paradoxes.
Always aware of the ticking of history's clock, Richter painted
the fifteen Baader Meinhof images on view at the MOMA show directly
from newspaper photographs chronicling the event eleven years
after the crisis which was referred to as "Germany's Autumn."
The funereal atmosphere of the works reflects the death of idealism,
and there is something unsettling and tragic about these very
young people lying dead in their cells because of their beliefs
and ideals. "Man Shot Down 1, 2" (1988, Museum of Modern
Art, New York) show a limp Andreas Baader laid out on the floor
of his cell, presumably where the authorities had cut him down
from his rope. Two other paintings titled "Dead" (1988,
Museum of Modern Art) zoom in with chilling precision on the marks
left by the rope on Baader's neck.
The innocent face of Gudrun Ennslin in "Confrontation 1,2,3"
and "Hanged"(1988, Museum of Modern Art, New York) begs
the question: how could this sweet face and person have been distorted
into killing her fellow countrymen in the name of freedom? What
made her so desperate that she became a hunted terrorist when
she had her whole life in front of her? For those who remember
the idealism and optimism of the sixties and seventies, the "October
18" paintings have great power. Paradoxically they are eerily
reminiscent of current events and the youthful "homicide
bombers" who are teenagers or young mothers in the prime
of life. The "October 18" images are a reminder of how
some things just do not change and, in the case of terrorism,
actually get worse.
Growing up under Nazism, followed by East German Communism, left
Richter deeply mistrustful of ideologies of all kinds, as represented
in the "October 18" paintings. His pictorial sources
for the images were television footage and police and news photographs.
They are a painter's ode to the doomed revolutionary aspirations
of the generation of the 1960s, and the tragic deaths of those
who followed those hopes to self-destructive extremes. By repainting
the documentary images in cold gray tones, and then "un-painting"
them with brush and squeegie strokes that sometimes blur the images
to the point of near-total obscurity, (especially those of beautiful
Gudrun Ennslin), Richter was re-inventing the heroic genre of
"history painting" in the image of photo-mechanical
technology. As he does this, he forces us to examine the truth-telling
properties we are used to ascribing to documentary media. He has
meshed old conventions and contemporary methods to tell a tragic
story - minus the heroes.
Paradoxically, this contemporary classicist has spent his entire
life in close proximity to iconic conceptual artists like Joseph
Beuys, a colleague of Richter's on the faculty of the Kunstakademie
in Dusseldorf, (whose chosen forms of media included rooms full
of earth and boxes containing excrement), and his good friend
and colleague Sigmar Polke, (an artist heavily influenced by Roy
Lichenstein and Robert Rauschenberg), whose dotted collages incorporating
photographic images are pieced together like massive oriental
wall hangings, the exact opposite of Richter's delicate, almost
washed away canvasses. Beuys was an out-and-out rebel (and idealist),and
regarded Marcel Duchamp, the father of Dada, as overrated and
lost his job at the Academie for allowing students who were not
enrolled at the Academy to attend his classes.
Richter delights in shocking and for all-out, in-your-face lewdness,
he presents the viewer with a young, unattractive, nude "Student,"
("Studentin,"1967, private collection), whose overtly
sexual pose recalls girly magazines and porn. This mild-mannered
form of provocation is intent upon uncovering the double standards
inherent in our society: Richter expertly pulls back the curtain
on Puritanism, hypocrisy and sexism, subtly showing us that this
awkwardly posed female makes us acutely uncomfortable. "Student"
is also painted with a cold, dispassionate eye, unlike the tenderly
rendered, Renoiresque beauty "Olympia," (1967, private
collection, Berlin), or the alluring siren in "Small Nude"
(1967, Collection Frances and John Bowes). The sensuous brushwork
and richly textured, warm tones inspired by these sensual women
are in stark contrast to the cold, luster-less, monotones of the
Richter does not wallow
in the prurient. Indeed, he recognizes that tabloid readers enjoy
gossip as much as the prurient. An elegant, monochromatic painting
from a magazine clipping of four "beautiful people"
in a motorboat a Ralph Lauren advertisement of the good life -
("Motor Boat," first version, 1965, private collection)
- shows young people, impeccably and fully attired, without a
care in the world. Their elegant, nautical clothing is a reminder
that for some, life is a joy-ride to and from the country club.
Both "Student" (she would not fit in with that crowd)
and "Motor Boat" are cleverly hung on opposite walls
- in the same gallery. Nothing related to Richter is arbitrary,
not even the juxtaposition of paintings in a show: Robert Storr
is well aware of this and has maximized on its impact.
Richter has always dodged categorization or analysis: perhaps
he feels that is best left to those who merely observe. Or perhaps
his non-committal diffidence is more to do with what the introductory
wall text to the show describes as his "challenging neutrality,"
which forbids him to judge the accuser or the accused, or to subscribe
to any form of dogma or ideology. For the unprepared, Richter's
non-judgmental stance might shock and offend, and in the "openness"
of American society, his guardedness and neutrality may seem out
of place, cold and even offensive. But for those who take time
with this artist's work and manage to read the catalog by curator
Robert Storr, a very different persona emerges.
Richter was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1932. His father, Horst
Richter, was a local teacher and his mother, Hildegaard Richter,
was the daughter of a gifted pianist and encouraged her son's
artistic interests. In 1933, when Richter was one, Adolf Hitler
became Reich Chancellor and the Third Reich succeeded the Weimar
government in Germany. The stage around the young boy was set
for one of the most repressive and violent regimes in history,
and artists were amongst the many whom the fascists would choose
to single out and denigrate. In 1934 the family moved to Reichenau
in Saxony the first of two relocations that would keep young Richter
out of harm's way during the twelve-year occupation of the Reich.
In 1937, the Nazis made it clear that the kind of art represented
in "Degenerate Art," which opened the same year in Munich
and toured other cities in Germany, would not be tolerated. By
1939 Germany invaded Poland, and Britain, France and other countries
declared war on Germany. The second relocation of the Richter
family was to the small village of Waltersdorf. Horst Richter
was amiable but ineffectual, a staunch Protestant and a member
of the Nazi party. Horst, along with Richter's maternal uncles,
were mobilized after the outbreak of war and he was subsequently
taken prisoner by the Americans on the Western Front.
Upon Horst Richter's release in 1946, he returned to Waltensdorf,
but as an ex-Nazi he was not allowed to return to his teaching
post. Nor did he integrate back into his family: "He shared
most fathers' fate at the time - nobody wanted them," explains
Richter in the catalogue interview. Richter's mother, on the other
hand, had her own sense of "special status" within the
community, which her son inherited. Richter summed up his family's
primarily petit-bourgeois life as "simple, orderly, structured."
Like all boys at the time in Germany, Richter was initiated into
the "Hitler Youth" whose members he recalls as pompous
asses: "When you are twelve, you're too little to understand
all that ideological hocus-pocus. I always knew that I was something
better than they were. Hitler and soldiers and all of that was
for plebians, whereas my mother always kept me close to culture,
to Nietzsche, Goethe and Wagner." Culture was Richter's savior
in the deranged world of war swirling around him. Perhaps it was
as early as then that Richter trusted art as the only reliable
replacement for religion, ideology and dogma.
The impact of war changed Richter's small-town existence irreversibly,
and he seems to have relished it. American planes dropped propaganda
leaflets, military trenches were dug behind his house, and he
and his friends roamed the woods with army rifles, shooting at
trees: "There were weapons and cannons and guns and cigarettes:
it was fantastic." Although this was exciting for a young
boy, the sounds of distant destruction had to be terrifying. Storr
writes: "In February 1945, Allied Bombers unleashed a firestorm
over Dresden that ranks as the most devastating aerial assault
in history prior to the first use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki later that year." Richter remembers: "In
the night, everyone came out into the street in this village 100
kilometres away." The Russian advance inspired Richter to
make a small cart to escape, but the family did not move.
Initially, the Soviet occupation was chaotic, with looting and
rape commonplace. But out of this horror came a strange "blessing."
Richter reminisces: "It was very nasty, but when the Russians
came to our village and expropriated the houses of the rich who
had left or were driven out, they made libraries for the people
out of those houses. And that was fantastic. We could get all
the books: (Hermann) Hesse, all that stuff was suddenly there.
Later it was forbidden. You could almost not buy a Thomas Mann.
But at the beginning everything was there" "Forbidden"
is a word that crops up over and over again in Richter's memories:
no small wonder he values his artistic freedom above all else.
In 1945, after failing math, Richter left school and joined a
trade school where he studied Russian, which was compulsory, stenography
and accounting. He made friends with a local painter and photographer
whose father had a darkroom. Richter assisted him, and in turn
learned the rudiments of photography. Drawing began in earnest
around the age of 15 and his decision to become an artist was
made at the same time. By sixteen, Richter was convinced it was
his calling: he fell in love at summer camp the same year. In
1948 Richter settled on his own in the town of Zittau, where he
resided in a hostel for apprentices. He avidly read Nietzsche
but also Karl Marx, breaking with his parent's Christian faith
and renouncing religion: "by the age of 16 or 17, I was absolutely
clear that there is no God, an alarming discovery to me, after
my Christian upbringing. By that time my fundamental aversion
to all beliefs and ideologies was fully developed."
Painting as a profession was not in the cards, however, and Richter
interviewed as a forester, a dental technician and a lithographer,
but he was not temperamentally suited to any of these positions.
His first art job came in the unlikely guise of painting Communist
banners for the German Democratic Republic. He was part of the
team hired to paint slogans on the banners but he spent the first
five months washing off old slogans so that new ones could be
painted over them, his first experience of "removing"
paint, a "technique" to which he would return later.
Not the most creative start, but he soon secured a job as a sign
painter and theater set painter. The theater company produced
plays by Goethe and Schiller, which, together with operas and
operettas, finally afforded Richter the creative, bohemian ambiance
he craved. He was fired for refusing to do the menial jobs, however!
Ironically, Richter's application to the Dresden Academy was turned
down because he was considered "too bourgeois." Astute
enough to understand that associating himself with state-approved
Socialist organizations might boost his career prospects, he painted
propaganda posters of Stalin amongst other subjects. His plan
worked; when he re-applied to the Academy in 1950 he was accepted.
Included in his portfolio of "acceptable" art was a
semi-abstraction, which the examiners labeled "volcano,"
because they did not understand it.
One of the great museums in Dresden was the Zwinger Museum, once
the home of the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and
a meeting place for "Die Brucke," which he founded in
1905. Many of the masterpieces were destroyed in the bombing,
and the Zwinger academy remained a bastion of conservatism when
Richter attended. Its curriculum had, naturally, been interfered
with by the Communist Party's preference for Socialist Realism.
When he was on his own, Richter immersed himself in the Old Masters
such as Velasquez, Durer, and Rembrandt, and the Impressionists,
but the Impressionists were soon banned with the onset of the
Cold War and a hardening of the Communist Party line. The German
Expressionists who Hitler had so detested after viewing the "Degenerate
Art" exhibition of 1938 were also "verboten" by
the Communists. Well-known Communists like Pablo Picasso were
acceptable, but despite the pressure, Richter's personal favorites
remained Valasquez, Manet, Caspar David Friedrich, and Max Beckmann.
Richter and his fellow artists in East Germany were largely cut
off from developments in Western art, although now and again he
caught snippets of information through magazines and newspapers.
He saved his clippings and photos in albums, which would soon
become an archive of his past, and the touchstone and inspiration
for many of his images. The traditional five-year curriculum at
the Academy included the rigorous drawing and painting of portraits,
nudes and still lifes. The mural department, however, Storr noted
"was a well-known sanctuary from the most rigid application
of the Socialist Realist model because it was assumed that the
demands of wall decoration would permit a measure of unacceptable
formalism." Among those Richter emulated was Diego Rivera,
whose style was quite unlike his own, rather than the "grim
class-struggle narratives" of André Fougeron, a French
painter favored by the academy. Fortunately for Richter, the professor
who headed the mural department, Heinz Lohmar, (although a loyal
Communist Party member who Richter called "a very interesting
type, a little gangster") was cosmopolitan and fairly well
informed. After four years of mandatory painterly exercises, Richter
was given his own studio and his first important commission in
Dresden's Hygiene Museum.
The early murals are formulaic and without individuality but refreshingly
simple and lacking in rhetorical "overkill." In 1958,
Richter cautiously pushed for "rationalizing the beauraucratic
process that governed commissions" and mentions "the
dangers of stupid dogmatism," Storr wrote, adding that "Richter's
later condemnations of ideological art (i.e. muscular men and
women wielding sledgehammers) are something more than the opinions
of a man who simply lived under authoritarian regimes, they are
those of someone who had participated in the creation of a state
culture. That said, Richter's apprenticeship and journeyman years
in the East constitute a substantial preamble to his career in
the West, and not just a uniformly and transparently negative
experience against which to react. Indeed, they represent a struggle
to answer serious aesthetic challenges but one pursued on terms
that made any artistically satisfying answers impossible. Like
all real struggles they left scars, but they also clarified and
strengthened his basic inclinations."
In 1953, Stalin died and the Korean War ended. Richter had somehow
managed to live a relatively comfortable life, given the repressive
atmosphere, and his public projects brought him enough success
to earn a steady income, a car and travel abroad. In 1951, he
met Marianne Eufinger and they were married in 1957. On his second
trip to West Germany, Richter saw Documenta 2, organized by Professor
Arnold Bode, whose aim was to re-introduce Germany to international
modernism after the long artistic famine of the Nazi era. The
show was located in Kassel, close to the border of the German
Democratic Republic and the German Federal Republic supposedly
to entice East Germans starved for culture.
Richter photographed almost every work presented at Documenta
2 for reference. "It was the turning point of his artistic
life, and two painters in particular were responsible: "I
was enormously impressed by (Jackson) Pollock and (Lucio) Fontana
- the sheer brazenness of it! That really fascinated me and impressed
me. I might say those paintings were the real reason I left the
German Democratic Republic. I realized that something was wrong
with my whole way of thinking. I lived my life with a group of
people who laid claim to a moral aspiration, who wanted to bridge
a gap, who were looking for a middle way between capitalism and
socialism, a so-called Third Path. And so the way we thought,
and what we wanted for our own art, was all about compromise."
The only surviving work by Richter prior to 1962 besides the (over-painted)
mural at the Hygiene Museum are the photographs he took of his
paintings, drawings and murals. These included many works inspired
by Picasso, most notably several sheets devoted to skulls - forerunners
of the skulls Richter began painting in 1983. Also preserved in
this photographic archive are copies from Durer, abstract scenes
emulating Lyonel Feininger, and a few undated paintings and drawings
influenced by Art Informel, or Abstract Expressionism: "Their
energy is confined by their small format, but is still palpable,"
Storr maintained. In a moment of blunt honesty, Richter explains
his predicament at the time: "For an artist the situation
in Dresden was unreal. They (the cultural bureaucracy) by calling
you a formalist could deny you the opportunity to exhibit. This
gave you a false sense of your own importance. (It) made you think
that you were a great artist, when really you were nothing."
Richter had spent his entire lifetime up to this point surviving
two regimes that had the power to extinguish his ability to make
art, and now he wished to extinguish his existing style and re-invent
himself after the shock of seeing the all-out courage and freedom
expressed in the works of Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock. He
was frustrated, however, for, as Storr observed, "Richter
was not a master of academic illusionism when he left Dresden.
Quite to the contrary, nothing in his work foreshadowed the extraordinary
proficiency of his photo-based paintings. Richter the virtuoso
was the product of his own re-education as a painter once he arrived
in the West rather than the strange re-incarnation of an accomplished
but conservative technician schooled in the East."
It took Richter two years after the Documenta 2 show to leave
East Germany. Returning from a trip to Moscow and Leningrad in
1961, his train passed East Berlin and went directly to West Berlin,
where he put his luggage in storage. He returned to Dresden, sold
all his possessions, and arranged for a friend to drive him and
Ema to Berlin. They crossed from the Eastern to the Western zone
by subway. As refugees, the Richters were granted a small allowance
by the West German Government. Richter enrolled at the Dusseldorf
Academy with a two-year scholarship, and joined in the uninspiring
class of Ferdinand Mackentanz before switching to Karl-Otto Gotz,
an exponent of Art informel, or gestural abstract painting. The
German art scene was at that time in the process of re-inventing
The first Documenta exhibited works by artists who had made their
mark just before or after WWI, Fauvism, Expressionism, Orphism,
metaphysical painting, de Stijl and Cubism and then fast-forwarded
to an assortment of existentialist artists, sculptors and representatives
of Art Informel pursuing geometric abstraction. The Surrealists
were represented by Miro and Max Ernst, and Dada was acknowledged
by Kurt Schwitters. At Documenta 2 in 1952, Kasimir Malevich,
(who had not been represented at all at Documenta 1), represented
the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists, and Matta, Yves
Tanguy and Rene Magritte represented Surrealism.
The main difference with Documenta 2 was the energetic charge
of the Americans aided by the advisory role of Porter A. McCray,
Director of the International Program of the Museum of Modern
Art. McCray also organized the first MOMA survey of the New School
to tour Europe - "The New American Painters" - focusing
on works by many of the same Abstract Expressionist and Color
Field painters: Sam Francis, Adolph Gottleib, Helen Frankenthaler,
Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and
Barnett Newman who eventually became one of Richter's favorite
artists. Robert Rauschenberg was, inexplicably, not included in
this amazing line-up, despite being one of the most innovative
artists, heavily influenced by the wonderful Kurt Schwitters.
In 1960, Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly were exhibited together at
Galerie 22 in Dusseldorf, owned by dealer Jean-Pierre Wilhelm,
who represented other artists associated with Art Informel, including
Otto Gotz. This was Wilhelm's last show, marking the end of an
era for his gallery but also signaling a change in the direction
of contemporary art. Rauschenberg offered new technical solutions
to the problems of image appropriation and image grafting. At
Galerie 22, Rauschenberg showed "Thirty-Four Drawings for
Dante's 'Inferno," all of which had involved transferring
newspaper and magazine images to another paper surface by soaking
them in solutions; and although Richter had not yet arrived in
Dusseldorf when the Rauschenberg-Twombly show went up, the method
Rauschenberg used found application in Richter's work two years
"It is ironic that one of the most radical and, in Richter's
circle, influential of Dada's many guises," writes Storr,
"owed its existence to the U.S. Army and the G.I. Bill. By
paying for the education of veterans, cutting-edge artists like
Al Held and Ellsworth Kelly (among many others), streamed into
Europe in 1945 with government stipends "which made the GI
Bill the second most important example of federal sponsorship
of the arts after the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
Following a parallel path, George Maciunas, the New York-based
founder of the anarchic Fluxus movement, traveled to West Germany
in 1961 on the promise of a job working as a graphic designer
for the U.S. Air Force. Upon his arrival, he made contact with
future collaborators: Ben Patterson, who sold encyclopaedias to
the families of American servicemen there, and Ammet Williams,
who wrote for the army newspaper, "Stars and Stripes,"
where the Fluxus phenomenon was written up for the first time,
Together with Patterson, Williams and Nam June Paik, (a Korean
composer who had studied in Frieburg and made connections with
the avant-garde music scene in Darmstadt and Cologne), Maciunas
proceeded to establish a beachhead for a multi-prong assault on
the artistic order: "To establish (the artists) non-professional,
non-parasitic, non-elite status in society," Maciunas argued,
"he must demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the audience,
he must demonstrate that anything can substitute (for) art and
anyone can do it. Not so much anti-art as anti-institutional art."
The musical equivalent of the Fluxus artist was John Cage, who
Richter greatly admired. Duchamp captivated Germany in 1965, having
been excluded from Documenta, and made a deep impression on Joseph
Beuys, a gigantic presence in Richter's years at the Academy.
The French critic Pierre Restany wrote: "In the present context
the ready-made of Marcel Duchamp takes on a new sense. After the
NO and the ZERO, there is a third position for the myth; the anti-art
gesture of Marcel Duchamp has been charged with positive energy.
The ready-made is no longer the height of negativity or of polemic,
but the basic element of a new expressive repertoire. Such is
the new realism, a direct means of getting one's feet back on
the ground but at 40 degrees above Dada zero, and that precise
level where man, if he succeeds in reintegrating himself with
the real, identifies his own transcendance, which is emotion,
feeling and finally, poetry."
Duchamp's most famous "found object" or ready-made "Urinal"
(see The City Review article on an auction
in 2002 at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg of collection of
14 Duchamp "readymades"), which is exactly what
it says it is, did not give a poetic buzz to anyone when it sold
in Sotheby's auction rooms recent more about $1,700,000, although
no one doubted that it would fetch a stratospheric price. It sounds
so plausible and even beautiful in Monsieur Restany's elegant
prose, but the bottom line is that it is a urinal. Coming through
this kind of reasoning and artistic schooling, it is clear why
Richter felt an overwhelming desire to paint whatever he wanted,
including toilet paper and weird light fixtures, but PAINT them.
Despite detractors of Duchamp, his message weathers all the storms
of public taste and critical opinion, and he remains one of the
great icons of 20th Century art, still influencing new generations
Joseph Beuys appears to have felt the same duality when it came
to Duchamp because he embraced readymades as he disowned Duchamp,
declaring "The silence of Marcel Duchamp is over-rated."
Richter's mish-mash of diverse yet comprehensible material is
refreshing and equally unsettling. His often banal realism is
a slap in the face just as Duchamp's Urinals must have been to
postwar viewers and critics who were accustomed to elegantly muted
galleries filled with nude ladies and gentlemen in scenes from
famous myths, legends and biblical tales, painted by name-brand
Maciunas did, however, consolidate the Dada legacy in Germany
and the link between Paik and Cage was not thrown off by Beuys'
stance. He put together a series of Fluxus Festivals and a series
of Fluxus "events" that became celebrated as "Happenings."
Richter was moved by Fluxus even though it was hostile to traditional
studio practices: he knew nothing of Dada and Duchamp when he
arrived. The blossoming of galleries and museums in Cologne and
Dusseldorf was a heady environment for the young artist, so unused
to such access and freedom. He had to start all over again from
the beginning, and his "renewal" was influenced by Jean
Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Alberto Giacometti; he called them
"transitional figures" in the quest for a "third
way" in the art world. The most influential of all, however,
were Lucio Fontana's elegant, slashed canvases and Alberto Burri's
pigment and burlap assemblages.
"I painted through the whole history of art toward abstraction.
I painted like crazy (and) I had some success with all that, or
gained some respect but then I burned the crap in some sort of
action in the courtyard. It was wonderful to make something and
then destroy it. I was doing something and I felt very free,"
Richter told Storr in the catalogue interview. Richter admits
that Gotz's influence runs through all of his work, except the
landscapes. Richter absorbed the Abstract Expressionist maxim
that no area within a painting had greater importance than any
other, even though he was stylistically and psychologically unsympathetic
While his early work in Dusseldorf was inspired by "all-over"
painting, Richter realized he could also "subvert" gestural
showmanship, subvert any existential angst he might still have
and absolutely not make a spectacle of it: by contradicting the
expressionist painterliness of Post-War art. He did this through
"banality," and he negated and found Art Informel painting
with a magazine image. "My first photo-picture? I was doing
large pictures in gloss enamel, influenced by (Winifred) Gaul.
One day a photograph of Brigitte Bardot fell into my hands, and
I painted it into one of these pictures in shades of gray. I had
had enough of bloody painting, and painting from a photograph
seemed to me the most moronic thing that anyone could do."
For those who like their art "straight up," this is
the "hard-to-swallow" Richter. Historically, however,
this irreverent way of thinking goes with those who chart new
The "Atlas" panels
(1962-67) - 200 black and white photographs of family memorabilia,
still lifes and landscapes - are a treasure trove of collected
images, many of which metamorphosed into the full-blown paintings
we now see in the exhibit. The photograph which becomes "Toilet
Paper," (1964, Collection Joshua Mack and Ron Warren) can
be found in "Atlas: Panel 15," (Stadtische Galerie im
Lenbachhaus, Munich), and the newspaper clipping upon which "Eight
Student Nurses" is based can be found nestled in amongst
bathing beauties in "Atlas: Panel 8," Stadische Galerie
im Lenbachhaus, Munich). The collection of photos of family, objects,
work and clippings from newspapers and magazines were all that
remained of Richter's Dresden past, spirited away in albums when
he and his wife escaped to West Germany. Later, they became the
"Atlas" panels, including juxtapositions as varied and
unsettling upon close scrutiny as wild and domestic animals with
the clipping that was to become "Kitchen Chair" (1965),
press shots of Hitler speaking to supporters preceded by views
of mountains, recalling the Nazi cult of the Alps: a disjointed
take on personal and everyday memorabilia guaranteed and intended,
according to Mr. Storr, to "stymie interpretation based on
conventional attitudes regarding intrinsic significance."
The "now you see it now you don't" message in the "Atlas"
panels marks the beginning of Richter's pursuit of the ambiguities,
ambivalences and paradoxes underlying the images that most people
save as historic, or sentimental family memorabilia, past work,
or which we see daily in newspapers, magazines and on television.
Most importantly, the albums of photos which resulted in the catalogue
raisonné following up on the albums of photos he brought
with him from Dresden is, Mr. Storr tells us, "less a literal
history of his production than an empirical narrative construct
internally adjusted to account for the importance paintings has
for him after he had studied them in the context of others of
their generation." What is noticeable in the diversity of
personal, everyday, faraway and newsworthy imagery that is "Atlas"
is the persistently "reserved" mood. Nothing screams
out at you; there are no horrific concentration camp pictures,
poverty pictures, overtly sexual pictures or particularly happy
family photos. Emotion is frozen, like the instant the camera
Richter chooses images which recall Shakespeare's famous lines
"What a friendly face falsehood hath!" Once we understand
who the subjects really are and what his banal objects actually
represent: the naked and often unpleasant truth lurking behind
the image is what he is intent upon revealing. The "wiping
out" of emotion, and the deliberate selection of "reserved"
images, corresponds to the "ongoing experiments in wiping
out reproductions of architectural photographs with turpentine
or benzine applied directly to the inked page (experiments similar
to those procedures Rauschenberg employed in his transfer drawings).
"Paradoxically," Mr. Storr wrote, "this aesthetic
self-discovery meant disappearing into the haze of photographs
re-incarnated as paintings."
As with most students, Richter and his closest student friends
Konrad Lueg, Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo began to grow impatient
with the styles being promoted by the Academy: Art Informel, Zero
and conservative abstraction. Lueg's Bogart-like personality and
unsentimental approach to life was influential in the beginning
of Richter's "artistic re-departure." Lueg's need for
a public and his arrogance forced the prediction amongst the art-world
types they hung out with that Richter would one day be a good
painter and Lueg would become one of the most important dealers.
Both predictions turned out to be true. Lueg changed his name
to Konrad Fischer and ended up representing many famous artists,
such as Gilbert & George, Sol Lewitt, Bruce Nauman, Robert
Ryman, Polke and Palermo.
Richter and Polke felt like the odd men out. The two artists shared
an almost sibling bond and rivalry and, according to Mr. Storr,
"a kind of powerful aesthetic current passed between the
two from the time of their meeting in the early 1960s until they
went their separate ways in the mid-1970s." Richter's reticence,
gravity and rigour were the perfect foil for Polke's extrovert,
exhuberant personality and imagery. Storr places great importance
on their friendship and collaboration, comparing it to that of
Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns: "the sparks thrown
back and forth between the two men, sparks generated by their
mutual attraction in an art world where both felt themselves to
be alien was, so long as it lasted, one of the closest and most
beneficial exchanges between two first-rank artists in modernism's
Blinky Palermo's mentor was Joseph Beuys, the new young professor
at the Acedemy. Palermo's work, with its subtle coloring and poetic
quality, did not reflect the more strident qualities of Pop Art,
and even though Richter avoided excessive contact with Beuys,
he did support his "Free International College for Creativity
and Interdisciplinary Research," as did the author Heinrich
Boll. Beuys' gargantuan presence (he was small and wore a waistcoat
and hat) dominated the campus, and his "dangerous quality"
resulted in his bringing Fluxus to the academy, with shocking
shows involving urinating in tubs and pouring laundry detergent
into a piano. The cynicism, cockiness and irreverence in the Fluxus
message was keenly absorbed by Richter, Polke and Lueg. In 1963,
Richter saw his first Roy Lichtenstein painting lying at the back
of Ileana Sonnabend's gallery in Paris, where he had traveled
with Lueg and Polke to find representation. They called themselves
"German Pop Artists." Lichtenstein's cool, detached,
confident "anti-painterliness" impressed all three even
though it was Polke who was stylistically influenced.
The only "group" to which Richter ever belonged included
Polke, Lueg and Manfred Kuttner and took its name from the title
of an exhibition organized by Lueg in May, 1963, in Dusseldorf.
Titled "Life with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism,"
its mandate was crystal clear: "This exhibition is not a
commercial undertaking, but purely a demonstration, and no gallery,
museum or public exhibiting body would have been a suitable venue.
The major attracton of the exhibition is the subject matter of
the works in it. For the first time in Germany, we are showing
paintings for which such terms as Pop Art, Junk Culture, Imperialist
or Capitalist Realism, New Objectivity, Naturalism, German Pop
and the like are appropriate. Pop Art has rendered conventional
painting with all its sterility, its isolation, its artificiality,
its taboos and its rules entirely obsolete. Pop Art is not an
American invention, and we do not regard it as an import. This
art is pursuing its own organic and autonomous growth in this
The second exhibition, organized by Lueg and Richter without Polke,
had a sharper political edge. Mounted in borrowed space and titled
"Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism," the Berges
store became the venue for various displays, including thirty-nine
chairs, each with a daily newspaper for company, fourteen pairs
of antlers (from roebucks shot between 1938 and 1942), and two
life-size paper maché figures of John F. Kennedy and the
dealer Schmela. Lueg and Richter were in the first room, dressed
in suits and ties as "living sculptures." Amongst many
other installations was Joseph Beuys's "official costume:"
hat, blue trousers, yellow shirt, socks and shoes, to which nine
slips of paper each bearing a cross were attached. Below the wardrobe
was a margarine and wax sculpture by Beuys.
"Although Beuys was not yet the figure he would become"
Mr. Storr wrote, "his Fluxus activity had broken the ice
for Richter and his contemporaries, and his presence in the exhibition
made the connection particularly to the performance aspect of
the show....In just over an hour and a half, the whole event was
over." The dealer Renee Block picked up on Richter's label,
"Capitalist Realism," and used it for his own purposes
to promote artists with whom Richter had almost nothing in common,
and later attacked Richter "for wanting nothing more than
to paint beautiful pictures." This was the first of many
attacks, but in this case Block underscored the policital message.
Richter had not intended "Capitalist Realism" to be
more than a catch phrase for a one-time show; however, as Storr
points out, "As a play on Socialist Realism, it turns the
tables on the Eastern-block aesthetic dogmas in which Richter
had been schooled, but it has an even more satirical effect when
applied to the commercial culture of the West as a substitute
for the label Pop."
In Richter's own words, he makes the most sense of his intentions:
"I did not come here (West Germany) to get away from 'materialism':
here its dominance is far more total and more mindless. I came
to get away from the criminal 'idealism' of the Socialists."
Richter's affinity with the British polymath, Richard Hamilton,
and Andy Warhol with their emphasis on youth culture, and mass
production, did not let him overlook the recent devastation and
shortages Germany had been through. The abundance and consumerism
of the "Economic Miracle" drew criticism; the East/West
border paralleled the ideological battle between "big business"
democracy and "big brother" egalitarianism. Richter's
work, as with Polke's, was "dark" from the outset, because
of his experiences in Dresden. He admired the "sexy, witty,
young" focus of Andy Warhol, and he had his fair share of
"cheeky" digs at the establishment, but, for Richter,
Storr continued, "making this point once was enough; however,
the semantic judo involved is impossible to forget and its full
ramifications hard to escape."
"Stag" and "Mouth" (both painted in 1963,
and both included in the current show), were included in the second
show, although only "Mouth" would have been considered
"Pop." A fairytale, sad "Neuschwanstein Castle"
and "Pope," however, did not fit any of the labels typically
available at the time, such as "advertising," "cartoon"
and "movie graphics." The castle and "Stag"
were Photo-Realist paintings and Richter was the first although
Malcom Morley battleships were acknowledged to be the first Photo-Realist
paintings in 1964. Richard Artschwager's photo-based portraits
and cityscapes were created the same year as Richter's photo-realist
work, but they were not exhibited till Leo Castelli gave him a
show at his New York gallery.
Photo-Realism became a bona fide movement in the 1970s, but Richter
distanced himself from it, even though he was promoted in Documenta
5 alongside Photo-realist representatives like Chuck Close. "Richter
was more concerned with the problematic reality of photographs
than the reality photographs ostensibly recorded," Mr. Storr
maintained, and Richter's experience as a photographer's assistant
"may well have caused lasting trauma." The hundreds
of photos he encountered were ordinary snapshots, "without
aesthetic pretensions." "Up to this point," writes
Storr, "painting had meant subordinating vision to aesthetic
principles, things seen to pre-determined formats, and the uncertain
truth of appearances to the authority of the artists 'will to
style.' Removing the filter of creative identity allowed the painter
to recognize the disembodied objectivity of the camera image."
Richter explains: "The photograph reproduces objects in a
different way from the painted picture, because the camera does
not apprehend objects: it sees them. In 'freehand drawing,' the
object is apprehended. And when you don't know what you are making,
you don't know, either, what to alter or distort."
The influence of Fluxus upon Richter was profound: his adage that
"the photograph is the most perfect picture" absolved
him of the struggle of reconciling his artistic tastes, aspirations
and abilities with an art world keen to extract originality and
"over-determined meaning." The defiance of his written
1966 statement, "I consider many amateur photographs better
than the best Cézanne," has its roots in Fluxus. When
he does speak it is with a humble, self-effacing, "anti-subjective"
self-evaluation with quiet humor: "I like everything that
has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my
paintings (Because style is violence and I am not violent)."
For him, violence was not only the distortion of reality to which
modern art is prone, but also the notion of imposing the self
on things as they are, or as they seem to be.
The famous "Lecture
on Nothing" by John Cage, and his cheerful shrugging off
of social, moral and political imperatives, echoed Richter's own
philosophy about art. Cage had high visibility in Germany in the
early 60s and his "I have nothing to say and I am saying
it" was much admired by Richter, who nevertheless retains
a brooding, dark quality and a moral edge in his work that deviates
from Cage's more optimistic position. It was the freedom from
the self that Cage inspired in Richter: the right and freedom
to do as he wished. Richter's said that he embraced photography
"not to use it as a means to painting but use painting as
a means to photography." Not, that is, to imitate photographs
but to remake them in paint. Photographs freed him from conventional
criteria associated with art style, composition, judgement and
from "personal experience." It was pure picture, that's
The philosopher Roland Barthes has offered further insights into
Richter: "He is troubled by an image of himself, suffers
when he is named. He finds the perfection of the human relationship
in the vacancy of the image: to abolish in oneself, between oneself
and others adjectives; a relationship which adjectivises is on
the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death."
So many of Richter's images are stalked by the inevitability of
death. Storr continues: "Although Richter seemingly had sided
with the image, and many of his images were death-haunted, his
motivation and reasoning essentially parallel those of Barthes,
resulting in a pictorial language, which, throwing off domination
and violence, 'had been stripped of adjectives.'" Richter's
demeanor, even in a setting as fraught with superficialities as
a press preview, exuded gentleness and total non-violence quietly.
The most powerful thing about Richter's rebelliousness is its
softness. Like the smearing and smudging of the paint turned into
mist on his canvases. There are no bullets, angry slashes of paint,
bombs, shouts and clenched fists in Richter's work. There is instead
an unnerving, determined gentleness.
Contrasting with the public images of prostitutes, terrorists,
nurses, and bathing beauties are Richter's private portraits.
He has gone on record as saying: "I believe the painter mustn't
see or know the model at all, that nothing of the 'soul, the essence,
the character of the model should be expressed. Also a painter
shouldn't see a model in a particular, personal way because one
certainly cannot paint a specific individual but only a painting,
which however, has nothing to do with the model." Richter
cites the presence of chairs and other household paraphernalia
in classical vanitas pictures of skulls; back then, the
banal "snapshot" was an icon for the inevitable battle
As photography took over painting's historical function of representing
reality Richter wrote: "At the same time, photography took
on a religious function. Everyone has produced his own 'devotional
pictures.' These are the likeness of family and friends, preserved
in the likeness of them." The glamorous, 1965 "Woman
Descending the Staircase," based on a magazine photo, is
juxtaposed in "Atlas: Panel 13" with an unglamorous
secretary, who he also painted. In 1966, he painted Ema ("Nude
on a Staircase"). The titles refer to Duchamp's iconoclastic
"Nude Descending a Staircase" of 1912, but the naturalistic
"Ema" was counter-iconoclastic. Ema was his wife, tenderly
painted form a photograph he took fully intending to paint from
it (not a "found" object or a picture in a magazine)
and the pose was decidedly classical even though it was inspired
by the anti-classical Duchamp original.
Richter painted two other
family members, "Uncle Rudi" (1965, The Czech Museum
of Fine Arts, Prague, Lidice Collection) and "Aunt Marianne"
( 1965), and the man who was to be identified as her executioner,
"Mr. Heyde," (1965, Private Collection). The portrait
of his uncle captures "the Nazi in the family": "He
was young and very stupid and then he went to war and was killed
during the first days. Uncle Rudi represented a generation of
Germans who willingly participated in its own destruction and
the destructions of the millions it tried to dominate." Richter
donated this painting to the Czech Museum of Fine Arts in memory
of the terrible atrocities committed by German troops at Lidice,
Czechoslovakia. Tragically, Richter's Aunt Marianne, also died
at the hands of German executioners; she was killed by Nazi Doctors
in a system of large-scale "euthenasia" designed to
eliminate the chronically ill, the retarded and the insane.
The link to the innocuous "Mr. Heyde" is that he had
pioneered the gassing technique used in the "Final Solution"
of elimination of all undesireables. He lived, as "the murderer
among us" from the end of the war till he was exposed in
1959. Richter painted "Mr. Heyde" several years later
and points a finger with customary restraint, highlighting the
horror of his neighborly demeanor: "Who would ever have guessed?
Who can we trust among us?" is the underlying question.
These three paintings narrow the gap between personal experience
and public reality, between an unpleasant and painful, guilt-infected
past and a present dependent on selective memory: "There
is nothing in German painting at the time that presents the continued
Nazi penetration of daily life so matter-of-factly, so unflinchingly,
or from so many sides of the German experience," Mr. Storr
wrote, adding that "More so than any Pop Artist or Photo-Realist
of the time, Richter used the working premise of the inventory
to assess contemporary reality from top to bottom, revamping the
traditional genres." Storr continues: "Transposing the
frozen action of the photograph into the enduring but temporally
ambiguous realm of painting, Richter fastened on the emblems and
ephemera of post-war life and distilled their often bitter essence
in tonal pictures whose poetry is a combination of matter-of-fact
watchfulness and unrelieved uncertainty."
In his most formative years
Richter was wedged in by the incomprehensible regime of the Nazis
and the pounding of his home city, Dresden, by Allied Bombers,
which was finally reduced to rubble by the end of World War II.
Then along came the Russian Communists, who were not tolerant
of "free" or "expressive" art. From this perspective,
it is easy to understand Richter's guardedness and skepticism
which is why so many of his paintings stir deep pathos in the
viewer. Besides the death-haunted clouds which hover over Richter's
most important paintings, there is a sense of mourning for the
loss of innocence and ideals - like the "October 17"
series, and the haunting "Betty," staring at a foreboding
grey cloud which threatens to engulf her optimism and youthful
Richter responds by pointing out that at that time paintings of
American bombers by a German artist was forbidden, and the only
way to paint them was as a joke, like a Pop Art painting. "You
didn't paint it as a joke" retorted Storr, to which Richter
lets down his guard enough to admit "No, but I was satisfied
that it was taken as such. I would have been embarrassed if it
were too serious. It was not an accusation: I wasn't accusing
the Americans. I never wanted to accuse anything, except life
maybe...." Humour and satire have often been the refuge of
the disenchanted: Richter's "jokes" tell complex stories.
In the same interview with Storr, Richter reminisces about the
60s: "We (artists influenced by Pop Art) refused to take
anything seriously. That was important for survival. We were unable
to see the statement in the work, neither the audience nor me.
We rejected it: it didn't exist. Part of the reason was that there
existed a different kind of painting, and (Georg) Baselitz was
the right man for that German tradition. People thought my painting
was somehow modern, but they couldn't admit it had any kind of
quality. Instead it was somehow funny but copied from the Americans.
So people thought that we were traitors. Baselitz said to me:
'You have betrayed your fatherland.'" When asked by Storr
what Baselitz meant by traitor Richter responded: "That I
was giving in to the international style, but he remained a German.
That's how it was."
While the controversial subject matter of the Nazi inheritance
passed the critics without intense debate, it was in the realm
of landscape painting that Richter drew the most fire in the 1960s
and 1970s. At that time, no avant garde artist would have dared
to have painted landscapes from their own snapshots, or from souvenir
postcards like "Himalaya," (1968, Collection Gilberto
Sandretto). The unassuming landscapes were provocative because
they exuded a neo-romantic air, although Richter had no intention
of reviving a return to romanticism: every attempt at pigeon-holing
was futile. "Richter," Mr. Storr noted, "caused
a disturbance by quietly making paintings that resisted every
attempt to fit them into existing categories or to explain them
away as deliberately insincere exercises in formal and pictorial
Richter's landscapes were
not merely anachronisms but a modern, impersonal view of earth,
ocean and sky; in its spareness and delicate coloring "Bridge
(By the Sea, 1969, private collection, Berlin)" almost recalls
Whistler's misty Japonese-like renderings of Battersea Bridge
in London, but Richer's vision is thoroughly modern. There is
always the sense of a fleeting "seized" moment of a
life on the run from a car window, plane or train. Richter's painted
landscapes do not allow the viewer an escape to Nirvana or a wallow
in transcendental joy. Their purpose is not to meet the viewer's
needs even though they acknowledge that they exist, as in "Seascape,"
("Sea, Sea," 1970, Staattliche Museum zu Berlin). Here,
he once again thwarts the "expected" and replaces it
with his own version of the unexpected, and yet it is possible
for viewers to lose themselves in this forbidding, timeless painting.
Richter told an interviewer in the 1990s that he was out of fashion
for a long time after the early 60s when painting itself was out
of fashion; "At the end of the 1960s the art scene underwent
its great politicization. Painting was taboo because it had no
'social relevance,' and was therefore a bourgeois thing."
This excluded Minimal and process sculpture, dematerialized Conceptual
art, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman,
who were included, along with Richter, in the 1975 survey "Fundamental
Painting" at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Richter was
the loner in the group, as he did not fit any of the labels that
were attributed to the others. In 1965, as he moved more towards
abstraction, he wrote: " All that interests me," Richter
is quoted in the catalogue as stating, "is the gray areas,
the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps
and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the object as
the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting
abstracts." "Gray Streaks," (1968, Private Collection)
is a sublime example of near-total abandonment of the object and
illustrates this transition.
The gray monochromes of 1970-1976 represent a critical episode
in Richter's development because he was battling active hostility
to his work and his own desire to keep painting going. The first
decades of the 20th Century hinted at the end of easel painting,
when Kasimir Malevitch created his beautiful, black squares, crosses
and circles and Louis Aragon claimed in "Challenge to Painting"
(1930) that "absolutely nothing in the world will be changed
if one ceased to paint altogether."
Such apocalyptic and sweeping changes have not come to pass, but
there is still evidence of the attitudes of Aragon, who was the
spokesman on cultural affairs for the French Communist Party,
who also wrote about two majorly figurative painters, Picasso
and Matisse, which is kind of like an admission that he did not
mind painting after all. Richter was caught in the stormy seas
of dissension (again), where the prevailing opinion was that painting's
"aesthetic reserves were spent." Richter says "I
just went on painting." His isolation from the rest of the
contemporary art world was tempered by his friendship with Blinky
Palermo, replacing the one between Richter and Polke. It was Joseph
Beuys who treated Palermo as a favorite, who coined the name Blinky.
Palermo's real name was Peter Schwarze. Palermo was a contemporary
romantic, who died at the age of 34 from years of substance abuse.
"We could really speak about painting," says Richter,
"There was an aesthetic quality (in Palermo's work) which
I loved and which I couldn't produce. I was happy that such a
thing existed in the world. In comparison, my own things seemed
to me somewhat destructive, without this beautiful clarity."
It was Palermo who drew Richter's attention back to Postwar American
Abstraction, to Rothko, de Kooning, Morris Louis and especially
Barnett Newman. Richter identified with Rothko's seriousness but
most especially with Newman because "his non-hierarchical
structures, his non-relational Color Field painting, seemed more
interesting, because his work was less pretty."
Richter made his first trip to New York in 1970 with Blinky Palermo,
where they stayed for ten days in a tourist hotel on Forty-Second
Street, while they availed themselves of the jazz bars, parties
and discos. Richter returned many times in the years ahead and
in 1973 Palermo moved to New York. Richter's first exhibition
in New York was at the Reinhard Onnasch Gallery in Manhattan in
1973; despite Rosenquist's introducing him to other artists and
touring him around in great style in a convertible, Richter's
amazement at New York has been tempered with wariness and even
distaste. In 1984 he wrote that he had let go of that negative
view of New York, which reflected his ambivalence towards his
own country: "This city of the elect and the privileged,
of wielders of power and decision-makers, which implacably raises
up and destroys, producing superstars and derelicts, which is
so merciless and at the same time so beautiful, charming, dreamlike,
paradisal. The city that exerts such a deadly fascination; the
city that killed many others besides Palermo. I envy the New Yorkers,
and I think with discontent of Germany, the stifling fug
of its society, its affluent philistinism, its all-smothering,
oppressive ugliness. I shall re-book tomorrow and fly home early."
Richter was both drawn to the irrverence of Belgian artist Broodthaers
and turned off by it. Broodthaers was a former Resistance fighter,
a lapsed Marxist, a protégé of the surrealist Rene
Magritte and a conceptual polymath. Broodthaers maintained that
"all human action is political" and he sought to "introduce
and establish falsehoods." Typically, Richter was both drawn
to Broodthaers irreverence and turned off by it. Richter agreed
to exhibit a painting in an exhibition set up in Broodthaers'
apartment, and the exhibits included signs, postcards of nineteenth
century painting intended to parody museological economic and
artistic systems. This expanded to encompass other symbols of
bourgeois society, like Finance, Publicity and Modern Art, with
the image of the eagle representing the "high falutin,"exalted
view of art in cultural institutions inherited from the past.
Richter's first "Eagle," (1972, private collection),
which is included in the show, is an out-of-focus rendition of
later paintings of eagles, and Broodthaers exhibited it along
with 300 other eagle paintings. The eagle recalls the idealized
notion of the artist as a bird of prey with eyes everywhere and
as the not-so-attractive symbol of imperial power, not excluding
the Nazi use of the eagle as an emblem. It is majestic and menacing,
and it was Richter's contribution to Broodthaers painterly "catalogue
raisonné" of similar and highly suspect emblems of
"Eagle" is a forerunner
of "one of the most brooding and fascinating series of images
in the show: "48 Portraits," (1971-72, The Museum of
Modern Art, New York), which Richter planned for the 1972 Venice
Biennale, when he was selected to represent Germany. Richter's
selection was a clear indication of how highly he is regarded,
despite controversy, by the decision makers of the art world.
Each of the 48 portraits of men is based on a photograph of a
famous man whom Richter found in an old encyclopaedia. The "style
free" reference image for which he yearned now was explicitly
stated; in fact, despite the reference to Broodthaers as an influence,
Richter had begun painting the heads a year before "Eagle,"
and close examination of the clippings in "Atlas" reveal
270 images that were potential "48 Heads" candidates.
Richter has often expressed the need to identify father figures:
"48 Portraits" is his attempt to establish a "cultural
paternity" inextricably linked to the disasters of National
Socialism and Stalinism: and to his own ambivalence towards his
own father, whose portrait, "Horst and His Dog," (1965,
Private Collection, New York), shows an amiable, drunk buffoon.
His father is not included in this high-profile list of important
men in dark suits; he admits that the "father issue"
is an unresolved one: "It wasn't until Moritz was born that
I started to know what a father is," admits Richter. He did
expel all politicians, artists and women as well, permitting writers,
composers, philosophers and scientists "whose achievements,"
Storr noted, "in almost every case represented a humanist
tradition intolerable to authoritarian regimes, even when, as
in the case of Tchaikovsky or Bruckner, their works were co-opted
by the communists or the Nazis." At the Venice Biennale,
this group of 48 portraits were hung in a single, continous row
around the curved walls of a large gallery, but at MOMA they have
been double-tiered in a staircase.
Nostalgic pastiche as in the work of Francisco Clemente and Anselm
Kiefer has been something Richter has strenuously avoided, but
Richter did copy Titian's "Annunciation after Titian,"
(1973, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution,
Washington, D.C.), the first of five versions of an original in
Venice, "simply because I liked it so much and thought I'd
like to have that for myself. To start with I only meant to make
a copy, so that I could have a beautiful painting at home and
with it a piece of that period, all that potential beauty and
sublimity." Of course, the copy "went wrong," and
Richter concluded that it could not be done anymore, not even
as a copy. Perhaps the "failure" was planned, a demonstration
of the impossibility of reviving the paintings of the "glorious
dead." His open admiration resulted in his desire to introduce
similar qualities in his own art.
These frank and unencumbered explorations into art history made
him more enemies in the contemporary art world, except for the
English conceptual artists "Gilbert and George," who
appreciated his new-old paintings, and who emulated Richter and
Luegs "Demonstration for Capitalist Realism," with their
own "living sculpture" performances. They were also
among the first artists to admire Richter. It is hard to imagine
that the desire to paint beautiful landscapes could be regarded
as subversive and threatening by the avant garde, but it was a
stealthy act of defiance aimed at those who, Mr. Storr wrote,
"claimed a monopoly on subversive means and ends." Richter
explains it away in typically disarming and straightforward terms:
"I felt like painting something beautiful."
Despite these truthful protestations, there is no doubt that the
Dresden artist, Caspar David Friedrich, greatly influenced Richter
as a student; the contrast between Friedrich's brittle, sharply
focused views and Richter's diffused portrayals of landscape,
(without a stand-in for the viewer), are nevertheless linked by
Richter's need to express his right to paint as he wishes, like
Fredrich if necessary, and to prepare to re-interpret the type
of landscape painting which he has revived. Richter plainly states
opinions which ring with Romantic sentiments: "I believe
that art has a kind of rightness, as in music, when we hear whether
or not a note is false. And that's why classical pictures, which
are right in their own terms, are so necessary for me. In addition
to that there's nature which also has this 'rightness.'"
Characteristically, Richter also stresses an awareness of the
"wrongness" of nature (unlike the great Romantics whose
focus was harmony) of nature, with its utter disregard for human
needs, wants and fears.
(1984, Collection Massimo Martino Fine Arts and Projects, Mendrisioo,
Switzerland) and "Meadowland," (1985, The Museum of
Modern Art, New York), are beautiful, but they shut the viewer
or the admirer of nature out. The longing to merge harmoniously
with Richter's scenes will never be fulfilled; they are not intended
as "retreats" into the sublime, or escapes. His paintings
make it clear that these nirvanas exist only in the "longing"
mind of the viewer: "My landscapes are not only beautiful,
or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost
Paradises, but above all 'untruthful.' By 'untruthful,' I mean
the glorifying way we look at Nature. Nature, which in all its
forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity,
no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless,
the total antithesis of ourselves." Richter also notes matter-of-factly
that his landscapes lack the spiritual basis that underpinned
Romantic painting but they offer solace to those who still yearn
for the comfort of nature, even those who do not believe in an
While Richter was preoccupied
with Titian and Freidrich in the mid 70s, modernist abstractions
represented a third model for painting when it was apparent to
him that he could not, according to Mr. Storr, "paint himself
out of the gray corner he had been led into by minimalism and
his own anti-expressive inclinations." Reductionism's orthodoxies
left Richter dissatisfied, and his way out of its "cul de
sac" was to push himself in the opposite direction. Departing
from gray monotones, he began his first color sketches. He called
his first gestural abstracts "Abstract Pictures: "The
choice of title is significant," Mr. Storr continued, "in
that it reinforces the impression conveyed by the illusionistic
description of shoals, riptides, and cresting waves of pigment
that these are pictures of gestural paintings, not of the spontaneously
eventful real thing." These were paintings that lured and
courted the eye.
Richter has described his
abstract paintings as "an assault on the falsity and the
religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such
phony reverence. He has modified his once "hard-line"
views about Mark Rothko and admits that he has become "less
antagonistic to 'the holy,' to the spirital experience, these
days. It is part of us and we need that quality."
Richter often achieves his
disquieting psychological effects with the use of color either
finely calibrated in the grays and muted tones, or strident in
the abstracts as a composer might compose his symphonies. In Richter's
case, his musical taste runs the gamut of Mozart and Bach, complemented
by Schoenberg (not given to gentle harmonies), and the "noise"
composer Glenn Branca. The clashing hues of chlorophyll greens,
raw vermilions, sulfuric yellows and cool blues, and all the in-between
color permutations as they are dragged across aluminium or canvas
are explosive. The painter and critic Stephen Ellis compares Richter's
palette to the "luminous acid colors of Durer, Altdorfer
and Grunewald," who were masters of the German Renaissance,
in "all its uneasy, frequently violent, and occasionally
somber glory." Richter's paintings reflect a northern European
light, not Mediterranean light. In the 1970s, the art historian
Robert Rosenblum suggested that Abstract Expressionism had its
origins in the School of Paris and filters back to the heavy darkness
and crystalline brightness (the long nights and short days of
northern European Fall) of the German Romantics.
"Marian," (1983, Collection Maria Rosa Sandretto), is
a gorgeous mélange of multiple layers of pigment and gestural
brushwork, which gently obliterates illusionistic underpainting
and recalls lyrical, natural associations. In sharp contrast there
is "Bush," (1985, Collection Howard and Linda Karshan),
a slimy, turgid amalgam of ugly greens and violets, recalling
sludge and murky ponds and the more unpalatable sensations associated
In the 1980s Europe and America were flooded with "New Wild,"
or Neo-Expressionist painting, and Richter was included as one
of its exponents. "I'm no 'wild one'" says Richter,
but he does concede that "With an audacious stroke of the
hand they have destroyed dogmas that appeared to be internationally
unshakable. I certainly think that's very good. And seen in this
way I regret the process of domestication of the 'wild ones' that
sets in now and promotes so much homelessness." Richter sounds
like the grand old man of art looking down from his pinnacle of
achievements and experiences upon the struggling, rebellious young
bucks down below: "Richter discreetly nodded to the rising
generation in the process of brushing aside the aesthetic wisdom
of Minimal, conceptual and other 'progresive' post-modernisms.
If he did not care for the work they produced - indeed he found
most of it distasteful he at least acknowledged its appearance
as a vital sign, though one that was unlikely to survive the embrace
of art world institutions," Mr. Storr wrote.
Richter sets incredibly high standards for himself, and is a harsh
critic of himself and of the clichés present in his work;
he dismisses "virtuosity" and relies instead upon connoisseurship
and rigorous editing. His inability to reach his bar often "results
in violence aimed not at the image itself but at his inability
to capture it: in a recently painted portrait of his wife and
baby Moritz, tender maternal images of mother and babe, the delicate
tints of the canvas are disturbingly skimmed or scored by a blade:
"I really want to make beautiful paintings (but) I couldn't
quite hold it; they're not as beautiful as Vermeer."
Richter's ideal, Vermeer, was not matched in his painting, and
so he attacked it with a palette knife. Obsessive, perfectionist
definitely, and yet he describes beauty as being a quality of
"uninjured" things. His imperfect image had then to
be "corrected by explicitly wounding the picture," Mr.
Storr observed, "and thereby exposing the anxiety that went
into its creation and the pathos that attends any painful discrepancy
between an imagined perfection and a flawed reality"
In 1995, Richter married
Sabine Moritz, and judging by the beautiful portrait of her "Reading,"
(1994, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) a painting which recalls
Georges de La Tour and Vermeer, she is not only exquisite but
also very young. It is a timeless work of art and might easily
belong to another century except for the clothing. A series of
paintings from 2000-2001, titled "Sabine with Child,"
celebrate the Richter's union with the addition of baby Moritz
and in some of these there is a sense of apprehension, probably
Richter's, who must inevitably confront the complex issues of
fatherhood rather late in his career.
Moritz has appeared on the
cover of Artforum and numerous prestigious art magazines,
and the controversy he has generated has been well documented
evidence of an avant garde deeply at odds with such blatant manifestations
of domestic bliss. Have we become so far removed from Botticelli,
Leonardo da Vinci and more recently Picasso, that a portrait of
a child alone or with his mother is viewed as a threat to some
rarified set of artistic laws that cause such a strange reaction?
Taxidermied dogs and kitsch playgirl ladies with enormous body
parts spraying out fluid are fine, not to mention strange photographs
of transsexual and gender goings on in Greenwich Village, but
a straightforward portrait of a mother and child is controversial?
In the striking orange radiance of six canvases, all titled "Abstract
Picture (Rhombus)," completed in 1998, there is more than
a hint of Barnett Newmann, who painted an equally mystical series
of fourteen abstract canvases titled "The Stations of the
Cross: Lema Sabachthani in 1958-1966. Richter greatly admired
Newman's spare, universal imagery, and it is no coincidence that
both men were commissioned to paint canvases with a Christian
theme and did so despite their own reservations about religious
themes and dogmas: Newman was a Jewish anarchist with Cabalistic
leanings, and Richter is a secular artist who was approached by
the Catholic Church with a request to paint the stigmatization
of St. Francis for a modern church (designed by the architect
After initially declining, Richter accepted the church commission
on condition that the paintings be abstract; he created the present
canvases following the example of Mondrian, who made rhomboid
paintings in the early twentieth century. Most noticeable are
the strong associations with the cross. Richter follows the contours
of a human being standing straight, with arms extended in this
case using his own body as the map. It is linked conceptually
to a multiple of a Christian cross which Richter cast in silver
and gold in 1996, and further back to the mysterious cross which
appears in "Funeral," (1988), the last in the cycle
of Baader Meinhoff paintings.
Richter's stance on religion has mellowed but it is still inconclusive:
he mentions that his parents were Protestants, not Catholics,
that he renounced religion in his mid-teens, and adds " I
was very moved when our two children were baptized. This is my
culture, my history, the last 2000 years were Catholic and it
was not so bad." He calls himself a "sympathizer,"
a term also used to support the revolutionary Marxist Red Army
Faction, the Baader Meinhoff group.
Richter's preoccupation with religious belief has been a preoccupation
from the very beginning as he set out to refute it, confound it,
skirt it. It was his focus, his obsession. He has referred to
religion and God repeatedly in interviews and in his writings
denying but always mentioning God and religion. In his notes in
1966 he wrote: "Picturing things, taking a view, is what
makes us human; art is making sense and giving a shape to that
sense. It is like the religious search for God. We are well aware
that making sense and picturing are artificial, like illusion;
but we can never give them up. For belief (thinking out and interpreting
the present and the future) is our most important characteristic."
In 1988, after completing
the October 18, 1977 series he said: "Art is the pure realization
of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God."
In Richter's case he has made art accessible to many who might
otherwise deny themselves this luxury by painting everyday images
amd recognizable commonplace themes much as Albrecht Durer did
by making affordable woodcuts and engravings for those who could
not afford paintings. This easy "access" is retained
and does not cause conflict in those who may have been driven
away by the exclusionary, elitist associations with art in the
past few decades. Like religion, Richter has made art accessible
to the masses through his means of expression. Painting is not
dead, it can still be accessed; for those who cannot find faith
in religion, there is art.
No one is more acutely aware of the unreliability of what can
be seen and what can be shown, imagined and represented than Richter:
"Of course I constantly despair at my incapacity, at the
impossibility of ever accomplishing anything, of painting a valid,
true picture or of ever knowing what such a thing ought to look
like. But then I always have the hope that, if I persevere, it
might one day happen. And this hope is nurtured every time something
appears, a scattered, partial, initial hint of something which
reminds me of what I long for, or which contains a hint of it
although often enough I have been fooled by a momentary glimpse
that then vanishes, leaving behind only the usual thing. I have
no motif, only motivations."
His emergence through all the "sturm and drang" of his
traumatic and colorful past as a contented family man is a notable
achievement, and well deserved. His baby Moritz may have annoyed
some of the art gods on Mount Olympus as being a pedestrian subject
for a world-class artist, but the child represents hope, as does
his wife and daughter Betty. Moreover, Moritz may force Richter
to get down to the nitty gritty business of seeing his father
through new lenses, and perhaps he may come away with the understanding
that it is far easier to criticize parents than it is to be a
Richter's abstracts are
poetry in paint and the work of a man who is capable of great
joy, no matter what he might say. They are beautiful, and they
have persisted through thick and thin, a testament to a spirit
that is able to take flight no matter what destructive warfare
the world in its imperfection wages upon it. It is almost a certainty
that he would not be comfortable with "perfection" in
any case, and challenging it, exposing it, has been a lifelong
quest of Richter, a latter-day Don Quixote attacking the windmills
of our societies ambiguities.
Contrary to expectations, Richter says he is disinterested in
light and yet his work is suffused with light, bleached out by
it, moodily lurking in it and saddened by the absence of it -
in the stillness of shadows. Technically his work is a reminder
of the relentless rigors of good old-fashioned art school training,
and Richter had a hefty dose of that.
The work of Jean Dubuffet,
Jean Fautrier and especially Alberto Giacometti was very influential
and Storr adroitly picks up on Richter's affinity with Giacometti
in his interview for the exhibition catalogue: "You paint
ordinary life in a revealing but undramatic light, you use painterly
languages that belie style. In a way Giacometti attempted to do
something quite similar to capture the appearance of things that
kept retreating or disappearing and then partially clicked and
snapped into focus. The other day when I watched you working,
the same kind of thing seemed to be happening. You have a process
in which you rough in, or state, the image, then blur, or unstate
it. And after this has gone on for a while, an image becomes visible
that is fundamentally different from what you started with. I
don't want to force the comparison with Giacometti, but the existential
aspect of his work wasn't a matter of expressive style so much
as it was this pursuit of an elusive reality, a pursuit carried
on without melodrama."
Ever the elusive butterfly when it comes to pinning his opinions
down and mischieviously delighting in evasiveness Richter admits
to an affinity with Giacometti and to a certain destructiveness
that Storr maintains is "born out of a need to construct."
His wish to create a beautiful, constructive, painting often results
in something that looks terrible: then, paradoxically, after a
piece-by-piece "destruction," the work starts to look
good. Storr compares this to Lucio Fontana's cutting and puncturing
of the canvas, which was called "destructive" but the
result of this "attack" was surprisingly elegant and
Richter admits, after admirable doggedness on the part of Storr,
to being a classicist: "The classical is what holds me together.
It is that which gives me form. It is the order I do not have
to attack. It is something that tames my chaos or holds it together
so that I can continue to exist." Richter was impressed with
John Cage's classicism in the 1960s - so unlike the Fluxus style
of Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik, yet out of the same mold: "Cage
is really a classical man so scrupulous in the way he holds his
things together, does so little, and makes that beautiful. He
never even thinks about being sloppy; he is probably even more
uptight than I am and maybe more scrupulous."
Storr brings up Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" in which
he said "I have nothing to say and I'm saying it," which
he compares to Richter's desire to avoid making big, declarative
statements. Richter's response is that this was born out of the
notion of "chance": in Cage's work the arbitrariness
is much more disciplined, whereas in his own work it is far more
chaotic or intuitive, suggests Storr. Richter defines Cage's rigorous
aesthetic philosophy as more disciplined because "he had
a theory he could name and describe. He could talk or write about
what he was doing" whereas he (Richter) proceeded "from
accident to accident." His detractors must love that one
but for accident read intuition, and the result is Richter's best
work, like the 1988 "Betty," which displays a technical
mastery of paint that can be compared with the finest classical
paintings in the world, like Ingres, yet she has her back to the
viewer in a spur of the moment, unposed, accidental "snapshot."
What would Ingres think?
In the end, of course, it's the art that counts, at least for
those non-academics grown somewhat tired of the wonder of conceptualism.
Much of Richter's work consists of strong and important "statements"
of considerable historical note, but it is with some of his quiet
works, like "Betty" and his "Abstract Paintings"
that Richter must apply to the aesthetic Olympus. Fluxus and John
Cage, have been major intellectual and aesthetic influences but
the notion of "chance," or "accident," too
often is interpreted casually and ignores that the artist has
brought a lifetime of experience to that "moment." Richter
has had quite a life and one suspects that he will confidently
continue to produce, and often amaze. There is no question about
his talent and his oeuvre brims with power.
The show is on view in New
York at the Museum of Modern Art till May 21, 2002, and it continues
on to the Art Institute of Chicago (June 22-September 15, 2002),
the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (October 11, 2002-January
14, 2003) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian
Institution, Washington D.C. (February 20- May 18, 2003).
Richter's calm, painterly
style does not disguise his "angst," and it does not
make his disillusion less acute. He has not yet given himself
the green light to relax. Rebellion is usually noisy and offensive,
but Richter rebels quietly, without judging. It is his most endearing
characteristic, and one that haunts hours after the images of
the show have been overtaken by life's daily round of chores and
necessary rituals. Richter has never left his homeland; he has
not chosen to escape to a place free of Germany's past associations
that doggedly pursue him. Most important, however, is that Richter
in his dogged despair has allowed all of us to take a fresh, optimistic
look at modern Germany and Germans, and he has done more to aerate,
invigorate and humanize the "stifling fug" (as he eloquently
puts it) of his country's status quo than any German politician,
movie star or writer. Art has that much power.
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