Gerhard Richter:  Forty Years of Painting

by Donald Goddard

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The grayness of Gerhard Richter's work is instructive, and distressing. It comes, of course, from black and white photography, from snapshots, newspaper pictures, portraits. In any of these forms, precisely because they purport to be records of reality, photographs are actually furthest from reality. The moments are not false but the records are falsifications that inherently disregard what came before and what came after. They are, in other words, or can be, works of art.

Grayness pervades everything. Barnett Newman called gray the color of tragedy. And so it is in Richter's work, but more likely the color of the representation of tragedy, or the world as represented by photographs, the preponderance of which (at least in newspapers) were black and white until recently. That is how we of a certain age retained and transmuted the great events of our time--the rise of totalitarianism, the Second World War, the aftermath of hope and recidivism--as well as the people in our lives, known and unknown. What might otherwise be painful or unacceptable in some way becomes part of a placid documentary in which the truth and diversity of experience are not even issues. The photograph is a separate entity with its own rules, a site of aesthetic confusion and an impossible equivalent of the events themselves.

Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, where he lived through the rise of Hitler, the war, and the installation of Communism in East Germany. He studied art there, was successful in a kind of modernist Socialist Realist style of painting, and then left in 1961 for West Germany (Düsseldorf), where he remains (near Cologne). Most of his work in the 1960s is photographically based. He had been a photographer's assistant as a youth and now made scrapbooks of photos, some of which he projected and rendered into paintings. Most are of families, vacation scenes, fashion shots, but occasionally a newspaper photo intrudes of American planes bombing or of emaciated naked dead bodies attended by vultures. The references to tragedy in his paintings are sideways, often personal, sometimes private.

There is a terrible logic in what Richter did during this decade. He evolved a method of "unpainting," which meant painting a scene based on a photograph, black and white, occasionally color, and then brushing, usually horizontally, to blur the images. He seems to be unpainting his earlier Socialist Realist paintings, and, more pointedly, the very scenes he is using. Pushing the paint around is like manipulating the photographic emulsion to change the image, to see into the scene, to relieve it of inertness. He makes the images transparent, mutable, so that they seem to move in time. There is some leeway, some small space and time to allow for all the death that has occurred, but still we are stuck with those photographs and what they represent. The squirming of emulsion is something like the shattering that took place in Europe through the tightened grips of war and politics. Cathedral Square, Milan, of 1968, looks like a reconfiguration of that majestic, overbearing space in light waves, a dematerialization of it. Cities are seen from the air in this period (Townscape Madrid, Townscape PL)--all streets, buildings, and brushstrokes--like targets for bombers and like abstract paintings. At the same time, natural forces become turbulent in skies and seascapes (Cloud, Seascape (Sea-Sea), and Seascape (Cloudy)). The world is being chewed up and recast as an abstraction.

The abstraction takes human form in Richter's 48 Portraits, painted for the German pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale. These small canvases (27 9/16" by 21 11/16" each), are black-and-white portrait heads of 48 dead white male European and American intellectuals (scientists, writers, composers, philosophers, but no artists, nor architects for that matter) derived from pictures in an encyclopedia. All but four were born in the 19th century. Reasons for inclusion are mysterious: Einstein is included but not Freud, Wells but not Joyce, Stravinsky but not Schoenberg (maybe it was his encyclopedia, or the way he wanted to arrange the pictures). The heads are slightly blurred but otherwise very little manipulated. When I first saw them, lined up in the stairwell leading from the first to the second part of the exhibition, they seemed like an indictment of Western paternalism, which had cause so much pain, suffering, and upheaval of the kind Richter had recently been struggling with in his work. But in the light of Richter's later work, they seem more like an apotheosis of authority figures, the kind of hall of fame that seems necessary to Germans and Americans in particular. In 1965, Richter had painted a portrait of his father holding a dog, based on a black-and-white photograph. It seems quite angry, with the paint pulled sideways to emphasize the silly near madness of the man, who had been a teacher and Nazi Party member. The 48 Portraits restore order to the universe of thought, and fathers. They are whole, basically untouched, accepted icons of history, and they establish a level of achievement from which Richter himself can continue to the next level. This is the good part of history.

So the past is forgotten, or buried, or exalted. Richter enters a spiritualized realm in the 1970s, a realm of abstraction, revered art of the past, mysterious and familiar landscapes, and eventually, in the 1990s and beyond, of maternity, paternity, and self-portraiture. Gray seems still to be behind everything, but color becomes more prevalent. He literally introduces many of the possibilities of color with a very neat and large color chart of 1974 called 256 Colors. In the 1980s and '90s, his abstractions are increasingly formulaic, made with a squeegee that pushes across the surface in straight paths the way his brush did in "unpainting" images during the 1960s. They constantly reveal new accidents of color and shape but also cover up and hide. They are impervious.

There is still, nonetheless, a haunting quality in many of these works (not 256 Colors, but others), which emerges directly in a series of fifteen paintings under the overall title of October 18, 1977. The date is when the last desperate attempt was made by supporters to obtain the release of six jailed members of the anarchist Baader-Meinhof group, who had been arrested by German authorities in 1972 for a series of peaceful demonstrations followed by robberies, shootings, and bombings. By 1977, all but one of the six was dead, whether by suicide or murder is still unknown. The paintings are all gray, and like Richter's gray paintings of the 1960s, they depict events from several years before, making them historical from the beginning. As in a television report, we are shown moments of the activists' capture, captivity, and demise. These scenes are the objects of a formal mourning about society, and they appear at a great distance, in their shroud of grayness, in the past. It is therefore possible for us to accept the fate of these people, as we accept the authority of Richter's encyclopedic great men of history, without examining the diversity of their lives and ideas, and then we can go on to something more diverting, and to the private pleasures of family, home, and work.

That is precisely what happens in Richter's work of the last ten years, in which his wife, his children, and ghostly versions of himself appear. Like his people, his landscapes and abstractions (six large red rhomboids, two small gray canvases, and others) are almost featureless. In earlier works there was a kind of battle between dark and light, so that in a series of large abstractions of 1989, for instance, light appears to be trapped in darkness, as in the cold months for which they are named (November, December, and January). The battle seems to subside, however, in works of the '90s; an even glow takes over, like that of the candles he painted in the early 1980s. Especially in the red rhomboids, darkness now seems to be trapped in light. Redemption has a strange blankness.

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition  was at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53d Street, New York, NY,
and traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art;
and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

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