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Gerhard Richter

Forty Years of Painting

The Museum of Modern Art

February 14 to May 21, 2002

The Art Institute of Chicago

June 22 to September 15, 2002

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

October 11, 2002 to January 14, 2003

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

February 20 to May 18, 2003

"I believe that the quintessential task of every painter in any time has been to concentrate on the essential." - Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter at MOMA press conference

Gerhard Richter at his press conference at the Museum of Modern Art, photograph by Carter B. Horsley

By Michele Leight

Part chameleon, 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.

Gerhard Richter at MOMA Gerhard Richter at museum


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.

Gerhard Richter, left, and Robert Storr, right Gerhard Richter and cameras

Gerhard Richter and Robert Storr, curator of the exhibition, left, and the artist confronts the cameras, right

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.

Glenn D. Lowry, MOMA director

Glenn D. Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art at press preview for exhibition on Gerhard Richter, shown in photograph upper left, photograph by Carter B. Horsley

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)" by Gerhard Richter

"Stag (Hirsch)," oil on canvas, 59 inches by 6 feet 6 3/4 inches, 1963, private collection

"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 youthful photograph."

Gerhart Richter at press preview

Gerhard Richter during one of his quiet moments at press preview, photograph by Michele Leight

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 Review article). 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 image.

"Iceberg in Fog" by Richter

"Iceberg in Fog (Eisberg im Negel)," oil on canvas, 27 1/2 by 39 3/8 inches, private collection, San Francisco

While "Table" 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, San Francisco.

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.

"Mustang Squadron" by Richter

"Mustang Squadron (Mustang-Staffel)," oil on canvas, 34 1/2 by 59 1/8 inches, 1964, Collection of Robert Lehrman, Washington, D.C.

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 Mr. Storr:

"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."

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist, attended press preview of Richter exhibition at MOMA, photograph by Carter B. Horsley

Paradoxically, Richter's 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.

"Abstract Picture" by Richter

"Abstract Picture," oilon aluminum panel, 39 1/2 inches square, 1992, detail of which was used for the cover illustration of the exhibition catalogue

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 painting.

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.

"Betty" by Richter

"Betty," oil on canvas, 40 1/8 by 23 3/8 inches, 1988, The St. Louis Art Museum

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 individual women."

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 unattractive "Student."

"Motor Boat," first version, 1965, private collection

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 itself.

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 later.

"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, by Williams."

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 of artists.

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 artists.

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 to it.

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 courses.

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." (Storr).

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 clicks.

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 history."

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 country"

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 all.

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 against death.

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.

"Uncle Rudi" by Richter

"Uncle Rudi," oil on canvas, 1965, The Czech Museum of Fine Arts, Prague, Lidice Collection

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 ideals.

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 anachronism."

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 authority.

Some of the "48 Portraits" by Gerhard Richter

Some of the "48 Portraits," 1971-2, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, photograph by Michele Leight

"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.

"Barn" by Richter

"Barn," 1984, Collection Massimo Martino Fine Arts and Projects, Mendrisioo, Switzerland

Bucolic "Barn," (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 omnipresent God.

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.

"Wall" by Richter

"Wall (Wand)," oil on canvas, 7 feet 10 1/2 inches square, 1994, private collection

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."

 

"Abstract Picture" by Richter

"Abstract Picture," oil on canvas, 36 by 50 inches, 1990, Collection Peter Gidal and Thérèse Oulton

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 with nature.

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? Go figure.

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 Renzo Piano).

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 good one.

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 beautiful.

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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