We’ve just been listening to an excerpt from 858 Suite, new music by local guitarist and composer Bill Frisell, inspired by eight abstract paintings from German painter Gerhard Richter. Richter himself, after a career spanning 40 years, has become one of the most critically acclaimed and celebrated of all living artists — this in spite of his habit of painting in multiple styles at once, both realist and abstract. The largest Richter exhibit ever held in this country opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last spring, and has since been touring the country, with stops in Chicago and Washington. The closest stop to Seattle was a recent run at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, went down to see what all the fuss was about. Here is his review.
BPart of the enigma stems from the elusive nature of the painter himself, a man whose formative years were spent first under the Nazis, and then the Communists, and whose resulting mistrust of all ideologies is legendary. “I pursue no objectives, I like continual uncertainty,” he said once. “For us, everything is empty.” But he is also quoted as saying “Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, and longing for God.”
Given such mixed messages, it is no wonder that this giant retrospective should leave one with a confused set of impressions. Standing before a group of carefully painted copies of WWII photos of planes dropping bombs, for example, one group of museum-goers wondered aloud if Richter really cared about the content of his pictures, or saw such painting as merely a formal exercise. Considering the highly charged nature of this and other photographic material Richter chooses to copy, that such a question needs to be asked is itself a telling critique.
The most famous of Richter’s media-based images are a series of black-and-white canvases inspired by news photos of Germany’s Bader-Meinhoff radicals in the '70s. The paintings, which include everything from the arrest of the revolutionaries to their subsequent deaths in prison, alter the photographic sources by blurring or washing out the images, rendering the subjects remote and, at times, unintelligible. These cold, puzzling pictures allow one to imagine Richter as being everything from a laconic reporter, to an indifferent formalist, to a leftist sympathizer
More satisfying, although still ambiguous, are the variously styled abstractions which Richter has painted alongside his photorealism almost from the start of his career. From an inauspicious beginning copying — characteristically — photographs of paint texture, Richter has evolved into a latter-day abstract expressionist, deploying a highly sophisticated battery of techniques that includes layering, scraping, and wiping paint across the surface of what are often colossal canvasses. The result is as close to an affirmative statement as Richter allows himself to get, showing off both an enormous range of color and a variety of painterly effects that suggests everything from speeding cars to the Aurora Borealis. The suite of eight paintings called, "858" are particularly successful, a tour-de-force display of darting, electric strokes hovering over a glittering subsurface that at times seems like a glimpse into another world. For such bravura pictures, the emotional content is still surprisingly neutral — a command performance by a deadly serious technician.
Richter delights in tweaking the expectations of his, by now, worldwide audience of what a leading avant-garde artist should properly paint. Taking time off from his abstractions, he has lately begun to paint family portraits, portraying his new wife and infant son in what can properly be called Madonna poses, tender moments of intimacy that recall devotional pictures of earlier eras. Having zigged so far to the right, he then zags to the left by attacking these images with his blurring and scraping tools, as though changing his mind in mid-course. The flickering end result is like watching a half-broken television, the picture sliding in and out of clarity, fraying at the edges.
So far Richter has managed to have it both ways, maintaining his standing as an artistic rebel while sampling what some consider outdated pictorial traditions. The jury is still out as to whether our final judgment of this mercurial painter will celebrate him for his boldness, or disparage him for his inconsistency.