Sometime in the 1960s, the art world declared painting dead.
Gerhard Richter kept on painting fascinating pictures.
Those two bald facts explain why Richter may be the most important, most influential painter working today. The retrospective exhibition "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting" opened Thursday at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. The 132 works in the show present an artist of extraordinary range and ambition. His determination always to move forward, against all odds, takes some obvious guts. But for all his art's ardent, even quixotic insistence on the continued worth of brushing paint on canvas, it doesn't become a polemic in support of painting so much as a rare demonstration of its continued life.
Richter's paintings please us and intrigue us through their determined understatement. In his classic figurative paintings, Richter copies old photos from newspapers or advertising or the family album, then drags or pats a brush across his wet paint to soften the hard edges of the image. The crispness that makes photographs so real and present gets lost behind a haze we read as doubt and distance. His classic abstractions take the same dragging process one step further: When he squeegees an almost random mess of paint across the surface of the canvas, it's as though he wants to save only that veiling action, and do away with any sense of order underneath.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932, grew up under the Nazis, then came of age under the East German Communists. So it's hardly surprising that, after fleeing to West Germany in 1961, he didn't have much patience left for grand claims about the ineluctable March of History. It hadn't panned out for the Nazis of his childhood: His father, a minor servant of the Reich, was unemployable after the war. It hadn't worked much better for the Marxists of his youth: Richter, who got his start in art doing agitprop banners and political murals, knew firsthand that the East was hardly the free worker's paradise Marx had promised. The West's grand claims about where modern art was heading, had to be heading, must not have seemed much better founded than any other strident ideology.
In the 1960s, reactionaries still looked back at Europe's grand parade of figurative painting and insisted that it could serve the present, too, despite good evidence for its exhaustion. The newer orthodoxy of modernism insisted that the history of art would inevitably culminate in pure abstraction, even though abstract painting was clearly already losing steam. And the radicals of Richter's art school days in Duesseldorf rejected all painting as a tired prop of the capitalist establishment, just another way to produce flashy goods for bourgeois consumption. Only critical artistic practices that couldn't decorate a living room -- conceptual art, performance art, installation art, experimental film and eventually video -- were seen as credible, even moral options for the truly modern artist.
Richter's 40-year response to all these creeds and screeds? To paint pictures that seemed to matter, regardless of what anybody said. He painted powerful figurative works that don't simply picture the world according to the latest fashionable look. He painted grand abstract canvases that captivate, even as they seem to puncture the pretensions of traditional abstraction. And he painted challenging pictures with as much political import as any "happening" could have, without ever falling into trite polemics.
A single, miraculously prescient painting from 1962 sets out many of the problems, and foreshadows the solutions the artist found for them. In "Table," Richter fills his entire canvas with a picture of a modern work desk, painted all in photographic-looking grays. And then, with a few broad slathers of gray paint, he covers much of the center of that image.
"Table" gives us representation, but only secondhand, via a found photograph that Richter has copied in paint. The age-old encounter of world and artist, the time-hallowed filtering of that world through the artist's eye and sensibility, is short-circuited. There isn't any representational strategy or style here, barely even any careful choice of subject matter, but only a deliberately neutral, even flatfooted transference of content from one medium into another. Instead of the accidental encounter of found objects on a table, rendered through a painter's stylish skill -- the standard still-life model for artmaking -- Richter gives us a skill-less, style-free rendering of a found image. Richter hasn't simply dropped all figuration, as modernist abstraction insisted that he should have. He's managed to save imagemaking, without relying on traditional ideas about how an artist ought to depict the world.
And then Richter throws in some abstraction, too. That scribble of gray paint has to be seen as echoing the fevered slatherings of a Jackson Pollock or a Willem de Kooning, who were two of the official Big Boys of modern art when Richter was learning to paint. Their scribblings, however, were affirmations of the painter's identity, in the grand tradition of transcendent self-expression. Richter's scribbling is the opposite, an almost haphazard cancellation of the image sitting under it. It is a humble scribble standing only for itself, rather than a scruffy-looking mark that in fact makes claims to be a master's portrait of himself.
This picture doesn't replace the gospel of old-time figuration with a new theology of abstraction. It seems to insist on its artistic agnosticism, denying the necessity of either one. Even Richter's monochrome palette isn't, in some sense, about choosing a color scheme, but about the utter refusal to make even that standard artistic move. Painting had once been about saying "either/or" -- about firmly rejecting one option in favor of another that displaces it, about choosing what would count as greatness next. Richter, however, is all "neither/nor" -- about denying final answers to any of the old questions, about refusing to make a choice between the options at hand.
Richter gets on with the business of painting novel, interesting pictures, without ever committing to a single, easy model for how that should come about. This is an art of bullheaded elusiveness, of "intransigent ambiguities," as exhibition curator Robert Storr puts it in his catalogue essay, one of the best I've ever read despite its almost daunting subtlety of thought.
There are pungent ambiguities in most of Richter's pictures of people or things. His straightforward re-presentation of found photographs inevitably, but paradoxically, gets read as full of hidden meaning. "Eight Student Nurses," from 1966, is a suite of paintings based on blurry black-and-white head shots from the subjects' school yearbook. Straightforward, uncommunicative portraits, they seem chosen specifically for their banality -- until we learn that the subjects were all victims of Richard Speck, Chicago's infamous nurse killer. This series isn't about the banality of evil, or the ubiquity of suffering -- a tempting reading of high art about slaughter. Instead, it's about the inadequacy of modern painting to say much about either one. It's the gap between the neutral, fuzzy, grayed-out painted image and its intense subject matter that makes these pictures speak. They don't seek the equivalence of subject and image that most painting once worked toward.
Though Richter's pictures have sometimes been classed as photo-realism, I think that gets them very wrong. Richter, after all, doesn't labor to capture the real qualities of photographs, the way someone like Richard Estes does. His uniform blur, for all that it sometimes evokes an unsteady or badly focused camera, is in fact a painted, evidently handmade artifice that Richter arbitrarily imposes onto images that can start out perfectly sharp. The blur of these pictures is a challenge to the photographic truth they copy, rather than a derivation from it.
The ultimate example of Richter testing the possible neutralizing force of painted representation -- also the centerpiece of this exhibition and the keystone of the artist's career -- is "October 18, 1977," a series of 15 paintings completed in 1988. Here Richter copies photographs that document the troubled lives and early deaths of members of Germany's infamous Baader-Meinhof group of far-left terrorists. We see them before the troubles start, during and after their arrests, as corpses after their apparent suicide in prison -- on the date the series takes its title from -- and then as coffins going off to burial. And all along, they're given the same blurry, monochrome treatment that Richter's nurses got way back in 1966, and that he's given to dozens of other subjects over the years, from the mourning Jackie Kennedy to good old Nazi Uncle Rudi to a humble roll of toilet paper.
In the Baader-Meinhof paintings, it's as though Richter's asking how far painting can go in seeking noncommittal, neutral imagemaking; about whether, even in a case like this, a painting can be just a bunch of gray paint on a surface that happens to come together into an image. He wants to see if painting can avoid any kind of ideology, of taking sides, even when its subject matter is as politically charged as it could be. "To me," Richter has said, "gray is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion."
Simplifying ideologies do violence to the real world's complexities, and cause violence in that world. Richter's pictures banish such simplification, such false clarity, even from the world of art.
I wrote in depth about the Baader-Meinhof series last year, on the occasion of the retrospective's launch at the Museum of Modern Art. As I argued then, and still believe, these pictures haven't managed to stay truly noncommittal about the Baader-Meinhof gang, for all of Richter's distanced grayness. Whatever his stated intentions, the blurring tends to read as a sympathetic veiling of what they were all about, rather than as a sign of noncommittal distance. The attempt to make painting a truly neutral carrier of images, however, is still fascinating, even when it's pushed so far that it fails.
In 1965, Richter talked about his monochrome imagemaking: "All that interests me is the gray areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts." Which is precisely what he went on to do.
After trying out a few different abstract modes, Richter settled on his famous "squeegee paintings," made for about a decade from the later 1970s and then relaunched over the past few years.
In these pictures, begun just when abstraction was nearing its lowest point of art world credibility, Richter takes piles of oil paint and, using squeegees as wide as the entire picture surface, drags them across the canvas from one edge to the other. The palimpsests of intense, layered color that come out of the process are almost always very attractive, even expressive, but Richter's claim is that he got to them almost by accident. Classical abstraction had always been about careful formal deliberation, or about a deliberate outpouring of heartfelt intuition. Richter, however, turned it into an almost mechanical process that generates both a supremely attractive surface and the appearance of expression, but now with a minimum of artistic intervention. Richter's abstractions are, in Storr's words, "homemade modernist ready-mades" -- almost accidentally encountered objects that somehow work just fine as "real" artworks. Once again, ideology -- a set of ideas about how things ought to be done -- gets replaced with the simple, neutral, nearly mechanical act of doing.
Despite its conceptual backbone, however, Richter's mechanical abstraction generates precisely the same kind of attractive formalism as any more deliberate, thoughtful, caring version of abstraction does. The end result of his cleverly arbitrary process is indistinguishable from the kind of facile pretty-picture-making that abstraction can become when it's at its most simpleminded. For all the complex reasoning behind it, a Richter abstraction can wind up looking as straightforwardly stylish as any over-the-sofa picture turned out by a less sophisticated painter.
Throughout his career, Richter tried to do away with the old-fashioned idea of painted style. He rejects what he calls the "culture of painting" -- the idea that painters develop a trademark "hand" and "eye" that infect everything that they turn out. Richter always tried to take himself, his interests, his predilections and his personality out of the equation. The irony, however, is that even that brave gesture of rebellion produced a trademark Richterian look that pulls him back into the grand tradition he was trying to break free from. A Richter is as easily identifiable as one of his as anything by Titian or Picasso is as one of theirs -- and sells almost as well.
Richter wanted to create an art that resisted any easy "take" on it, or any simple argument about what it might mean or do. He aimed for a cryptic art that could stand apart from the tidy movements and manifestos of past picturemaking, just as the mess of living history resists the false clarity of ideology. In some ways, he achieved his aim: Richter's pictures, whether ostensibly about a toilet paper roll, a murdered nurse or his beautiful young wife, mostly serve up a full and fascinating portion of ambiguity and indecision. But even as they do so, it becomes clear that even vagueness and deferral eventually turn into just another kind of subject matter, a new style, the latest in painterly shtick.
In the end, Richter couldn't really be the true messiah who would breathe new life into an ailing form. He turned out to be just another brilliant painter -- maybe even one of the last -- in a long line of such.