April 13, 2020 3:10pm
The first thing I encountered in “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” was not in fact a painting, but my own reflection, or something like it: a blurred form thrown back at me by 11 Panes (2004), a stack of green glass panels propped upright against a wall. Placed across from the elevator bank in the foyer to the exhibition, the work made the defamiliarizing confrontation with one’s own distorted image a condition of entry. Flanking it were two small paintings that would seem to belong to opposite poles of the artist’s career. Table (1962), made the year after Richter emigrated from East to West Germany, is a dour grayscale rendering of a table, transcribed from a photograph in the Italian design magazine Domus. At the center of the canvas is an abstract whorl, where Richter smeared his depiction with paint thinner: a kind of double cancellation that takes aim at both his Socialist Realist training and the presumed interiority of the gestural mark. The other painting, September (2005), is based on a photograph of the plane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the artist undercutting the source image’s spectacular quality by building up layers of paint and scraping them away, leaving only a silvery blue blur of sky and smoke.
Triangulating disparate works, this opening salvo set the tone for the exhibition, a dense, decidedly idiosyncratic survey of the artist’s six-decade-long career. Though the show—co-curated by Richter’s longtime interlocutor, Harvard art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and the Metropolitan Museum’s Sheena Wagstaff—occupied two entire floors of the Met Breuer and included roughly one hundred works from the 1960s to the present, it was not, in any real sense, a retrospective. (This was evident in the almost polemical omission of several of Richter’s best-known paintings, including October 18, 1977, a 1988 cycle based on press photographs depicting the imprisonment and death of members of the Red Army Faction, a German left-wing extremist group.) Instead of tracing a linear path through Richter’s oeuvre, the show seemed to double back on itself halfway through: the display on the second floor unfolded as a chromatic and thematic echo of the first, down to the inclusion of a mirror work at its entrance (Mirror, 1986). Both floors intermingled works from all periods of Richter’s career, beginning with galleries devoted to his early gray paintings, moving through his exploration of the conventional genres of landscape and portraiture, and ending with luridly colored abstraction. This recursive structure emphasized an underlying consistency in Richter’s work: in spite of his confounding formal pivots, from photorealism to the monochrome to gestural abstraction and back again, a set of questions has remained more or less constant from the outset. Chief among them is: why paint? As its ambiguous title suggested—painting after all this; still painting, after all—the show foregrounded the fundamental dialectic that plays out across all Richter’s work, between doubt about painting’s purpose and faith that it’s worth doing anyway.
The implicit corollary to the question “why paint?” is how to do so as a German born in 1932. The exhibition’s first gallery was largely given over to what are arguably still Richter’s most significant works, the gray photo paintings of the 1960s, though they were refracted here through a new sculptural installation, House of Cards (5 Panes), 2020, an homage to Richard Serra composed of tilted planes of glass balanced against one another. After painting deadpan copies of photographs sourced from both mass media and family albums, Richter raked over the canvases while they were still wet to produce their characteristic blur, an effect that paradoxically registers both the mechanical nature of the original images—by mimicking a technical flaw endemic to photography—and the handcraft of his works’ execution, the paint made legible through its disruption. Offering the same treatment to an image of his uncle posing in a Wehrmacht uniform (Uncle Rudi, 1965) as to an image of a nondescript bit of furniture (Kitchen Chair, 1965), Richter seems to link Germany’s postwar “memory crisis”—its disavowal of the recent Nazi past—and the vacuous spectacle of postwar consumer culture he confronted upon arriving in the capitalist West.
Richter approaches German history obliquely—as a dark specter hovering over even the most seemingly innocuous images—in much of his work, including the landscapes he has painted intermittently since the 1960s. In the monumental five panel Alps (1968), he rendered a panoramic mountain scene in thick, gestural passages of black and white impasto, debasing an emblem of national strength with AbEx pastiche. Two striking landscapes, Iceberg in Mist (1982) and Ice (1981), as technically dazzling as Alps is ungainly, mine the German Romantic tradition of Caspar David Friedrich, their soft-focus blurs blunting any sense of sublime transcendence.
Both floors of the exhibition culminated in galleries devoted to late cycles of large scale abstract canvases in which Richter manipulated the paint with a squeegee, a tool he first employed in the 1980s. As the squeegee passes over the canvas adding new paint, it scrapes away previous layers, producing stuttered, striated palimpsests that record the process of the work’s own making, even if that process is largely one of erasure. The six paintings in the first series, “Cage” (2006), an homage to John Cage’s chance procedures, oscillate between exuberance and constraint: composed primarily of horizontal and vertical squeegeed marks, they are streaked with passages of bright green, yellow, and red, which variously peek through and overtake nets of silvery gray.
The series finds a dark parallel in “Birkenau” (2014), placed in the show’s last gallery, in which Richter finally makes explicit the theme he has circled around for his entire career. Comprising four paintings and four inkjet-printed digital replicas, the series is based on photographs of the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau taken surreptitiously by a prisoner in 1944. Though the photographs had long preoccupied Richter—in the 1960s, he included one in his “Atlas,” the ongoing collection of images he draws on as source material for his paintings—it was only relatively recently that he decided to approach them directly. After a year of trying and failing to adequately commit the photographs of the camps to canvas, he painted over the initial attempts, repeatedly adding layers of paint and then aggressively scraping them away until the images disappeared, replaced by black, scabrous surfaces punctuated with smears of red and green. In the exhibition, shockingly, copies of the original photographs accompanied the paintings, an inclusion that seemed both provocative and self-negating, as if a preemptive acknowledgment of the work’s inherent limits. If the “Birkenau” paintings fail on their own, they shed important light on Richter’s entire project, making clear that his ruthless skepticism about the medium is matched by an unstinting commitment to it.
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