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“Gerhard Richter:

Forty Years of Painting”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to May 18

Here’s where I give up my dumb love of Gerhard Richter. That’s what I was thinking one Sunday last year as I struggled to come to terms with the inaugural hanging of the Museum of Modern Art’s Richter retrospective, a version of which is now installed at the Hirshhorn. For the better part of two decades, I’d protected from critical inquiry my regard for this most respected and disputed of contemporary artists.

Unconsidered devotion isn’t a very defensible way to go with the painter who, more than any other, has encapsulated the ambiguous situation of a medium that can seem pregnant with possibility even as some write it off as culturally outmoded. When he emigrated from East Germany to West in 1961, Richter deemed it necessary to destroy himself and start anew, having worked in the officially sanctioned manner, rebelled against it, and found his rebellion wanting. Since then, he has chameleonically moved through a range of styles, been simultaneously both realist and abstractionist, modernist—or, some would argue, postmodernist—and traditionalist, playing a difficult examination of himself and his art against an almost facile visual allure. Though I knew about the first addend in Richter’s equation, I’d deliberately given it little thought, being a total sucker for the second.

The chronology of my confirmation in the Church of Richter works out like this: In the summer of 1985, when I was supposed to be learning German in a charming but insipid Bavarian resort town to advance a planned career as a physicist, I was instead cutting class and hopping trains to go look at art. One of my major discoveries was the coolly transfixing canvas of Richter’s first wife, Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966), at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. In the spring of 1987, I ducked out of some sessions at an annual conference of the American Physical Society in New York to see a show of heated, high-keyed abstractions at the Marian Goodman Gallery on 57th Street. In the winter of 1989, with my expectation that D.C. would be a good city in which to drop out of grad school having just been fulfilled, I visited the final stop of a Richter painting retrospective at the Hirshhorn to revel in the protean talent behind a panoply of pictures—from photo-based not-quite-Pop pieces to glassy monochromes to deadpan color charts to grisaille aerial cityscapes to full-tilt quasi-gestural, quasi-mechanical abstractions.

The midcareer survey can be a critical moment for an artist, prompting a reassessment of one’s life’s work or even halting it in its tracks. In 1988, as his North American retrospective made the rounds, Richter changed direction, returning to the black-and-white photo-painting he had set aside years earlier. He would find his reputation cemented by a work of that year—a great and uncertain piece of history painting from a century that generally had little use for the genre. A 15-part cycle devoted to the arrests, incarcerations, and deaths of members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, October 18, 1977 reworks photo and video images from news outlets and the police, employing the trademark blur that both distances Richter’s subjects and constructs the palpable surfaces of his representational paintings. It was typical of Richter that he elected to highlight a political conflict that split not only Germany but the artist himself, dividing his sympathies and making it impossible for him to choose a side.

MoMA acquired the series in 1995 and devoted a show and catalog to it in 2000-2001. A little more than a year later, curator Robert Storr made it the centerpiece of the current retrospective. There was more at work, however, than just the expected display of institutional pride. The crowded trail of galleries that snaked between two floors of a museum in the midst of renovation clearly posed a challenge, but October 18, 1977 was sited to achieve a sense of destination. It was as if Storr’s ideas about the counterpoise of doubt and faith that characterizes all of Richter’s work radiated from the curator’s consideration of this one piece, a murky meditation on the shadows of history and the increasingly provisional nature of photographic evidence.

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If the steady flow of the show through the Hirshhorn’s second-floor galleries better evokes Richter’s underlying unity, that impression is only bolstered by Storr’s selection, which reinforces it with a literal and psychological grayness. From 1965’s portraits of the artist’s father and uncle—who both paid dearly for serving the Nazi regime during the war—to 1971-1972’s panorama of four dozen encyclopedia heroes to the Baader-Meinhof suite, much of Richter’s blurry realism naturally adopts the tones of the black-and-white media that served him as source material. But that distanced, intermediate palette also anchors the dissolving early Stella of Gray Streaks (1968), the parodic abstract expressionism of Un-Painting (Gray) (1972), and the wry Barnett Newman homage of the bifurcated Gray Mirror (1992). A small Shadow Painting (1968), done in shades of gray, draws on the format of Richter’s color-chart canvases, whose panes play against each other like the lights of a computer brain on the fritz in an old sci-fi movie. At the interstitial crossings are tiny dots of gray that exist only as optical figments, bugs in the dying machine.

Richter is a stunning colorist, but even those works that show him at his brightest—most notably the optic-orange-and-electric-blue Wall (1994) and the fiery 1998 suite that represents the stigmata of St. Francis as six rhombuses, each sharp shape conjuring both hand-forged nail head and mystic wound—are dimmed by their surroundings. Not that this impoverishes Richter: He is capable of grays—and browns—that somehow contain the presence of all colors rather than imply their absence. (The muddying coils of 1972’s Red-Blue-Yellow, for example, seem to be frozen as they blend into a voluptuous middle tone.) To the overriding color concept of Storr’s exhibition—gray as the skeptic’s white—we can imagine a corresponding sound: In place of what once seemed an ever-shifting cacophony, Richter is now heard to sustain a single suspended chord that for four decades has remained caught between consonance and dissonance, refusing resolution.

If discussion of Richter often seems a strained effort to make the artist’s visual effects commensurate with his conceptual concerns, that’s because looking at Richter and thinking about him are often absurdly different things—and most people end up favoring one at the expense of the other. The standard critical approaches are shot through with suspicion and second-guessing—of beauty, of virtuosity, of pictorial and painterly tradition. In other words, of all the pickets in the fence that Richter perches his art upon. Slip to one side and you’ve got Richter as endgame ironist, nihilist even; tip to the other and you’ve got him as the object of dumb love. Whichever way you fall, you can peer through, with trepidation and mistrust, to the opposite numbers you could easily have joined.

Storr’s achievement is to keep Richter on the fence, to retain for the painter the unstable equilibrium he has painstakingly sought out over the course of his career. It’s a delicate balance to hold—more fragile in the hands of a writer who must present a decided view of the artist than in those of the artist himself, who can proceed without pinning himself down and who, when speaking, often grants himself the liberty of self-contradiction. By showing the fox to be a hedgehog whose one sure thing looks deceptively like foxiness, Storr has established a model of Richter that synthesizes most perceptions of him—and has made it look nearly effortless.

Though this view now looms as central, it still isn’t total. Storr admires Richter for his elegant, restrained philosophical questioning of painting, and it is undoubtedly this that makes the artist important. But I love Richter for all the things that drove him to paint that he can’t quite rid himself of. Richter may take the long way around to beauty, tradition, and faith in his medium, but, despite himself, he makes it back to all the things that continue to render painting inexhaustible.

Indirection ultimately alters the arrival, however, and no part of Richter’s oeuvre illustrates this point better than the Abstract Pictures he has produced since the late ’80s. These are paintings of overwhelming surface appeal that are motivated by an absolute terror of the superficial. Existing almost entirely as surfaces, their multiple layers of underpainting having been repeatedly built up, scraped away, and smeared over, they are often spoken of as “squeegee” paintings. But that term doesn’t quite do justice to the giant custom tools Richter sweeps across his canvases in strokes that function at once as both mark-making and mark-unmaking. In the Granada TV documentary that takes its title from the present exhibition, Richter slathers red paint onto a long board that looks not at all like something you’d find in a window-washer’s bucket and for all the world like an upended, very wide, very short horizontal stripe painting by Kenneth Noland. It’s as if Richter makes an Abstract Picture by dragging one painting against another, defacing both in the process.

The effects Richter produces in this fashion arouse in his devotees nearly volcanic upheavals of muck-lust. In my case, they are so great that I regularly make room for Richter epigones—not only for James Nares, whose brushy swirls are undercut by a quasi-photographic, nearly trompe l’oeil lack of physical substance, but also for Jason Martin, whose oozing single-stroke monochromes are produced with large combs not unrelated to Richter’s squeegees. For Martin, physical substance is the whole game.

Richter himself doesn’t always escape charges of slickness. In a one-paragraph Artforum.com preview, critic David Rimanelli called him a “canonical figure in contemporary art,” then backhanded him for “the cookie-cutter, by-the-yard collector’s chic that too often seems his stock-in-trade.” For his part, Richter has examined the problem in as close to a head-on fashion as can be expected, publishing two books of details of single paintings that function as both celebrations and interrogations. Lured by visual interest rather than guided by a system, the camera chops tiny patches of a 24-by-20-and-one-eighth-inch canvas into objects of perusal for the later volume, 1996’s Abstract Painting 825-11: 69 Details. The book honors and enables a thoughtless looking rather different in character from the familiar sort displayed in the opening montage of the Granada doc, in which the lens licks across the surfaces of various paintings as though sampling garden-party sorbets while a chamber orchestra saws away at The Goldberg Variations.

Elsewhere in the film, Richter speaks of the torment of not knowing what to paint, and of needing to find a way to move ahead regardless: “To come to paint again without an idea is also possible. So sometimes the pleasure comes with doing.” There are enough moments like this to convince me that Richter keeps a tool to bracket and set aside his doubt on his bench right next to his squeegee. Indeed, I’ve begun to suspect that my love, still dumb though no longer unconsidered, is at least informed by an attitude similar to that which allows Richter to continue to work.

The temptation is to call Richter a more conservative artist than he is, particularly given the evidence of the landscapes and family portraits, all fundamentally heartfelt, that have filled his later years. But however seductive his canvases are, they ask to be regarded not as definitive statements of painterly prowess but as propositions to be weighed by the eye, the perverse endeavors of a master who holds mastery in question. CP