Saint Gerhard of the Sorrows of Painting

By

Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter. His
retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art until May, is a colossal
bummer--a hymn to deracination, a visual moan. This
seventy-year-old artist works in paint on canvas, but what he sends
out into the world are not paintings so much as they are
Neo-Dadaist puzzles engineered to inspire philosophical flights of
fancy among art professionals who are more interested in massaging
their world- weary minds than in using their jet-lagged eyes. The
Modern, that inner sanctum of art-world officialdom, has gone all
out for Richter, bringing together some one hundred eighty-eight
canvases that span forty years, so that museumgoers can see how he
has packaged and repackaged his hold-everything-at-a-distance pose,
serving up both realist and abstract images, both blurred gray
photorealist scenes and coarsely colored rehashes of Abstract
Expressionist brushwork. Robert Storr, the senior curator in the
department of painting and sculpture who organized this show, will
tell you that there is beauty in this chilly stuff, but all I see
in Richter and his supporters is a loathing for painting's hellbent
magic.Everything in Richter's work is muffled, distanced, impassively
ironic, as if it were being seen through a thick, murky sheet of
glass. What some observers regard as the signs of hope that Richter
sprinkles through his work-- a photorealist image of a candle, or a
blurry rendering of his young son--are witheringly calculated, like
stills from an avant-garde soap opera in which the feelings are
overcooked and bland. This vast show is an experience, all right:
an experience of visual deprivation. At the Museum of Modern Art,
Richter is presented as the
painter-who-kept-painting-in-spite-of-the-death-of-painting; and to
an art world that was once brainwashed into believing that painting
was dead, he represents the newer painting-is-not-dead form of
brainwashing. He plays the role of Saint Gerhard of the Sorrows of
Painting. And a weird ennui, a kind of shared psychosis, hovers in
the gallery air.

The exhibition begins with gray canvases done from photographs in
the mid- 1960s, after Richter, who was born and studied art in East
Germany, moved to the West. Storr makes much of this linkage
between Richter's coming-of-age in wartime and postwar Germany and
those woozy monochromatic images of smiling relatives and humdrum
household objects and figures in news photos, as if the dispiriting
times in which an artist lives justify the creation of inert art.
In his catalogue essay, Storr brings a honey-toned portentousness to
a text that covers some seventy-five tightly packed pages. He is
writing the life of the saint. The art world is Richter's
wilderness. The mood is deprivation chic. "Transposing the frozen
action of the photograph into the enduring but temporally ambiguous
realm of painting," Storr explains, "Richter fastened on the
emblems and ephemera of postwar life and distilled their often
bitter essence in tonal pictures whose poetry is a combination of
matter-of-fact watchfulness and unrelieved uncertainty." This
sounds augustly metaphysical, but what Storr's distillations and
"uncertainty" actually amount to are Richter's chilly moods. Gray
can be one of the greatest weapons in a painter's arsenal, of
course, if the restrained hues are mixed from rich colors so that
they have fiery undercurrents, or if they are spaced and
proportioned to create a visual music. But gray is just a logo for
Richter--an advertisement for the tedium of postwar existence.

Richter presents his murky images with the certainty of scientific
proofs. These paintings have a technological veneer. They are
handmade objects with a weirdly mechanized gleam. And this effect
turns Richter's canvases into the ultimate buyables for hip
collectors who want something that fits right in with their
electronic gadgetry and sparely expensive dcor. The curators, the
dealers, the collectors, the critics, and the artists who admire
Richter's work--and they are legion--believe that he is showing
them how we live now, as sensitive sad sacks in a manicured
minimalist bubble. And of course the fact that Richter is German is
supposed to guarantee the authenticity of his experience.

Although this show has been accompanied by mea culpas to the effect
that we Americans are too slow to recognize new European art, the
truth is that Richter is only the most recent in a series of
European artists, and especially German artists, who have received
a kind of manic adulation in the States; they include Joseph Beuys,
Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, and the photographer
Andreas Gursky, who was the subject of a show at the Modern last
season. For an audience whose attitude toward the very idea of art
is one of fashionable doubt, an artist who can associate himself
with the calamitous history of Germany takes on an extra-artistic
importance. Richter has no interest in the visual histrionics that
Kiefer once used to bulk up his shallow thoughts about the War and
the Leader and the Homeland; but Richter's more restrained and
veiled approach to German history is perfect now, when there seems
to be some embarrassment about the lunatic fervor with which people
fell all over themselves in praise of Kiefer a decade ago.

There is an analytical chill to Richter's work: if Kiefer was phony
Wagner, Richter is phony Kafka. One of Richter's quixotic remarks
(they come by the truckload) goes like this: "The picture [I guess
he is referring to photography] is the depiction, and painting is
the technique for shattering it. " That little nugget takes you to
the core of Richter's blandly nihilistic attitude. It is difficult
to be impressed by all this talk about painting's being a
destructive force, since the talk is being done by an artist who
demonstrates no ability to construct a painting in the first place.
Richter never escapes from the wanly monochromatic atmosphere of
the paintings in those early galleries at the Modern, even when he
is using raucous color in some of the abstractions done in more
recent years. Color in Richter's work, red and green or black and
white, has no contrapuntal effect. There is no sense of how a
particular amount of color creates an emotional impact. The sizes of
the paintings are arbitrary, and the color is all localized and
trivialized, dispiritingly descriptive in most of the realist
paintings and blandly emblematic in some of the abstract ones.

There is much talk about the range of Richter's work. He does
paintings after news photographs and family snapshots, he does
landscapes and seascapes and still lifes, he does abstractions with
bold brushwork and others with viscous rivulets of paint. Yet
everything that Richter paints brings us back to the same tepid,
tamped-down vision. Each image looks as if it were excerpted from
some vast, undifferentiated stock of images. In fact Richter owns
such a collection of images, a compendium of snapshots and pictures
taken from newspapers and magazines that he calls his Atlas; it was
exhibited at the Dia Center in 1995. And Richter's compositions
have the perfunctoriness of clippings. Where an image begins or
ends is utterly arbitrary. And his brushwork--which is all trickery
and gimmickry--never serves to structure the space.

You may wonder how Richter achieves those blurry, smudged effects in
the photorealist works, or those layers of rumpled paint in the
abstract ones. This is idle curiosity. Technique is just a form of
visual static that disrupts--and confers a false importance
upon--banal images. One of the motifs in the early part of the show
is a roll of toilet paper. This inspires Storr to muse, in an
interview with Richter: "What happens when the subject is not Titian
but a toilet paper roll?" (Richter has taken an interest in an
Annunciation by the Venetian master.) The talk that Richter's work
inspires can sound like a skit on "Saturday Night Live," except
that nobody is laughing.

The Museum of Modern Art does not give living artists retrospectives
so much as it gives them sainthood, and Storr has done such a
thorough job on Richter's behalf that even a skeptic would say that
there is a weird fascination in the proceedings. There is a kind of
diabolical logic to Storr's writing, so that anything that has ever
been said about Richter's paintings, positive or negative, becomes
a form of praise. Argue that his work is boring, and Storr explains
that this is a beautiful boredom. Describe his work as
anti-painting, and your comment becomes a way of insisting on the
importance of the work as painting.

Richter's "contribution to the medium," Storr acknowledges, has been
described as that of a "lethal parodist, dour undertaker, dry-eyed
mourner, systematic debunker of cliches, demystifying conjurer of
illusions, or as tenacious seeker of ways to make visible the
longing and queasy uncertainty inherent in our hunger for
pictures." Yet through it all Richter has, "paradoxically or
stealthily, demonstrated painting's resiliency." Richter, Storr
writes, believes that painting can be "`everything' shadowed by the
fear of `nothing.'" He "has managed to straddle the divide between
conceptual and perceptual art," not by "hedging his bets" but by
"bridging the gap." Storr's catalogue essay is written with the
intricate twists and turns of the expert courtier. The reader is
lulled into believing that the entire history of art in the past
fifty years flows straight into these stupefyingly lifeless
paintings.

I do not dislike one or another of Gerhard Richter's paintings. I
reject the work on fundamental grounds, as a matter of principle. I
do not accept the premise on which his entire career is based: that
in the past half-century painting has become essentially and
irreversibly problematical, a medium in a condition of perpetual
crisis. This is a counterfeit crisis, as far as I am concerned.
This crisis is the invention of cynical marketers who, disguised as
fashion-conscious nihilists, have managed to bulk up the essentially
marginal figure of Duchamp until he overshadows Matisse, Mondrian,
and all the hard- working makers and finders of the century just
passed. Although he is quick to express his reservations about
Duchamp, Richter would be nowhere without the Dadaist deity telling
us that art has failed. Remove the phony crisis, remove the aura of
oh-so-elegiac loss, and Richter's work dissolves right before your
eyes.

The fundamentally unanalyzed fact of Richter's career is his slavish
dependency on photographic images. We would do well to remember that
only four years ago Robert Storr organized at the Modern a
retrospective of Chuck Close, another contemporary artist whose
career is grounded in a slavish dependency on photographic images.
These are not artists who from time to time take an interest in the
particular qualities of certain photographic images, or who find
compositional or structural ideas in photographs that intrigue them
and that they think of bringing into their work as painters. They
cling to the two- dimensional images that the camera produces in
order to concoct their own two- dimensional painted images. True,
many of Richter's abstract paintings are done without reference to
photographs. But even in these cases he reaches for the
smoothed-out glossiness of a color xerox, and in other cases, the
abstractions are based on photographs--some seem to be painted
replicas of photographs of abstract brushwork. I think Richter
wants all his non-objective images to have the melancholy feeling
that adheres to coarse reproductions of Abstract Expressionist
classics.

Basically, Richter and Close have ceded the act of creation to the
camera. After which they dither around with notions of facture and
style--they give their photographic material a personalized
"artistic" spin. Yet there is always a deadness to this work: the
deadness of their dependency on the photograph, of their inability
to make anything on their own. They want us to believe that that
deadness is a form of hipness.

Richter and Close are far from being the only contemporary artists
who are hardpressed to respond to nature if they do not have a
camera to do the looking for them. Countless academic portrait
painters, who will never garner any attention at the Museum of
Modern Art, depend on photographs when they do their work; and they
are dismissed as sentimental hacks. With Richter and Close,
however, photorealism has an avant-gardist eclat, as if their own
inability to reconstruct the world could be blamed on modern art,
which has left them photo- dependent. Richter spouts banalities
about photography's taking on "a religious function. Everyone has
produced his own `devotional pictures.'" And Storr trots out the
old cliche about "photography's historical usurpation of painting's
function of representing reality," as if great painters had not been
working directly from nature straight through the twentieth
century. There is no crisis in the artist's relationship with
reality.

A few days after the Richter show opened I was in London, where the
big event at Tate Modern is a Warhol retrospective. I do not regard
Warhol as a great artist, but at least his early Marilyns and
Lizes, which come out of the same years as the first works in the
Richter show, have a funny punch. For a time in the early 1960s,
Warhol was using the silkscreen process and his overheated color
sense to give photographic images a boisterous graphic impact.
After that, his work is nothing at all; but what really bothered me
in London was not the assembly-line vacuity of the paintings that
filled the gloomy halls of Tate Modern so much as the many groups
of school-age kids who were being shepherded through the show.
There are by now several generations of museumgoers who have been
trained to regard photo-dependency as a fact of artistic life. And
they may ultimately be unable to understand that the act of
creation can be a genuinely independent act. They may find
themselves going through the Richter retrospective at the
Modern--or at museums in Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington,
where the show is headed in the coming year--and feeling an
emptiness in the work, but they will have no way of understanding
this emptiness, since they have been taught to believe that there is
no alternative to this photo-derived junk.

Gerhard Richter is a post-Duchampian message artist. The curators
and the critics who embrace his work are the same ones who long ago
accepted the most visually and intellectually impoverished forms of
Minimal and Conceptual art as key late-twentieth-century
achievements. They may still like that stuff, or at least they say
that they like it, but art professionals know instinctively that
the end-of-art pose may eventually threaten their very livelihoods.
That's where Richter comes in. He is one of a number of artists who
can get the art world beyond the nihilistic poses while
aggrandizing the endgame attitudes. Richter is presented as the way
out of our troubles, and it is truly extraordinary how many people
are eager to climb on the bandwagon. Weeks before the show opened,
The New York Times Magazine ran a huge profile of Richter by
Michael Kimmelman, the paper's chief art critic, and when the work
was up Kimmelman was at it again, praising Richter for maintaining
"a kind of cruel faith" in painting.; "He gives the giddy
possibilities of modern art a hectoring, polemical presentation."

There is something cruel about the Richter retrospective: it is
cruel to see what it does to painting. Richter's work is preachy in
a dry, quixotic way that many people mistake for seriousness
incarnate. In place of structural dynamics, he offers mingy
technical precision; the work has the cool fussiness of a lesson
plan. I am reminded that Richter went to art school in East Germany
at a time when Socialist Realism was still the order of the day,
and in his twenties he actually did some murals of the Happy Worker
variety. Half a century later Richter is still preaching to the
converted, only to a different congregation. Everything he has done
since coming to the West remains polemical, in a kind of
aprs-postmodernism, art-is-over-long-live-art way. He gives a
Socialist Realist rigidity to postmodernism's most cherished hopes
and dreams. The work has a get- with-the-program sullenness.

That Richter does both representational and abstract paintings, and
does them sometimes more or less simultaneously, may strike some
people as a heartfelt response to the sense of multiplying
possibilities of modern art. There is, after all, an inherent unity
between representation and abstraction, and this may turn out to be
the essential discovery of twentieth-century art, a discovery that
is lodged deep in the achievements of Picasso, Matisse, and Klee.
But Richter makes a mockery of this unity. His abstract and realist
works may hang in close proximity, but they are locked in an
intellectual face-off, as disconnected from one another as they are
from any meaningful sense of structure, of paint quality, of
metaphor, of poetry. He gives the giddy possibilities of modern art
a hectoring, polemical presentation.

Richter gives us nothing to look at, but the chatter that swarms
around his work is full of brain crushers. In the early 1970s
Richter created 48 Portraits, a series of black-and-white
photorealist renderings of the faces of modern worthies, ranging
from Einstein to Stravinsky to Dos Passos to Hindemith. (It also
includes artists who seem to have wandered into the twentieth
century by accident, such as Puccini.) 48 Portraits, which hangs
above a stairway at the Modern, may well be the most visually inert
set of canvases ever displayed in this museum. That will seem like
a criticism, until you read what Richter says about 48 Portraits:
"Those were the typical neutral pictures that one finds in an
encyclopedia," he explains to Storr. "The issue of neutrality was my
wish and main concern. And that's what they were. That made them
modern and absolutely contemporary."

When I look at a photograph of a modern artist whom I admire, such
as Stravinsky, I do not find it neutral at all. I am excited by
what I can learn about a person from a photograph. And I believe
others are too. So why does anybody accept Richter's neutralist
bilge? The only thing that I find more depressing than this
charlatan is the passivity of the museumgoers who pass before his
works: they may have an inkling that they are being had, but they
are unable to trust the evidence of their eyes.

These paintings do not give off anything, but they are manipulative
to a truly extraordinary degree. They hang there on the wall and
insist on your making something of them. At times Richter wants us
to make something out of nothing, as in the Color Charts, vast
paintings dating from the 1960s and 1970s in which each rectangle
is filled in with something like a commercial color mixture. (Even
Storr doesn't know what to say.) At other times Richter aims to
produce an intellectual chowdown. A prime example here is October
18, 1977, a series of fifteen black-and-white paintings from 1988
based on photographs and video footage related to the story of the
Baader-Meinhof gang. This series, in which scenes from the
misadventures of the legendary leftist group are given a grainy
black-and-white elegance, are a dictionary definition of radical
chic. As art, they are numb. As conversation starters, they are
just the thing. You can wonder if several prison deaths were
suicides, as the official accounts had it, or something else. You
can wonder at what the murderous activities of these radicals tell
you about German society. Storr has already devoted an exhibition
and a book to these works; they are in the Modern's permanent
collection.

Storr believes that these silly paintings reflect Richter's
complicated political vision, as a man who has rejected the
ideological extremism of communism (hasn't everybody?) but is also
skeptical about the liberal society of West Germany. Storr looks at
Richter's pallid exercises in political noir and thinks what he
imagines are big, subtle thoughts. Richter makes him realize that
"truth is fragmentary, that its enemy--ideology--is ultimately
murderous, and that history is irremediable and, for the most part,
irretrievable." Maybe what Storr and Richter are really saying is
that the appropriate photographer was not at the scene.

There is a kind of self-help, twelvestep-program atmosphere around
the Richter retrospective. From room to room, Richter confronts
hard truths, and grows as a man and as an artist. Having begun with
tough love, he is now said to have become a poet of an
old-fashioned sort of romantic love. There is a Hallmark-card
sentimentality about the excitement with which critics are saluting
the recent portraits of his youthful wife and his young son, both
of whom he paints in a soft-focus, dime-store-Vermeer style that is
apparently easily mistaken for the real thing. The sourpuss
conceptualist has matured into a Wordsworthian elder. Storr sees in
Richter's paintings of his young son "an elusive mix of
fascination, bemusement, and uneasiness, which is an adult
manifestation of the devoted, puzzled, and wary gaze a child might
direct at its parents." The vacuum-packed tenderheartedness of
these recent works is seen as Richter's apotheosis; but the
apotheosis turns out to be just another photo- op.

A little over twenty years ago, Richter and Warhol, these two
artists who are currently the subjects of enormous retrospectives
in New York and London, were among some three dozen artists
included in an exhibition called "A New Spirit in Painting" at the
Royal Academy in London. The show, which mingled the work of
several generations, was hailed by Christos M. Joachimides, one of
the curators, as telling the world that "the artists' studios are
full of paint pots again and an abandoned easel in an art school
has become a rare sight." "A New Spirit in Painting" featured the
work of Neoexpressionists such as Schnabel, Baselitz, and Kiefer,
and of harder-to-categorize artists such as Balthus, Kitaj,
Auerbach, Freud, Twombly, and Helion, as well as established modern
masters such as de Kooning and Picasso.

The London show generated a good deal of excitement, in part because
it presented a broader range of work than you might normally expect
from a trendsetting exhibition. But in the twenty years since 1981
there can be little doubt that the artists who have received the
most attention are the ones who always remained open to the
possibility that the paint pots might again be empty and that the
easels might again be abandoned. True, Freud has had a phenomenal
success, and Twombly has enjoyed a retrospective at the Modern. But
among the representational painters included in "A New Spirit in
Painting" who felt no need to slavishly mimic photographs, three
who have had retrospectives in New York--Balthus, Freud, and
Kitaj--have had those shows not at the Modern but at the
Metropolitan. My point is not that Robert Storr and his colleagues
at the Museum of Modern Art prefer certain artists while some of us
prefer others. My point is that there is an ideology to their
preferences, an ideology that is determined to deny the freedom
that is inherent in the very act of painting.

As it happens, just a few days after the Richter show opened at the
Modern to a round of thunderous applause, Balthus's last two figure
paintings went on display at C%amp%M Arts in Manhattan. (They will
be there until sometime in April.) This extraordinary event has
provoked barely a flicker of publicity, and yet these two canvases,
done by one of the twentieth century's greatest artists when he was
in his early nineties, instantaneously overshadow everything about
the appalling Richter retrospective.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, completed in 2000 and first exhibited at
the National Gallery in London, is a moonlit vision of a girl
asleep in a rocky landscape. Painted with the delicate, flickering
hand of a very old man, this dusky reverie, in purples and greens
and golds, has already taken its place (at least in my judgment)
among the Venuses and the nymphs and the enigmatic lovers of
Titian, Correggio, Rubens, and Watteau. The second, unfinished
composition shows a girl reclining on a daybed in a room where
Balthus's final cat dreams a final dream while a dog lifts its head
to a window and looks out at a mountainous landscape in which every
curve echoes the young woman's angular body. Taken together, these
two works show us the world that Balthus was conquering at the time
of his death, a world in which the figures have a new kind of
rococo attenuation and the jewel-like richness of the color is
sometimes given a muffled padding of chiaroscuro. There can be no
question that Balthus needed more time to bring the second
painting, here called The Waiting, to the perfected state of A
Midsummer Night's Dream. But A Midsummer Night's Dream, all by
itself, constitutes one of the greatest gallerygoing experiences
that New York has ever offered.

In London, A Midsummer Night's Dream found virtually no admirers. In
New York, C%amp%M Arts has been host to a small following of
fanatical artists, but they are the fringe. I am sad about this,
but I am not surprised. In an art world in which people are trained
to admire Richter's techno-chic impersonality and Warhol's ghoulish
exuberance, the painterly riskiness of Balthus's technique is going
to be incomprehensible. And for anybody who is open to the
experience of Balthus's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the whole
argument about the end of painting, the argument on which Richter
has been feeding for forty years, is immediately reduced to a
howling absurdity.

The Gerhard Richter retrospective is the Museum of Modern Art's
current definition of what matters in contemporary art. Of course
no single exhibition can be said to define a museum's viewpoint,
but considering the enormous size of this retrospective, and the
fact that it is the second show that the Modern has devoted to
Richter in recent years, and the critical position that Storr
currently holds at the museum, there is reason to believe that we
are in the presence of a signal event. The Richter retrospective is
also one of the last shows that we are going to see in the museum's
current quarters, which will close in May, at which point the
museum will move its operations to Long Island City so that a vast
expansion program that is slated to be completed in 2005 can go
forward on West 53rd Street.

Thus the Richter exhibition takes on a Janus-faced aspect. We see
the people who are in charge at the museum laying their bets on
what has mattered in the past forty years, even as they suggest
what will be remembered in the years to come. And what have they
come up with? This painting without savor, without warmth, without
life. The Museum of Modern Art used to be accused of developing and
promoting a one-track way of thinking about twentieth-century art.
This approach, which emphasized the logical development of a modern
language of form, had a visionary power that museumgoers could
accept as the whole truth or as some part of the truth, but in
either case this vision gave the museum its fascination--and
certainly its integrity. In recent years, however, that vision has
eroded until it is unrecognizable, and by now all that the powers
that be at the Museum of Modern Art want to do is blend in with
whatever is happening in the art world at large. The Modern, for
all its unrivaled collections and international clout, has become a
wanna-be institution. The Richter retrospective is one more grim
reminder that this museum that once led taste now only follows.

The Museum of Modern Art now imagines that the way to succeed is to
join in and go along, so it accepts the standard-issue
international art stars and whatever incoherent catch-as-catch-can
view of the history of twentieth-century art will give that work
its shaky legitimacy. This is the kind of tactical thinking that
lay behind "MoMA2000," the recent overview of the museum's
collections, which offered a variety of anti-chronological and non-
chronological and thematic approaches, and was conceptually
indistinguishable from the theoretical caprices that have turned so
many European surveys of modern art into forgettable sideshows. It
was during "MoMA2000" that I began to hear artists saying that they
felt increasingly dispirited about the very prospect of going to
the museum.

Critics of the Museum of Modern Art receive a standard response,
which is that the museum has always had its critics, and that the
biggest game in town is always going to take some big hits. Yet the
entire question of content may be increasingly irrelevant at the
Modern. The museum's attention has shifted from the development of
a truly loyal public to the brute dollars-and-cents questions
involved in figuring out how to get enough people through the doors
to meet revenue goals and to satisfy the public and private funders
who are supporting a vast expansion plan. There can be little doubt
that, despite the downturn in museum attendance since September 11,
the Modern will in the long run bring in the crowds. Richter is
said to be a hit. And the museum has a blockbuster,
"Matisse/Picasso," scheduled for Long Island City in 2003.

Yet when it comes to the issues that once animated this museum--how
tradition relates to innovation and how both relate to the
experience of the eye--there is a small but growing number of
museumgoers who see the Modern as an institution that has not only
lost its way but also lost its mind. No retrospective in recent
years has had the inviolable lucidity of the great shows that
William Rubin once organized. And nothing that the museum has done
about contemporary art in recent years has really been daring or
engaged: it has all been art-world business as usual. When I
consider what has been going on at the museum and then realize that
Richter's parched vision is what the museum is offering as its
temporary farewell to West 53rd Street, I cannot help but wonder
whether the Museum of Modern Art will ever again be capable of
properly presenting the great feast of twentieth-century art that it
once set before the people of New York City and the world.

By Jed Perl

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