NYT 02 - 15 - 2002
IN Gerhard Richter's big, long-overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art there's a painting of his wife, Sabine, reading. She is in profile, absorbed in a magazine. A light from behind her, beyond the picture frame, picks out the curve of her shoulders, the pearls around the neck and the hoop of her left earring, and it is so bright that it almost bleaches out the white page she is reading. The page casts a softer, reflected light back onto her face, sharpening the profile.
Vermeer is the obvious allusion, obvious from the poise, the silence, even from the pearls, like the ones Vermeer painted. And also obvious from the nearly photographic way every detail is registered -- except one.
Look again. The left thumb disappears in a blur at the edge of the magazine, a clumsy but expressive touch that you might easily miss, presuming the image were strictly, blandly mimicking a snapshot. But the blur was clearly left there by Mr. Richter as a sign. Of what? Perhaps of his own inability to equal what Vermeer did, or more precisely, of his recognition of the vanity of trying.
No doubt some people will find Mr. Richter's paintings thorny and glum and retreat from this show confused. I think this is one of the finest, most beautiful and strangely moving exhibitions of the work of a living painter in years. And while you could quibble about one picture or another, it is just about pitch perfect as an overview of this 70-year-old German master's maddeningly kaleidoscopic and .exquisitely refined output.
You really need to see the work, like all good art, first-hand to grasp properly its spooky presence and tactile allure. Robert Storr, the Modern's curator, has laid it out spaciously and intelligently, and it can't be by chance that he more or less begins and ends the retrospective with family portraits, which stress a personal side to what is typically described as impersonal and mandarin art.
The art is not grasped easily, that's true, but it is genuinely felt, which is to say emotionally complicated and skeptical. You might say Mr. Richter is a pessimist who is optimistic enough to paint anyway. ''Art has always basically been about agony, desperation and helplessness,'' he has said. Mr. Storr describes Mr. Richter's situation as a state of ''fundamental alienation, of which art can be a finely calibrated gauge, and for which it is a consolation but not a remedy.''
That's plenty. It gives us, for example, the blurry portrait of Mr. Richter's father, Horst, which is based like all his realist pictures on a photograph. Horst looks tipsy. He's mugging at the camera, slightly listing, his hair sticking out either side of his head, as if he were a clown. He is a ridiculous man holding a fluffy white dog with bared teeth and pinhole eyes.
A cruel painting by a son of a father, the picture at the same time exudes an odd whiff of nostalgia, an almost helpless nostalgia, which derives from its source in an old black-and-white family snapshot. The work is deadpan and forlorn. But like so many of Mr. Richter's paintings, it also has the quality of a memory momentarily rescued from under water, surfacing but being sucked back down. Mr. Richter looked at it the other day, having not seen it in years, and said it reminded him that his father was a good man who had tried his best.
Since the mid-1960's, Mr. Richter has been undoubtedly Europe's most challenging painter, an evasive switch-hitter between realism and abstraction. New York, typically slow to recognize what is important in postwar European art, has just now got around to this much-delayed tribute. But Mr. Richter has been a big influence over there (see the recent generation of German photographers that includes Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky) since he fled East Germany in 1961 for the West.
Back then, he was clearly a young painter in a hurry. The first of the two floors that make up this retrospective at the Modern consists just of work through the mid-60's. By culling popular magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias and family albums, Mr. Richter painted (mostly in black and white but occasionally in the oversaturated colors of 60's snapshots) a dizzying assortment of airplane squadrons, head shots of dead scientists and philosophers, toilet rolls, cheap chandeliers, his deceased Uncle Rudi in his Nazi uniform, soft-core smut, advertisements for automobiles and motor boats, bird's-eye views of cities and housing projects, and the portraits of smiling young nurses from Chicago who were murdered by the serial killer Richard Speck.
The paintings copied photographs, sometimes even including the margins of the pages in the magazines and newspapers from which they came. ''Woman With an Umbrella,'' which derived from a news photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy weeping after her husband was shot, her hand clapped over her mouth in shock, is blank on the left side of the canvas, mimicking the layout of the magazine page Mr. Richter was looking at.
The strategy of reproducing photographs owed an obvious debt to Warhol, but the effect was different. Warhol focused on stars, Mr. Richter on victims, usually, whom he regarded with a kind of unsentimental pity and morbid curiosity. Mr. Richter did the opposite of what he was supposed to do as a Pop artist, finding the elegiac in the everyday object. Even the image of Mrs. Kennedy, which is too blurry for her to be identified clearly, is pitched at an emotional level Warhol never quite got. The emotion is subtly conveyed by the off-key green of the coat; the delicate hand, tenderly brushed, grasping the umbrella; the edge of the picture slicing the body off at the ankles; and the blank margin on the left of the canvas pressing against the image, like a coffin lid about to shut.
These pictures were provocations (copying photographs was considered ridiculous then, and painting toilet paper and soft-core porn even more ridiculous), but they were not merely provocations. Mr. Richter, instinctively exploiting the melancholy inherent in all photographs, found a way to restore feeling to what mass culture had anesthetized: photographs, even banal ones of dumb things, maybe especially banal ones of dumb things, looked oddly poignant when painted. The kitschy chandelier in the petit-bourgeois living room could become a Proustian madeleine. The smiling young models in the motor boat squinting into the sun could break your heart, weirdly, like a sappy love poem.
This was not what everybody recognized about the work at the time. Mr. Richter's refusal to wear his heart on his sleeve implied to most people who weren't looking closely that the work was cold, cynical and mechanical. The view was reinforced by postmodern admirers in the 80's and 90's who embraced Mr. Richter, despite his rejection of them, for precisely those qualities. He was supposedly painting to prove that painting was dead.
Mr. Storr's show and excellent catalog should rectify that misimpression. Mr. Richter has always believed in painting, just not in woolly philosophies about painting. He maintains a kind of cruel faith. The world is mean and absurd. Nature is sublime but indifferent to us. Mass culture turns thinking people into sheep. But beauty is still out there. We can see it only if we don't lie to ourselves. It's what is left after you strip away the clichés and false rhetoric.
Hence, his abstractions constantly short-circuit one expectation or another -- about elegance, inspiration or technical consistency. Detractors say the works are calculatedly generic, like Brand X paintings, and they're half right. The paintings are calculated, like all successful art, but they are not generic, precisely because they refuse to behave the way other abstract art does. They are sometimes even belligerently vulgar. Good taste is easy, Mr. Richter reminds us. Good abstraction is mysterious, difficult and unpredictable.
Several of the big abstractions in the show also happen to be astonishingly beautiful, as if Mr. Richter were saying, ''Oh yes, and by the way I can do this, too.'' I would venture to say that the suite of three pictures he painted in 1989, ''November,'' ''December'' and ''January,'' are probably the best abstract paintings to be made in Europe in at least a quarter of a century.
Mr. Richter made them by slowly dragging layer after layer of differently colored paints across the canvases with large homemade plastic squeegees, so that the surfaces suggest cascades of rippling color. The procedure is painstaking: the heavy squeegees are moved at a snail's pace, with pressure applied and released, the colors emerging and blending partly by chance. Chance plays a big part in Mr. Richter's art. But the impression left is exactly the opposite: of speed, fluency and predetermination.
Since then his abstract paintings, smaller generally, have taken up much of his time, the struggle being to avoid the prettiness and virtuosity that come almost too easily to him. Some of the most vivid pictures in the retrospective are the very last abstractions in unsettling electric colors, which pop off the walls.
Mr. Richter has talked about how after all these years we still can't help trying to find images in abstract art, or at least we can't help seeing abstractions as paintings of nothingness, or as images that cover up something. Mr. Storr has hung those three 1989 abstractions in a room with a portrait of Mr. Richter's daughter Betty turned away from us, so that we can't see her face or what she is looking at, and with a work called ''Blanket.''
''Blanket'' is another version of one of the paintings Mr. Richter made about the West German terrorists called the Baader-Meinhof group, this one an image of Gudrun Ensslin hanged in her prison cell, except that for ''Blanket'' the image is covered over by slathered paint.
About the whole suite of 15 Baader-Meinhof paintings, they are simply the only great art yet made about terrorism. Frustration on both sides of the political spectrum at Mr. Richter's refusal to indulge in the standard rituals of lamentation or reprisal provokes the anger, confusion and remorse we ought to feel in the first place in front of works about reckless violence. Our frustration is misdirected at the paintings for mirroring (or is it mocking?) our alienation.
Not that Mr. Richter is simply playing mind games. He denies us the option of a knee-jerk response to knee-jerk political art. But having contempt for both sides, he is ambivalent himself. The art reflects that. Ideology is the ultimate enemy and killer of people Mr. Richter can't help pitying, even if he loathes what they did. The blurry images of terrorist corpses, more searchingly painted than other copies of photographs by him, seem to emerge through a shivery haze, like the emotions they struggle to fix. Blurring only intensifies our effort to understand what we are looking at. But the pictures maintain a kind of frozen, otherworldly remoteness. ''Blanket'' is like a shroud tossed over the work at the end.
There are religious allusions elsewhere. The cross (unconsciously?) inserted at the top of the picture of the terrorists' funeral. The paintings of candles and skulls. The haunted seascapes, icebergs and mountaintops that recall Caspar David Friedrich and divine nature. The copy of Titian's ''Annunciation of the Virgin.'' The implied cross in the diamond-shaped abstractions Mr. Richter made in 1998 when a church commissioned him to paint the stigmatization of St. Francis. (The church rejected the pictures, as he had anticipated.) Also the portraits of his wife nursing their son, Moritz, which are images of the Madonna and child just as the painting of her reading a magazine is a kind of annunciation.
The philosopher Pascal, a skeptic, said he would rather believe in God and be wrong than not believe and find out God existed. Mr. Richter once wrote: ''I constantly despair at my own incapacity, at the impossibility of ever accomplishing anything, of painting a valid, true picture or of even 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.''
Clearly it does happen in the show, again and