Gerhard Richter, quite probably our best living painter, is a master of blur. Not only the visual blur that occurs in the gray area between figuration and abstraction, or between tonal subtleties of color and brush, but also the social blur that occurs when an image reaches beyond its immediate circumstances in order to take on a meaningfulness that stretches in more than a single direction. Richter has never been shy either about taking on responsibility by politically implicating the image, as his portrait of Uncle Rudi in an SS overcoat clearly establishes, or his studies of the Red Army suicides, which took place in October 1977. But neither has he rejected the pleasures of art, so that his paintings become treatises on the achievements of modernist abstraction, even as he pushes the genre forward. As a result, much of his work occurs in a gray space, in which the determinations of social value, along with a predilection for painting’s simple enjoyments, jostle each other as they assert their equal values to Richter’s audience. This blur, composed as it is of competing esthetics, is as much a philosophical attitude as it is a visual distinction. If we add to this attribute Richter’s emotional detachment, indirect but there, we find ourselves meeting up with an artist whose skills are, by themselves, a transparent achievement even as they delineate a measure and a restraint determined by his complete commitment to painting.
So total a resolve in the face of art is not common. These days an artist’s reputation is predicated as much by the way he lives his life as by the kind of work he makes. This is of course a romanticism, inherited in America most recently from the Abstract Expressionists. But Richter, while genuinely engaged in the political and social issues of his culture, moves in the direction of assiduous distance, whereby the act of brush of canvas holds sway–even over the events and arguments that have taken place in his life. Doing so has enabled him to approximate in art the controversies of his time while remaining slightly aloof. Even the squeegee abstractions, as colorful and textured as they are, maintain autonomy and measure: the utter opposite of what we experience in the American abstractions of the 1950s. I want to argue that this quality in Richter’s art enhances his painting rather than limits it. If what we see in the mirror is distressing, that does not mean the mirror is warped–it is simply registering the excesses of the moment. If Richter consciously denies the loss of control in his efforts, that makes him a poet of restraint rather than a practitioner of transgression. He has been given the opportunity to work this way by the processes of art history, which over time have freed up an open space in which anything can happen. As a result, Richter refuses to follow dogma, preferring instead that the work explain itself without leaning, politically, socially, or artistically, in one direction or the other.
Preceding then the rhetoric generated by the art is a selflessness of approach on Richter’s part. This means that art’s technical compass, alongside the artist’s willingness to address, as objectively as possible, the fabric of cultural politics, enables the serious painter to range in style and content from one position to the next, without incurring the vulnerability of a particular position. Everything happens at once–in every show, the photorealist landscapes are shown side by side with the nonobjective works of art; thus, Richter effortlessly shifts from a pure pictorial value–abstraction–to a highly determined social description–figuration. The values of each are equal in an absolute sense–Richter is regaling us with an Olympian distance, not based on indifference but rather on detachment, which can be argued as preferable to the Sturm und Drang–or kitsch–of his 19th-century forebears. At the same time, we must remember that the paintings themselves do in fact occupy a place of considerable emotional valency, not because they are overtly expressive so much as they imply their feeling in choice of subject or style. As a result, Richter commands an intelligence greater than the sum of his brushwork, even if it occurs by means of indirection. The not-being-there, so much a part of his self-restraint in the paintings, is supplanted by a particular choice of content or manner of art. But this is not done in an overt fashion; instead, it is achieved by implication, so that the presence of a single painting, or the impression made by a group of Richter’s paintings, works its effects in wonderfully disguised hesitations of the hand.
This does not mean, in any way, that Richter is rejecting a conceptual reading of what he does. It does mean that he approaches his intellectual esthetics through the medium of art primarily. Instead of isolating an idea in his work, he allows the idea to surface over time in the image we examine. The results are genuinely exciting even if the aura of the painting is constrained, because it becomes clear that over time, in culture, we have always relied on the medium to communicate the message. Indeed, there is no other way to go about communication in art. You simply cannot separate what is being said from the way it is being said. Still, a sense of the person hovers over the oeuvre, so it may be that Richter’s penchant for unspoken complexity exists as a consequence of life experience. Born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, Richter saw his family, both his father and his uncles, actively take part in the Nazi movement. Seeing their interest and the consequent hardship resulting from their involvement–two uncles died fighting and his father lost work after the war–followed by East Germany’s embrace of communism, has brought about a wary skepticism on Richter’s part in regard to political ideologies. (Biographical information is taken from the artist’s narrative on the website “The Art Story.”)
At the same time, his art tendencies were encouraged early on by his mother, the daughter of a pianist, and by his decision, in 1948 at the young age of 16, to leave school and become an apprentice to a set designer. Interestingly, Richter’s stint studying art at the Dresden Kunstakadamie in 1951, where he made posters for state businesses in alignment with the state-imposed Socialist Realist style, prevented him from making work that embraced abstraction in any way. It was only in 1959, during a trip to West Germany, that Richter came across the works of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana, whose abstract orientation encouraged Ricther to move in that direction–away from the florid landscapes encouraged by East Germany art authorities. In 1961, Richter moved to Duesseldorf in West Germany, where he studied at the Kunstakademie. His work became looser and started to move in the direction of abstraction. He also began using photographs as points of view for his artwork; they may have enabled him to set the image in a reality he then either would copy in the most precise fashion or blur, in the hopes of investing the painting with an aura that would increase the implications of the image without revealing Richter’s actual intent. Ten years after his move to West Germany, in 1971, biographical narratives indicate that he began his color chart paintings–exercises in extreme impartiality. Was it a way of refusing to take political sides in a time of extreme leftist politics? It is hard to say, just as it is hard to say whether his portraits of the three Red Army suicides, taken from television images, are emotionally supportive or merely descriptive (perhaps they are both). These paintings demand a willingness to accept the barest bones of visual communications: squares of color unaccompanied in linear rows. He remains a professor at the Duesseldorf Kunstakademie, although his work rejects the academic in favor of a probing, but objective, intellectualism that may protect him, to some small extent, from the social and political tempests of his time.
Usually, the pursuit of art, and our response to it, take us to a place where emotion holds sway. But even if Richter has decided in favor of the requisites of paint alone, he has done so with a considerable penchant for emotional neutrality, in his case supplanted by cerebral insight. This does not mean he does not feel; rather, it shows his unwillingness to work in favor of any single bias–and this reticence is idea-based, not emotion-based. Art alone cannot save the artist from the vicissitudes of his time, but it can offer an objectivity in the face of dramatic political swings, as Richter experienced on moving from East to West Germany in the early 1960s. The very broad spectrum of his various styles–from photorealist to expressively abstract to conceptually schematic–makes it clear that he is an artist in favor of many arguments rather than just one. But the equal worth of so many approaches may confuse or distract a traditional audience, which would want the artist to do just one thing. It is Richter’s refusal to take a stance, artistically and socially, that has made his career large. Rather than aiding and abetting a political position, he simply paints what he wishes, undermining his viewers’ expectation that his oeuvre would belong to them in a unified fashion. It is too late today–and has been too late for a while–for any particular painting style to hold sway. Instead, we can and must appreciate Richter’s unwillingness to commit himself beyond the act of the brush.
In their variety, the paintings themselves nearly defy description, but we can look at prominent examples of the different styles so as to compare and contrast Richter’s contributions to contemporary art. A very early work, Townscape Paris (1968), brilliantly captures the architectural texture of the city, in roughly handled black, white, and gray brushwork that manages to be specific and generalized, abstract and figurative, in the same moment. Painted early on in his career, Townscape Paris shows us how, from the start, Richter took interest in the double language of abstraction and figuration, although in this case he mixes the manner of working rather than separating them into two divides, the way he does so clearly later on. The painting is messy, but it is also a wonderful work of expressionist art. It offers no clue to the precise realism of later works. Instead, the buildings, massed together in black and white, feel strongly imperfect in rendering, being an occasion for Richter to work out some inspired improvisation in the guise of mirroring the actual streets of Paris. A slightly earlier work of art, called Group of People (1965), shows four people in the front row, backed by other persons waiting on the street; they are, from left to right, an old man in a suit and casual cap; a woman in a light coat, dark shoes, holding a thin, print umbrella; a late-middle-aged man in a raincoat wearing glasses and reading a newspaper; and a young man in a dark raincoat with a dark tie, a bit taller than the others. This painting shows a bit of the blur Richter is so famous for, as well as communicating his equally known detachment–the faces and bodies and clothing are recorded in a muted black-and-white manner, revealing little of the motivation of the artist.
In one of the rooms at the Met Breuer, there was a suite of forest paintings, abstractly handled but recognizably forest-like nonetheless. fForest (4) (2005) includes the squeegee effects Richter is known for, but also produce an abstract impression of trees in a row in the foreground. They are painted in brownish-gray streaks. Behind them is a green foreground–a meadow–and a red and yellow sunset sky, while night, appearing in black and black streaks, hangs over the rest of the composition. Despite the nonobjective qualities of the painting, the work is recognizable as a stand of trees in the midst of an oncoming twilight. Cage 4 (2006) is composed of two streaky gray stripes, one rising thickly from bottom to top on the painting’s left edge, while the other, equally broad, moves across the picture plane from left to right center. Underneath the variegated grays of the central band is an equally open, mottled combintation of red and white, so that the entire painting becomes an exercise in the kind of texture one sees when an outdoor wall poster has been pulled off of previous wall posters, leaving a complicated exterior. In many of his abstrations, Richter concerns himself deeply with the feeling of the surface, so that the work feels like an answer to a problem rather than a mythical leap into the unknown, as we often experience in American expressionist abstraction. Because this painting comes after the ab-ex efforts, it feels like a healthy corrective to excessive feeling. But it is true that the painting cannot escape American art history of the middle of the last century, any more than it can escape the emotional constraints of Richter’s sensibility.
Richter’s 1983 memento mori study of a skull trades on a long tradition of death’s awareness in fine art. In this photorealist piece, we can see the skull on the floor in profile, facing right. Above it is the ledge of what looks like a window–light streams in to envelop the surface just beyond skill. It is a disconcerting image, albeit one that does not seem to have been deliberately enforced–Richter’s remarkable restraint and measure turn an image meant to frighten us into one intended to make us consider and contemplate mortality. In this sense, his impersonal handling of everything he paints begins to look like a major achievement, in that an objectivity is being recorded that suggests a criticism of the excessive, often narcissistic emotionalism we often come across in art today. Indeed, even the light tans and browns of the painting seem calculated to distance us from the awkward implications of death’s inevitability. An abstraction, July (1983), is painted with an equally distanced sense of purpose. It is a work with a number of elements: three green vertical stripes cross the middle of the painting, while behnd the bands, just above the middle of the painting, is a roughly edged yellow band, topped by a red one. Underneath these horizontal passages of color, in the lower half, is a gray passage with modulated tones. Various overpainted strokes occur above and below: on the top, yellowish-orange stripes arranged in all directions, along with a large blue smudge; then, on the bottom, a curving green stripe connecting to one of the middle verticals, which comes down over a barrel-shaped stroke from whose right end an orange smudge breaks out. The objectivity of the description is aided by the objectivity of the painting.
If my presentations of these paintings communicate a wary internationalism and conscious distance on Richter’s part, it is because these attributes are there. But it is true that Richter is a German born before the start of World War II, and in the case of his painting Uncle Rudi (1965), the artist’s deadpan treatment of a relative in a Nazi military coat and cap, smiling obliquely at his viewers, is culturally specific and, at least by implication, emotionaly fraught. Richter’s uncle would die shortly it is alive now because Richter based his remarkable painting on it. We know this only after researching the backstory of the picture, but the story is well known. It is hard to tell whether this work is a personal memorial driven by emotion or a conscious recognition of responsibility in regard to Germany’s aggression. In a way it doesn’t matter because the two motivations blur together like the colors of Richter’s abstract art. While Uncle Rudi is a deeply moving painting, it reveals nothing at all. This means that, typically, Richter reserves the right to pull away from circumstances that would force an allegiance, political or artistic,, on him. He holds his cards carefully, so carefully indeed, that his art occupies a neutral space illumined and energized by his wonderful painting skills. It makes best sense to accept the work in its seeming lack of valency–not because this is true, but because the art has been made as a quiet argument in favor of an impartiality recognizing the vulnerability of being human, as well as the inherent mistrust of the meaning ascribed to mark-making in service of politics. It isn’t that Richter is evading his responsibilities. Instead, he is fulfilling them extraordinarily well–by refusing to take an obvious stance, he throws his lot in with a tentative sense of pictorial ethics.So the images lose their moral force. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Sometimes we need to see the truth from someone who refuses to acknowledge truth’s value in his art. Richter’s works are not so equivocations so much as they are glances at truths he is not able to fully commit to.