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Saint Gerhard of the Sorrows of Painting

"Eight Student Nurses [Acht Lernschwestern]" by Gerhard Richter at the at the Museum of Modern Art exhibit in February 2002, New York City.

One of the sad facts of writing well about our culture is that it requires viewing an unending parade of dreck—unworthy objects rewarded with undeserved praise. The critic is faced with the choice of joining the chorus of praise or resisting it. Despite the integrity of dissidence, that course has its perils, too. The task of unmasking poseurs over and over can become tedious. Jed Perl, our longtime art critic, manages to muster genuine anger at the charlatans, without succumbing to the professional hazards that accompany a slashing style. That’s because he doesn’t just aim to expose the frauds; he believes fervently in “painting’s hellbent magic.” For all the necessary negative reviews he has written, he has never lost the capacity for tender explication.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor,
Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

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 decor. 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 paintingsare 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’sresiliency.” 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.

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 après-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, twelve-step-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&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&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.