New works by Gerhard Richter.
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.
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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.