Gerhard Richter:

Forty Years of Painting

at the Art Institute, through September 8

Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God. –Gerhard Richter, 1962

I can communicate nothing…there is nothing to communicate…painting can never be communication. –Gerhard Richter, 1977

My favorite living painter, Gerhard Richter, is also one of those rare iconic figures whose work defines an era. Just as the perceptual paradoxes in the paintings of Paul Cezanne focused attention on the act of viewing, foreshadowing much of the art that followed, and just as Cezanne’s heir Marcel Duchamp bequeathed us conceptualism, so Richter gives surpassing clarity and unexpected beauty to signature ideas and tendencies in much work today. Some of his successors have doubtless been directly influenced, but more significant is the acuteness of Richter’s response to current culture and recent history. Among the issues he addresses are the end of religion as a paramount provider of meaning, the failure of various utopian ideologies that sought to replace religion, the media’s increasing dominance, and a growing mistrust of human civilization coincident with the growing power we exercise over one another and our planet. The antiheroic strain in art–the prevalence of intentionally modest work that may even take the rejection of grand ambitions as its subject–and the replacement of art’s certainty with doubt are also given extraordinarily strong, convincing expression in Richter’s paintings.

Unlike most artists of the last two centuries, Richter has consciously avoided both self-expression and a signature style. In fact his 198 works now at the Art Institute (counting each piece in a series separately) include blurred black-and-white paintings copied from photos; richly colored pictures painted from photos; complex multilayered abstractions in both grays and bright colors; solid monochromes behind glass that function as mirrors; aerial views of cities; color charts; emotionally rich, partly abstracted portraits of Richter’s current wife and young child; and two flower paintings that would be quite at home in any bourgeois interior–the kind Richter has professed to hate. He himself has said, “My work is all over the place”–and some postmodern critics have completely misread his art as signaling the end of painting: Kate Linker wrote that Richter’s use of multiple styles “deconstructs conventions” and “unmasks…painting as a dull and nugatory activity.” But Richter says that even though he doesn’t always understand his reasons for working as he does, he loves to paint and that “art is the highest form of hope.”

In his paintings and in his statements (collected and translated, along with many essays and interviews, in Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting), the artist frequently–and admittedly–contradicts himself. In some ways deeply conservative, he mourns the loss of a “center” he knows cannot be “reconstructed” yet recognizes the danger of firm beliefs. He wrote in a key early essay, Notes, 1964-1965, a comment that’s still relevant: “To have an ideology means having laws and guidelines; it means killing those who have different laws and guidelines.”

Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter and his family left the city soon afterward, escaping the 1945 Allied firebombing. Although he was required to participate in Hitler Youth, Richter has acknowledged liking some aspects of that experience. But perhaps the central formative event of his life was observing the transition in 1945 from one totalitarian utopian regime to another–arguably the two most murderous of our age–when East Germany passed into Stalin’s control. Nazism, led by a failed artist, was big on visual symbols, as was Stalinism; one of Richter’s youthful jobs was painting Stalin’s portrait on banners. When Richter wrote in Notes, 1964-1965 that he liked “everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings” because “style is violence,” he was not offering the idle speculations of an art theorist but the conclusions of one who’d lived through an exceptionally violent era.

Richter’s rejection of an obvious signature, while perhaps stemming from his experience of a totalitarian approach to style, goes against the ethos of much Western art history. By the Renaissance, one painter’s style could be differentiated from another’s; by the time of pioneering abstractionists Mondrian and Malevich, artists were seeking unique shapes that would express the unseen essence of things, hoping to replace religious images with their own icons. American abstract expressionists, and even some pop artists, were arguably trying to do the same, if by different means. But Richter offers the artist as doubter, at once denying the possibility of understanding and fearing the delusion that one does understand. Seeking a different role for his art and a different relationship between picture and viewer, he had to form new artistic languages.

Studying traditional mural painting at the venerable Dresden Art Academy in East Germany, Richter felt inadequate to his aspiration to paint like Caspar David Friedrich. In 1959, when he was creating socialist realist pictures for the state, he was permitted to travel to Kassel to the massive contemporary art exhibition “Documenta 2.” There he was especially impressed by Jackson Pollock’s abstractions and Lucio Fontana’s cut and slashed paintings, citing them as

“almost” the reason for his emigration to West Germany via Berlin two years later, only a few months before the wall went up. He promptly enrolled in the Dusseldorf Art Academy, whose faculty included Joseph Beuys; fellow students Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo became Richter’s friends. A year later he made his first paintings from photographs–the first works he counts today as his own–because “I had had enough of bloody painting, and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do.”

The heterogeneous look of Richter’s earliest photo-based works often undercuts capitalist culture’s fetishistic attraction to objects. Table (1962), taken from a photo in a design article, shows a slab hovering in midair, much of its center obscured by dark, brushy curves of paint that seem to oppose the object (and foreshadow the abstraction Richter would later engage in). The side borders of Administrative Building (1964) cut off its long, modernist facade, and blurring further defuses the authoritarian quality of its imposing geometrical repetitions. In Stag (1963) the dense thicket that encloses the animal is painted in simple lines while the stag itself has a blurred photolike aspect–as if it had been captured while moving rapidly–that gives it a complex sensuality lacking in the trees. A large tree trunk in the center foreground divides the stag–and the picture–in half, suggesting the crosshairs of a telescopic rifle sight.

Richter’s subjects for his photo-based paintings are nowhere near as unconsidered as they first appear: while at first he denied he put much thought into them, much later he admitted to being “highly selective.” Speaking of the stag, he told an interviewer in 1990 that he “wanted to be a forester when…young” and that he based his painting on a photograph he snapped of “a real stag in the forest,” which he was “really excited” to find. His painting combines the aggression of the hunter–or photographer–with a love of sensual surface. Similarly significant is the choice of a humble household item as the subject of three 1965 paintings titled Toilet Paper (two of which are included here). Much later he called these “a kind of ‘poor person’s art,'” suggesting that part of his purpose was to redeem the ordinary (a project related to that of the genre painters who began taking peasants rather than deities or nobles as their subjects in the 17th century). In Richter’s pictures, a single blurred toilet paper roll rests against a bare gray wall, casting a shadow. Part of what impresses is the oddness of seeing such a thing in an art exhibit–as Richter points out, in “the history of art…no one had ever painted toilet paper.” But the combination of photographic accuracy and blurring gives the images a haunting, ghostlike quality that makes the familiar compelling. (Indeed, presenting a common object in an unusual way is an old modernist strategy.) The blurring in Uncle Rudi (1965), showing Richter’s father’s brother in his World War II German army uniform, is more complex, softening and distancing the image. Rudi smiles benignly, which renders the picture all the more disturbing, making Richter’s point that there’s a Nazi residing in the nicest of us–such people are not hopelessly other.

Richter chose to paint from photographs in part to avoid self-expression. In Notes, 1964-1965, he makes a distinction between the way the camera “sees” and the human eye “apprehends.” Painting an object from life as one apprehends it “distorts reality and leads to stylization of a specific kind.” The blurring, he writes, makes everything look “equally important and equally unimportant.” No longer using the techniques of painting to create the illusion of a specific subject, Richter aims instead for a mysterious aura derived from the combination of the camera’s accuracy and his painterly techniques. There’s a grasping quality to a photographic image that creates a bond between the viewer and the objects represented, which Richter strives to loosen. Just because you think you see something, Richter seems to say, doesn’t mean you actually understand it–and it certainly doesn’t give you ownership. The gray fog around his subjects lightens their weight and etherealizes the image, subverting the bourgeois tendency to feel one possesses what one sees. Yet the photographic outlines are unmistakably a realistic imprint of something that once was.

And Richter does emphasize the was. As Robert Storr, the curator who organized this traveling exhibit for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, points out in his brilliant catalog essay, while traditional landscape paintings encourage the viewer to take his time and lose himself in “the painterly sublime,” Richter’s color landscapes based on photos are necessarily “telescoped into an instant.” Cathedral Corner (1987), which shows a characteristically off-center, nonhierarchical view of an out-of-the-way space dominated by a nondescript stone column, captures the particular shadows cast by a particular tree at a specific moment.

This doesn’t mean that Richter’s complex, even meditative paintings of an instant are profitably viewed in one. For, as he insists, his pictures are neither replicas of photos nor illusionistic images. His blurring expresses the distance a doubter feels between self and world–a distrust of photographic verisimilitude, a distrust of the power of objects, and an acknowledgment that an image is always an image of the past. By painting instants, Richter also addresses the rapid, mechanized pace of modern life, quite different from an era when staring at a landscape for hours was not uncommon.

Since Richter stayed in West Germany after emigrating, presumably he preferred its capitalist system to communism. But he’s also expressed discontent with West Germany’s smug, self-absorbed materialism. Early on he exhibited his work under the rubric “Capitalist Realism,” a reference to the socialist realism he abandoned but also to the way his paintings address consumer culture. Despite the claims of postmodernists who often count him as their own, Richter generally rejects irony–yet making toilet paper a subject is arguably an ironic comment on the precious objects collected by and painted for the wealthy. And in a recent interview with Storr included in the catalog, Richter calls the chandelier at the center of Flemish Crown (1965) an image of the “horror” of “petit bourgeois culture”; even its composition seems to reflect the idea that object-centered imagery is itself a horror.

Understanding that in capitalist cultures people invest their egos in things, Richter decenters and blurs his subjects in order to break that bond. The prow of the motorboat speeding toward us at the bottom center of Motor Boat (First Version) (1965) is out of the frame, the people inside look in different directions, and the wake spreads chaotically, defusing the implied power of the boat’s movement. Yet in nearly every picture, Richter achieves an almost miraculous balance between aspects of the subject that he likes and dislikes–and those he can and cannot know. What helps him attain this balance is the care he takes even with the blurs, which are not all identical in appearance or in the technique used to obtain them: sometimes he starts with a hard-edged image and smears it, and other times he meticulously paints on the blur with a brush.

Two multicanvas pieces in the show demonstrate how the blurred painting of photographs can memorialize people and events. Eight Student Nurses (1966) shows the victims of the notorious Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck. Painted from the women’s nursing-school class pictures, these works are neither very detailed nor very revealing–yet what ultimately fascinates is the subjects’ fundamental humanity. In an interview given in 1966, Richter rejected the notion that a portrait could capture a sitter’s “‘soul,’ essence or character.” Nonetheless, he convincingly renders the eight women as different from one another: one looks happy and open, another smiles unnaturally, a third appears standoffish. His paintings also remind us of the very artificiality of the portrait photo, which often invites a forced smile.

The 15 paintings in the 1988 series “October 18, 1977,” concerned with the left-wing terrorists known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, deserve a whole book in themselves–and in fact Storr has written one. Here Richter’s paintings of photos of a cell, an arrest, deaths, and the three terrorists’ joint funeral are extremely blurred. Somber and ghostly, these images mourn the failed quest for a revolutionary utopia Richter himself did not believe in.

Storr writes that Richter’s first abstract paintings, all-gray works he began making in 1968, grew out of his interest in the fuzzy grays of his photo-based work. Richter himself wrote that gray represented for him the “absence of opinion, nothing, neither/nor. It was also a means of manifesting my own relationship with apparent reality.” Richter also often cites John Cage’s well-known remark: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” As Richter continued the gray paintings, “Destitution became a constructive statement; it became relative perfection, beauty, and therefore painting.” The gray paintings included in the exhibit are remarkable for how different they are from one another. Un-Painting (Gray) (1972) is made up of several layers of broad, curved brush strokes that create a dense thicket; its organic curves seem resolutely inexpressive, and its layers deny entry. The larger of two pieces titled Gray (1973), which has a mottled surface of very thin lines that come together in tiny clusters, not only lacks a central focus but doesn’t “sing” with the rhythms common in allover painting. Yet the muteness of these pictures is made poetic by Richter’s subtle shades, delicate effects, and resolute denial of significance.

Richter’s color abstractions are striking too for their differences: some are made up of bright, almost garish hues while others have dense, intensely worked surfaces. But though many are big, bold, and apparently full of painterly gestures, they’re not like Pollock’s work. Even though his compositions lack a central focus, Pollock’s use of line evinces a personal quality, an organizing psychology–precisely what Richter abjures. Abstract Picture (1977) has the look of an abstract photo rather than the impassioned revelation of an artist’s soul. There are wide, brushy forms on the left, but most of it consists of small rectangles and trapezoids floating in front of larger brownish curved surfaces. These light geometric areas recall modernist photos, such as Nathan Lerner’s, that were made using light boxes to produce unusual optical effects. The picture’s complex pictorial space engages the viewer, its sensuous colors and depth effects reward, but the image is strangely impersonal.

The majority of Richter’s other color abstractions here have surfaces that look somewhat random, as if the patterns were created by scraping away paint. The multiple blue gray layers and apparent abrasions of the four-canvas series “Ice” (1989) rebuff the viewer, presenting harsh surfaces with occasional patches of brilliant color–balancing denial with small sensual rewards. These pictures seem the result of some natural process–but a process stripped of those “miracles” that produce forms that look human, even emotionally expressive.

Not surprisingly, perhaps the finest abstract painting in the show is also the least prepossessing. The large Abstract Picture (2000) is mostly gray but with streaks of gray blue near the bottom, its surface exhibiting a wide variety of accretions and abrasions. What’s extraordinary is the painting’s perfect balance: it’s neither random nor intentional, peaceful nor violent, happy nor bleak–every emotional or conceptual suggestion is undercut by another part. It is truly a picture without qualities. Without qualities, there can be no desires; without desires, no goals; without goals, no wars. Unfortunately the people who make wars tend to be uninterested in contemporary art.

In a variety of ways, this exhibit articulates a common theme among postmodern artists: that all styles are equally true and equally arbitrary. Richter makes a number of choices that are fundamentally photographic rather than painterly, essentially commenting on the arbitrariness of framing and, by extension, on how profoundly our visual experiences are now filtered through the media. Each of four early-60s paintings of military planes has a different kind of border–perhaps white only on the bottom or white all around. Davos (1981) and Davos S (1981), hung near each other, show the same Alpine scene and are apparently based on the same photograph but cropped differently. Davos shows a closer view, and the painting is smaller than Davos S–though it’s a lot larger than it would have been if Richter had painted each to the same scale.

Also making the point that style is arbitrary are Richter’s color charts, only two of which are included here. 256 Colors (1974) is a 16-by-16 grid of colored rectangles against a white field. But this isn’t quite like the paint charts in a hardware store: few if any of the colors are primary, and similar shades are not grouped together. Individual colors seem supple rather than harsh, and the viewer becomes aware of the potential variations in color in the world, in an experience not unlike that of listening to a John Cage score, which encourages one to hear all sounds as music. Richter’s stark denial of meaning or order in the color charts sets the viewer free–as does the blurring in his photo-based paintings and the lack of ordering principles in his abstractions. Playing off one another, these elements make viewing an active process.

Richter’s lush, apparently “romantic” paintings from color photographs, which he did as early as the 1970s but has created with increasing frequency in recent years, seem to have particularly befuddled some of his more theory-oriented critics. Neal Benezra, the Art Institute’s curator for this exhibit, tries to rescue them from their apparent sentimentality by installing several next to similar-looking abstract pictures, making the valuable point that Richter sees both styles as arbitrary. But while the juxtaposition of Abstract Picture (1998) with Farm (1999) brings out a very Richter-like cramped quality in each, their similar horizontal and vertical shapes make the connection too literal. What’s important is not visual links but the way that Richter’s different approaches change the way the viewer thinks about style.

Considering together the color charts, Richter’s portraits of his wives and children, his color paintings of rural scenes, and the austere gray abstractions, the viewer sees that they’re all in some way the same picture. This show produces the almost visionary experience of finding the same color in a chart and in a painting of a barn and perceiving that each choice is similarly meaningless–and similarly rich in possibility. The euphoria that results derives from the rejection of familiar forms. The experience of Richter’s art occurs as much in the mind as in the eye, as the viewer feels a loosening of the bonds that tie us to the world of things.

Richter himself sounds less euphoric. He wrote in 1983 that “the underlying ‘structure’ of the Photo Pictures, the Colour Charts, the Grey Pictures” conveys that “we can do nothing, that Utopianism is meaningless.” Still, he allows that “Hope might materialize in my hands…because Nature is infinitely better than we…can ever conceive.” This Cage-like appeal to an unconstructed reality suggests that in Richter’s mind the fundamental human trap is seeing the world through the limiting filters of individual psychology and particular cultures and beliefs. Even Richter’s most artful products suggest something raw, something that might yield a momentary sense of the infinite.

The arc of Richter’s career also suggests the autobiography he claims has no influence. Is it an accident that he was making “poor person’s art” when he was a student, and that as he grew more successful–today his paintings sell for millions at auction–his work became more brightly colored, even optimistic? Consider the extraordinary 1995 series of eight small pictures, “S. With Child,” showing Richter’s third wife, Sabine, with their baby, Moritz. Though in most the surfaces are blurred by scraping or wiping–an abstracting device that would seem to express doubt about representational imagery and even hostility toward the subject–the effect is generally to make his wife and son’s skin lusher, more palpable. The depicted objects are still distanced and ungraspable, but the light that hovers around them has the extraordinary delicacy of a painter Richter has said he’s despaired of ever painting as well as–Vermeer.

One picture in this show, the black-and-white photo-based Cathedral Square, Milan (1968), depicts a place I’ve visited, and so I can compare painting and actual locale. Richter shows only about half of the cathedral’s front facade at the right, with the entrance to one of Europe’s most famous 19th-century arcades at the left. This framing defuses the power of the cathedral–a spectacularly ornate, imposing late-Gothic structure. And the square itself, which in real life conveys solidity, stability, and certainty, here seems positively airy.

In this case Richter blurred the picture by painting wavy lines that mimic the poor reception on a broken television (yet another possible media reference). But taken as a whole the painting denies the postmodern conundrum in which everything is just another form of representation and there is no reality. Instead we see an image of underlying solidity modified by Richter’s methods. And the painting is not, in the end, without meaning. Richter’s blurring of the stone of these authoritarian structures reminds the viewer that, even if the world offers us symbols that instruct us what to do, we’re free to see them differently and to do otherwise.