The great and sly German artist Gerhard Richter has inserted a rare note of political provocation into a large show of recent mostly abstract works at the Marian Goodman Gallery. It comes in a photograph of his well-known painting of Second World War P-51 Mustang fighter planes. Richter made the painting from an old photograph in 1964, during the early, Pop-art-influenced phase of his multifarious career. In greenish grisaille with a zone of reddish tint, eight of the sinisterly elegant war machines, bearing British insignia, appear to execute a shallow dive above indistinct farm fields. (Actually, they are flying level; the framing point of view has a rakish tilt.) The Mustang (which, perhaps not incidentally for Richter’s present purpose, would share its name with the iconic American fun car) was a long-range craft that escorted Allied bombers over Germany. Mustangs played a murderous role in the February, 1945, firestorm attack on Dresden, strafing survivors of the initial bombing who were massed on the city’s riverbanks. From some thirty miles away, Richter, as a boy of thirteen, witnessed the glow in the night sky of Dresden’s immolation.
All of that, perhaps galvanized in response to current events, may figure in Richter’s choice to interrupt with a distant drone of malevolent engines a show that is otherwise devoted to varieties of silent, solemnly lyrical aestheticism. But I have learned from long experience that every attempt to pin this artist down, about anything, is doomed to bafflement. Richter is always emphatically unclear. The critic Sanford Schwartz has called him “the Master of the Blur,” citing the one stylistic device common to most of his pictures, whether abstract or realist: a sideways paint smear that destroys sharp visual contours and, implicitly, confident discriminations in thought and feeling. Richter’s most politically tinged work, the death-ridden suite of paintings “October 18, 1977” (1988), about the West German Baader-Meinhof terrorists, has generated more discursive heat while shedding less light of common understanding than anything else in the art of the past half century. His elusiveness is a matter of anti-ideological principle, formed in reaction to his childhood in the Third Reich, as the son of a Nazi Party member, and to his youth and training as a Socialist Realist painter, in East Germany. (He defected in 1961, when he was twenty-nine.) Granted, that elusiveness can exasperate. The critic Jed Perl began a now famous review of Richter’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 2002, “Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter.”
Perl suggests a commonsensical point: why should anyone care what a painter thinks? Thinkers think. Painters should just paint. Would that the world were so orderly. Richter’s life and times forced thought upon him, complicating a reverence for painting that stands guard against uses of the medium, even by himself—as propaganda, for example—that would violate its mysterious integrity. Note that the “Mustangs” in this show is a copy of a copy—a quoted quotation that suggests, but hardly imposes, a new or updated, ad-hoc meaning for the image. It’s a measure of the artist’s usual compunction that so slight a gesture startles. At any rate, Richter wouldn’t count if he didn’t love painting and didn’t paint beautifully, in ways imbued with a melancholy acknowledgment of the medium’s historic decline since it last peaked, in Abstract Expressionism. (Go argue with that. Perl really can’t. His idea of the right stuff in painting is frankly nostalgic. To prove Richter’s obloquy with a comparison, he cites Balthus.) Richter is a master, the best alive, who doubts the present value and future possibility of mastery in painting. In his art, he holds beauty hostage to skeptical intelligence from which the viewer’s patience partially, but never fully, ransoms it. I’ve often left off looking at works by Richter, wearied by their unrelenting irresolution, but I always come back for beauty’s sake.
The abstractions at Goodman come in two series: panel-like vertical compositions, about six and a half feet high,in a gross chiaroscuro with swaths of dark colors scraped over a ground of bright primaries; and grand, all-gray grid patterns, nearly ten feet square, based on electron-microscope photographs of silicate minerals (compounds that make up most of the Earth’s crust). The first series can evoke fragments of natural landscape—forest thickets, streams at twilight, wind and rain—if you are so inclined, but with deniability built into their matter-of-fact execution. The artist will not be responsible for swoons in the viewing public. He may finish a picture with overlaid, long, flaccid brushstrokes, cancelling effects that have threatened to get out of hand—to become cheesily expressionistic or picturesque. The effects fascinate him, plainly. He just doesn’t know how to mean them, and his honesty prevents him from pretending otherwise. To be enjoyed in these works is Richter’s taste: exquisite painterly pleasures that he observes and selects, as his rote process unfolds, rather than intentionally creates. In this, he functions like a photographer: “taking” a picture of reality that only happens to have been made real by his hand. To put it another way, Richter’s decisions as an artist are essentially those of an editor.
When Richter paints from photographs, his starting point is different, but he ends in the same place: disinterested spectacle. He long ago abjured the ironies that attend the appropriation of found images, such as that of “Mustangs.” (The idea, promulgated by Richter’s detractors, that he is invariably some sort of Duchampian trickster dies hard. It is false.) Indeed, the silicate pictures in this show, from a popular-science magazine, are his first since the Baader-Meinhof series which derive from photographs that are not his own. (Apart from them, only one small, fuzzy landscape continues the intermittent practice of photo-realism, which has produced Richter’s most straightforwardly beautiful paintings, including memorably ravishing portraits from snapshots of his daughter Betty and his third wife, Sabine Moritz.) These new works are drastically funereal: materialized dread in a wallpaper-like, decorative design. The first picture painstakingly represents hundreds of neatly arrayed units of dark circles on a whitish ground, each split in three equal parts by a less dark glyph that resembles the Mercedes-Benz logo upside down and recalls the international symbol for dangerous radiation. No brushstrokes are visible. The over-all pattern, generating a subtle optical shimmer, affects like an audible, ominous hum. Subsequent canvases subject the image to progressive outof-focus blurring, which is not to say that they abate its sensational oppressiveness. To those who have found his work depressing, Richter here as much as says, “You don’t know the half of it.” The mood is self-consciously so extreme as to be touched with humor, of a more-than-gallows variety. You forget to laugh.
Richter grew up and came of age in modern regions of Hell, sustained by an identification with traditions of Western art that his mother, the daughter of a concert pianist, inculcated in him. (The vertical abstractions in the show come as close to being visual equivalents of music—with interplays of harmony and dissonance and qualities of pitch, timbre, and sonority—as paintings can.) For him, as for other young Germans of his time who rejected their fathers, the traditions were broken. American painting by such artists as Pollock and Warhol showed his generation how to begin again, though in a void of meaning. The German response to Pop art, Capitalist Realism, which Richter participated in, savored things seedy and sad in the image bank of popular culture—it was brilliant but sepulchral, about loss. Richter’s subsequent recastings of many forms and styles, abstract and representational, are like visits to a hospice of dying principles. You don’t have to agree with his pessimism. (To be American, even in disastrous times, is to be hardwired against such an attitude, I think.) But Richter’s authenticity is indubitable. It throws weight behind the finely calibrated hint of protest, or warning, delivered by the photograph of “Mustangs.” People and things—traditions, nations—really do die in the course of history, and not always unavoidably.