Gerhard Richter, painter of emotionally-distanced images and even-more-emotionally-distanced abstraction, is currently being rehabilitated as Gerhard Richter, warm and fuzzy lover of children, pets, and beautiful women. First came the portrait of his infant son, clutching a spoon and cutely smeared with baby food, on the cover of the January 2002 Artforum. Then came the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective (which opened last week), emphasizing portraits over abstractions and quality over quantity. Then came Michael Kimmelman's gooey New York Times review, comparing Richter to Vermeer and waxing sentimental over the painter's family pictures. (Postscript: Strangely, none of the skepticism in Kimmelman's contemporaneous New York Times Magazine profile--which made Richter out to be a freak on the family level--found its way into his review.)
MOMA curator Robert Storr has chosen to focus the viewer's attention on individual "masterpieces" rather than highlight Richter's relentless, factory-like production. In an interview in the same Artforum, Storr expresses a preference for "the many things that can be said about individual works," rather than "the few things that could be said about large groups of paintings." This contradicts Richter's own view of his work, which can be divined from various early catalogs, the artist's self-produced catalog raisonne, and most importantly the Atlas--an encyclopedic, gridded compendium of photos, abstract brushstrokes, and studio experiments, which filled an entire floor at the Dia Foundation a few years back. In the latter work, as interviewer Tom Holert describes it, the "single picture vanishes in the ordering system; the grid, the context of the images, reclaims the individual work."
Atlas: Panel 8, 1962-66
This more radical--and accurate--view of Richter could have been conveyed by including more works in the retrospective, and by hanging them less respectfully: by using the Atlas as a model, in other words. In the past, Richter has shown his 48 Portraits, grisaille images of mathematicians, writers, and other dead white dudes, in an imposing grid; at MOMA they wrap spaciously, in two rows of 24, around the inside of a stairwell, exactly as they might be seen in a institution that meant to celebrate them. Richter did scores of "color chip" paintings in the '70s, elegant enlargements of the gridded colors you find in paint stores, and it would be hard to find better icons of ambiguity towards the work of modernists such as Mondrian and Kelly. Presenting, or interspersing, a profusion of these paintings (or more abstractions in general) among the other works would have given the show the clinical, confused feel that it is the paradoxical essence of Richter: the artist as lab technician, studying image overload and seeking its underlying "rules." Instead, MOMA showed only two color chip paintings (one big and one small), presumably those the curator thought were "best."
Storr's hanging led directly to Kimmelman's treacly review, which fawns over Richter's "tender" brushwork, traditional subjects (landscapes, portraits), and eye for the beauty "that's still out there" after one "strips away the cliches and false rhetoric" of mass culture. Not a word is said about Richter's compulsive use of the squeegee to smear and eradicate imagery--one gets the impression that it is used only as a tool to make abstractions. Kimmelman ascribes to one work, Richter's painting of his father Horst holding a dog on his lap, the quality of being "under water," like a memory "surfacing but being sucked back down." But couldn't one could also say that Richter attacked the image, by dragging the half-dried paint across the canvas, as if trying to scrape away that same "memory"? Or perhaps that his father was just one more smeary image in the overcrowded mass media darkroom?
Richter's 70, and a big gun in the art world, so late-career flattery and hagiography is inevitable. Thus, it was extremely refreshing to read Donald Kuspit's artnet piece criticizing the show. Of course, Kuspit's a grouch who lately judges all art on the basis of whether it has "healing power," but he's also knowledgeable about contemporary German painting, and after Kimmelman it's exhilirating to hear the Great God Richter described as "the dregs of the German Wave, the last ripple in what once seemed a riptide." Discussing Richter's East German-ness, and the presumption of authenticity it gives the artist in rich Western art circles, Kuspit reminds us that the East was also a zone where state-sponsored "Socialist Realism" thrived. This leads to a discussion that raises far more interesting questions than the Storr/Kimmelman attempt to reinvent Richter as a humanist. Here's Kuspit:
Richter's work takes Socialist Realism as its point of departure and continues to be Socialist Realist in modernist drag. Socialist Realism is people’s art. It uses the styles of the acceptable past, cutting them down to the reproductive terms that are comprehensible to the people. Their vision is cancelled in the name of the Great Cause--the People--and they are banalized into instruments of ideology and propaganda. Richter does the same thing with abstraction and representation. They are reduced to dumb shows of art--a kind of visual mummery--or, to put this another way, a visual sound and fury signifying nothing, whatever its subject matter. They are reduced to people's art, simplified and trivialized. All one has to do is to look at his mock Mondrian to get the point. It is people’s abstraction, just as Richter's Abstract Expressionist paintings are the people's platitudinous idea of Abstract Expressionism--a Socialist Realist scam on Abstract Expressionism.
Kuspit omits to mention that Richter, early on in his career, attempted an ironic reinvention of Socialist Realism for the West, calling it "capitalist realism." Whether this was an ultra-serious form of Pop or "Socialist Realism in Modernist drag" is a question still worth debating. It may be, as Storr says, one of the "few things that can be [discussed] about large groups of paintings," but surely it's more interesting than talking about Richter's search for beauty in the face of his own pessimism.
Coming back to tagging, if Richter stands for anything it's anti-taxonomy or making a hash of taxonomy. The best way to make sense of him is probably chronology. That his staff is now using tags on his website -- "rural landscapes," how ordinary -- should inspire no one to consider tagging as a model for other artists. Most artists in their guts resist labels.