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A Brush With Pop

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gerhard Richter’s modest 1962 painting “Table” is one of the earliest works in the German artist’s enormous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and it’s also one of the strangest. The canvas might look odd, but actually it’s composed with an astringent logic.

“Table” sets up certain parameters that Richter, 70, has spent the past 40 years exploring in diverse ways. We don’t ordinarily think of paint and brush strokes as objects, or things that are capable of being seen and touched. In Richter’s paintings, though, their materiality is always asserted as part of the bargain.

The painting depicts an ordinary metal folding table, the kind of institutional model you might find in a meeting hall, with a plain white top and simple black legs. The canvas is split horizontally into a dark gray floor beneath a light, mottled gray wall. That’s all there is--except for a furious slather of brushy gray paint in looping arcs that Richter has thinly scribbled across the painting’s surface, as if in a controlled act of artful vandalism.

The scribble is weird. You must look through it to see the table and the room. The rudimentary illusion of pictorial space gives way to something material: physical marks of paint on a surface. Paint becomes objectified.

It’s as if you’re looking at gestural paint resting on a tabletop. That’s what makes this work so odd. A table is a flat plane on which you put things. “Table” is a flat plane on which you put brush strokes.

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The subject could be anything. Phantom Interceptor jets. Maria Callas striding down a staircase in a lame evening dress. An abstract field of explosive colors. The funeral of a gang of terrorists. A luminous tangle of dark and silvery hues, dragged across a canvas with a squeegee. Paint samples from the hardware store. The back of a woman’s head. Whatever he paints, Richter always calls attention to painting.

He distinguishes images in paintings from those made by cameras, which are ubiquitous in a modern culture of mass media. Camera images, like the magazine photographs of metal folding tables Richter copied in his 1962 painting, have a different aim. They aspire to transparency. You’re meant to look right through them, as if actually seeing the table (or the jets or the opera star). Photographs, even great ones, entail a degree of obliviousness to what’s right in front of your eyes. Great paintings don’t.

A Richter painting intercepts the phantoms of camera imagery. Richter is a Pop artist, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, but with a distinctive edge. For 40 years he has made works that insist on painting’s indelible power in a world awash in mass media.

Richter is a great painter, but unhappily the MOMA retrospective is not a great exhibition. It’s the artist’s third--retrospectives were organized in 1986 and 1988, and they traveled throughout Europe and North America--it is huge, and the selection includes dozens of marvelous works. Curator Robert Storr assembled 188 paintings from every facet of Richter’s career. The show has the pomp and circumstance of a coronation--and given Richter’s achievement, rightly so.

But it also feels lopsided. Richter’s work is presented with partiality. Rather than Pop, the show stresses a connection to Conceptual art. The Dresden-born artist is also cast in the narrow role of brooding, sorrowful German--a familiar role that describes only one limited facet of his work.

American audiences first got to know Richter’s art during the 1980s, when his big, glamorous color-abstractions were part of the hubbub over Neo-Expressionist painting. Some Richter paintings took large-scale American abstraction of the 1950s and reflected it back on the country of its origin. (That’s one reason Americans loved it.) The brushy, paint-loaded gestural canvases were finished off with a squeegee. The peculiar result, akin to 1962’s “Table,” was paintings with the look of giant color reproductions of abstract art but with all the material presence of a traditional painting. These gorgeous pictures were integral to the return of European (and especially German) art to international prominence, after 40 years of New York dominance.

The next big jolt came in 1990, when the St. Louis Art Museum circulated a show of an astounding 1988 suite of 15 black-and-white oil paintings, based on documentary photographs of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang of German terrorists. (Titled “October 18, 1977,” the show was seen at the Lannan Foundation, then in West Los Angeles.) Photo-based representation and abstraction have been Richter’s focus as a painter, ever since the quirky “Table.”

“October 18, 1977" is featured in the retrospective (MOMA now owns the suite), and its bleak eulogy to a sordid episode of rancid libertarianism is powerful. Yet you can find yourself well into the 1990s rooms of this chronologically installed show before it suddenly dawns that relatively few color abstractions from the first 30 years have been included.

In the 1960s and 1970s Richter also made numerous paintings based on commercial color charts from the hardware store. Just two are here. There are beautifully installed rooms devoted to gray or black-and-white paintings, but not one is devoted to color. Color is instead scattered about, like accent pillows.

The three monumental diptychs “November,” “December” and “January” (all 1989) are among Richter’s most haunting gestural abstractions--they’re each 13 feet tall and 10 feet wide--and they’re exquisitely installed with “Betty” (1988), a small and luminous picture of the back of a blond woman’s head. But these wintry abstractions are Richter’s most dark and brooding, with great slabs of black, white and gray paint obscuring the color underneath.

“Betty,” installed at the end of the room, turns her head away, as if staring into the grayness that fills the painted space behind her. It’s a pointed echo of what visitors do when standing before the nearby diptychs.

Richter’s gestural abstractions are an important body of work. Color and gesture signal a visceral immediacy in painting, which he then purposefully undermines by scraping the image. The effect is similar to what Richter gets in his photo-based figurative works, when the finished painting is gone over lightly with a dry brush and the wet paint is loosely blurred. The result is a nominally Expressionist painting, which actually looks more like a color slide of an Expressionist painting. Richter’s gestural abstractions are, oddly enough, as visually photographic as his paintings based on photographs from magazines, newspapers or his own camera.

The color charts, which faithfully record the neat rows of rectangular samples, are among the few paintings Richter has made that are not softly blurred or out of focus. They don’t need to be. In a painting of a commercial color chart, pure abstraction and faithful representation are already simultaneous.

Notably, Richter also tends to avoid charts that feature primary or secondary colors, choosing instead to show custom colors that cannot be pinned down. (Melon? Puce? Mocha latte?) The color is as specific yet elusive--and riveting--as the commingling of representation and abstraction.

The inclusion of just two color charts in the retrospective (one installed in a stairwell) has a “seen one, seen ‘em all” feeling, which is disappointing. These pure Pop paintings are reduced to a conceptual gesture in Richter’s career. And that’s where this retrospective goes awry. Coupled with the general suppression of color, the show’s emphasis on black and white, on representational subject matter and on photographic sources is what aligns Richter’s paintings on the side of Conceptual art.

Important points of connection between Conceptual art and Richter’s work can be seen, but Richter is not a Conceptual artist. Conceptual art was born of a 1960s conviction that painting was bankrupt. Richter’s has asserted from the start that it’s not.

The selection also plays up the dark and brooding Richter--a Romantic born under the specter of National Socialism and raised to maturity under Communism, who carries the burden of history on his sagging shoulders and whose heroic struggle in life is the salvation of painting, even as it withers on the vine. It turns him into the latest variation of a pop cliche of the German artist that has been in place for centuries--a Caspar David Friedrich for our time.

But Richter is as much a dandy, committed to fastidious stylishness and razor-sharp calculation, as he is a latter-day moralist. He’s a mushy sentimentalist, too--check out all the doting recent paintings of his baby--not to mention a vulgar voyeur, as evidenced by lewd paintings of prostitutes. The retrospective flattens Richter out, making him a dour German painter acceptable to the Conceptual perspective that is institutionalized in art today.

“Conceptual painter” is a batty oxymoron. For Richter the art object and its effect are paramount, not the idea and its intention. Richter is a Pop artist. Camera pictures are treated like found objects. Painting is asserted for its capacity to manipulate materials in ways media imagery can’t. Color makes a claim to delirious unruliness.

In 1963, two years after he fled East Germany for the West, Richter and a few colleagues billed themselves as “Capitalist Realists,” a German variant of Pop that had fun with their former Soviet status as Socialist Realist artists. They didn’t get very far with the gambit, and commentators typically describe this moment as a passing escapade. In truth, it set Richter on an amazing path--one he still follows to this day.

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“Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting,” Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, (212) 708-9400, or on the Web at www.moma.org, through May 21. Closed Wednesday.


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