Powerful Works on the Richter Scale : West German's paintings based on police photos are a haunting reminder of notorious leaders of Red Army Faction

Between 1969 and 1979, a significant aspect of West German society underwent an astonishing transformation. The state's budget for police operations more than doubled. Allocations to the Federal Office for Defense of the Constitution increased sixfold. The budget of the Federal Criminal Bureau grew ninefold. And all these government institutions were granted expansive new authoritarian powers.

For the first time in postwar German life--which is to say, for the first time since the Nazi terror--the police were suddenly allowed to tap virtually any suspect's telephone, or to confiscate and open any mail crossing the country's borders. Official checkpoints could be set up at random on the streets, and any person incapable of producing proper identification could be detained for up to 12 hours. The creation of a vast, computer surveillance system able to provide quick, detailed information about individual citizens ensued, amounting to what has been described as a "powerful security monolith" within the Federal Republic.

This decidedly chilling advance in the state's capacity for self-defense was spurred by that uniquely modern affliction called terrorism. Growing out of the anti-Vietnam War student movement of the late 1960s, a loosely knit, internal terrorist organization called the Red Army Faction went about bombing cars in Bonn, torching buildings in Frankfurt, kidnaping and murdering businessmen and judges, hijacking Lufthansa airplanes and more. Urban-guerrilla tactics were created in a violent effort to oppose and to end Germany's economic and industrial support of the United States and its involvement in Southeast Asia.

Idealistic and naive, yet nonetheless violently disruptive, the goal of the Red Army Faction was nothing short of the overthrow of the capitalist system, which its members believed to be unavoidably militaristic, racist and ultimately fascist.

Today, looking back across a profoundly conservative political decade, the calamitous story of the Red Army Faction seems a dusty chapter from ancient history. Yet, it is to this tangled, painful and provocative moment from the decidedly recent past that the widely acclaimed artist Gerhard Richter turned in 1988.

More specifically, the painter went straight to the bizarre climax of events, and produced a suite of 15 canvases based on police and press photographs surrounding the still-controversial deaths of the Red Army Faction's impassioned leaders. A quietly devastating body of work, these haunted, disturbingly beautiful paintings stand among the most remarkable artistic achievements of recent memory.

Richter has purposefully exhumed an explosive historical moment, but there is no sense of vulgar exploitation to this discerning work. Instead, as an artist committed to reflection on deeply felt issues of great philosophical complexity, he typically casts his nets wide in search of points of departure. Here, the power of politics, of history and of aesthetics, so often artificially forced apart, nimbly intermingle. That Richter's choice of subject inevitably would galvanize attention is in fact part of their stunning success: The voice of an artist is surgically inserted into the culture's larger dialogues.

First shown in Germany a year ago, then again in London and Rotterdam last summer and fall, Richter's suite of paintings last week began an eight-month tour to four cities in North America. At the St. Louis Art Museum, curators Michael Shapiro and Elizabeth Wright created a welcome opportunity for the work to be seen here before being installed, for a 10-year loan, at Frankfurt's new Museum of Modern Art.

After closing Feb. 4, the show will travel to the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (Mar. 6-Apr. 21) and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (May 11-June 24). On July 1, it will end its tour by inaugurating the new gallery at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles. Given the St. Louis Art Museum's venerable history of interest in modern German art--it claims a large and exceptional collection of German Expressionist paintings, with a special place occupied by the work of the great Max Beckmann--the Midwest museum was uniquely suited to the task.

The exhibition and the suite of paintings are titled "18. Oktober 1977." Early in the morning of that date, the bodies of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan Carl Raspe were found inside their maximum security cells at Stuttgart's Stammheim Prison, which had been built for the singular purpose of holding these convicted leaders of the Red Army Faction. Baader and Raspe each had a bullet in the brain. Ensslin, like her compatriot Ulrike Meinhof 18 months earlier, was found hanging by the neck from a noose tied to the bars of a high window.

What had happened depended on who was asked. Federal officials ruled the deaths a collective suicide, performed out of personal despair over life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Supporters of the group claimed that the deaths were a state execution, undertaken out of government despair over how to stop escalating terrorist attacks designed to force their release.

Which answer is correct? Don't look to Gerhard Richter's paintings for a solution to the mystery, which remains a volatile topic of debate even to this day. Indeed, central to the elegiac power of this art is its stomach-churning insistence on the unlikelihood of ever knowing the answer for sure.

Richter shows us only selected vignettes. Two paintings describe scenes of the gang's arrest. There are three different pictures of a shyly smiling, self-reflective Ensslin, and three nearly identical ones on the coroner's slab--dead, dead, dead. There are two similar views of a blank-eyed Baader, sprawled on the floor in a black pool of blood. A single canvas shows Ensslin, hanged.

Single canvases also are devoted to an empty, book-lined prison cell; a hallucinatory funeral procession, which winds through a roiling throng of people; a soft portrait of a young woman (Meinhof?), her right eye riveted as the compositional bull's eye of the painting; and a smashed record on a record player, perhaps the one from which Ensslin is said to have gotten the electrical cord with which she fashioned a noose, or the one Baader is said to have had brought into his cell with a pistol secreted inside.

Richter concentrates the sense of these paintings as being documentary evidence. His chosen models are clearly "official" black-and-white photographs--gathered from police files, the newspapers and even the school yearbook or conventional family album. And every surface blemish, crease or speck of dust that intruded on the photographic source is meticulously reproduced on the canvas.

Because photographs, regardless of their subject, are chiefly evidence of moments gone and irrecoverable, the aroma of death is intensified. Simultaneously, however, Richter accentuates a gnawing quality of unknowable-ness.

The images have been blurred. Sometimes he's dragged his brush over wet paint in horizontal or vertical repetition, creating woozy visions that read as quick scans across the scene. ("Cell" and "Funeral" have the wobbly look of stills from a movie made with a hand-held camera.) Elsewhere, Richter has carefully fuzzed the contours of objects, which yields an almost aqueous haze. Either way, the sharpness goes out of focus, the scene seems submerged. Made visually unclear, and with no clues as to the actual identities of the people, their evidential use evaporates.

Richter's technique also yields a luxurious sensuality. The creamy, painterly surfaces, with their exquisitely handled, seemingly infinite array of tonal grays, effortlessly seduce. Pulled up close to the surface, either to examine a tiny painting of a dead woman's sinuous profile or to peruse the dappled points of glowing light in a large canvas that shows a funeral march, it's easy to lose yourself in a concupiscent swoon of aesthetic revery. Tendrils of pleasure and death smoothly, gracefully, horribly intertwine.

Death is not exactly a subject alien to the history of Western art. Richter's paintings are indebted to obvious modern examples, from Goya to Manet. And during the last two millenniums, how many crucifixions have been painted?

But certain deaths are harder to accept than others. For art, the widely reported death of painting itself some 20 years ago turns out to have been among the hardest. Even now, after decades have passed, it's easy to find staunch disbelievers who deny its passing as the cultural medium of omnipotence, blindly insisting the corpse is alive and kicking.

The doubters have been bolstered by a seemingly contradictory fact: Following a traumatic period of crisis, painting in the 1980s suddenly and with unexpected force returned to cultural prominence. But paintings, unlike people, aren't all created equal. The factor that matters most to any understanding of the exhilarating return of painting in the 1980s is that a number of exceptional artists were willing to face, and self-consciously to utilize, the awful catastrophe that was the medium's demise.

Richter was among them. After emigrating to Dusseldorf from East Germany in 1961, he had developed a painting style based on Photorealism, then switched to monochromatic canvases (often gray on gray) that he continued to paint into the early 1970s.

In 1976, he began the work for which he is most widely known today. Big, colorful swaths of bright, gestural paint, in which squeegees have been swiped across the surface to veil and distance the abstraction, they look rather like gigantic, photographic transparencies of Abstract Expressionist canvases. That painting is metaphorically dead, and that photographic images record only moments that are gone, are two conditions Richter seamlessly weds. Emotive immediacy is tamped down beneath a cold internal light, as if the blood had all drained out of the picture.

"18. Oktober 1977" compounds this deathly feeling. Try thinking of some of Richter's titles as describing not just events associated with the demise of the Baader-Meinhof gang, but conventional attributes of representational painting and photography: an "Arrest(ed)" and "Hanged" image, a photographic "Cell," a smashed "Record Player," and a picture "Shot Down." The tension between photography, as the principal carrier of imagery today, and painting, as an incomparable vehicle usurped, is visceral.

What makes "18. Oktober 1977" so extraordinary, and not simply a clever figurative recapitulation of Richter's earlier abstract paintings, is its evocation of a parallel event in political history. For the rise of photography and the death of painting in the 1970s is told through the simultaneous narrative of the Red Army Faction.

This is why employing the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang as subject is brilliantly provocative, but not merely sensationalistic. These paintings have caused a furor in Europe, where the subject easily jabs raw nerves, while Americans blithely dismiss terrorism as an alien topic. (I don't recall last December's racist wave of letter bombs, sent to judicial officials in the South, being described hereabouts as terrorist assaults, which is what they were.) Richter simply opens discussion on a topic locked in the maximum-security prison we call taboo.

For an artist raised in East Germany in the postwar years, the fate of the Red Army Faction in the supposedly free and democratic Federal Republic must have had a singular resonance. A kind of urban-guerrilla version of the old avant-garde, the Baader-Meinhof gang performed terrorist actions in committed opposition to the dominant culture. Fatefully, the capitalist institutions of government were thus given a wide opening for the enhancement of their own threatening rule--and they took it. Authoritarian state power, now greatly expanded, paradoxically had moved farther in the very direction the Red Army Faction had sought to forestall.

Richter, who repeatedly has insisted that painting is a moral act, does not politically eulogize terrorism in this suite. (The same cannot be said, alas, for the noxious essay by critic Benjamin Buchloh in the show's catalogue.) Instead, "18. Oktober 1977" is a profound meditation on the storm cloud of death, one that gathers relentlessly in a multitude of guises.

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