Art in Review
Gerhard Richter: Paintings 2001-2005
24 West 57th Street,
The celebrated German painter Gerhard Richter is one of a small number of artists who have enjoyed support from opposite ends of the critical spectrum. Some esteem him simply as a great traditional painter; others see him as a termite in the house of Modernism, eating away at its hidden ideological foundations.
This exhibition will disappoint neither side, though half of it relies too much on the tried and true. That half presents two rows of abstract paintings facing each other, with a single representational picture hung between them at one end of the gallery, like an altarpiece. The abstractions, each about six and a half feet tall, were made by Mr. Richter's signature method of squeegeeing abundant quantities of paint to create smeary, layered surfaces. With bright colors pulsating through slathered grays, they are pleasing to behold, but it is hard to believe that Mr. Richter is doing much more here than going through the motions of his well-practiced procedure.
Interrupting the flow of abstraction with a single representational image is also a familiar gambit of Mr. Richter's. Here the picture is a photographic reproduction of one of his paintings from the 1960's: a blurry image of flying fighter planes, based on an old photograph. Thus a connection is drawn between Modernism in art and modernism in warfare, though why Mr. Richter would substitute a reproduction for a real painting is the real mystery.
Anyway, what is most notable is that the meaning, whatever it may be, emerges not from individual paintings but from the gap between the representational image and the abstract paintings. The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, who is often compared to Mr. Richter, is another artist whose deeper meanings are to be found not in individual paintings but in the conceptual spaces between them. It is a kind of collage aesthetic.
The problem for artists who work this way is that it gives the impression that they do not trust their paintings to carry the full weight of the meanings they have in mind, or, worse, that they do not know how to make, or are not willing to go to the trouble of making, paintings that are up to the job. It is not enough to shift the blame to the supposed exhaustion of painting or of Modernism.
Those problems fall away in the south gallery, where each of four enormous all-gray paintings confidently straddles the gap between abstraction and representation. Each presents a blurry, all-over perforated pattern based on photomicrographic pictures of the molecular structure of silicate.
The paintings have the visually mesmerizing effect of Op Art, while the blurry illusionism conveys something more resonantly enigmatic: the awesome feeling of what has lately been called "the technological sublime." Like frames in some gloomy, visionary science-fiction movie, they suggest the revelation of some godless, infinitely extensive existential matrix underlying our fragile human world. No display trickery is needed for these paintings to cast their grandly pessimistic spell. KEN JOHNSON