Richter Scale

Trân Dúc Vân on Gerhard Richter

New York

Left: Marian Goodman and Gerhard Richter. Right: Critic and curator Robert Storr with MCA Sydney director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor. (Photos: David Velasco)

I hate to travel. Still, a tempting triple bill (and a “yes” from a favorite New York date) persuaded me to undertake the crossing from London, my habitual stomping ground, as some of you may know. Reviewing our admittedly rigorous schedule, my escort not so sportingly opted out of all but the glamorous main event, a dinner at the Four Seasons hosted by gallerist Marian Goodman to celebrate the star of her starry stable, Gerhard Richter. On my own, and all but stalled in a snarl of Village traffic (the 6PM start-time of my first engagement ticking past), I was beginning to fear my fickle pal had had the right idea.

Destination one: Galleria Illy, the coffee bar-cum-multiplex on West Broadway where Bookforum's editor, Eric Banks, was presiding over a reading devoted to the poetry of Roman decadent Catullus. As luck would have it, our host had not yet called the throng to order, and my spirits were already lifting when Peter Green, translator of a new edition of the ancient's verses, opened the proceedings with a pair of poems in the original Latin—the first, a tour de force of Galliambic form; the second, somewhat more colloquial—and more characteristic of the poet’s oeuvre. (We'll have to take his word for it!) Perhaps it was the dead language—its fusty beauty at odds with the toxic modernity of Soho's main shopping drag—but more then a few in the audience succumbed to charmed giggles. Delight proved infectious, as the program moved through selections from Green's own English renderings, performed by a jazzy lineup that included everyone from Olympian wiseman Richard Howard to hipster classicist Daniel Mendelsohn to rectal romantic Toni Bentley.

Left: Gerhard Richter signs a book for a fan. Right: Anya von Gösseln of the Office for Contemporary Art with artist Jacob Maendel. (Photos: David Velasco)

Alas, already running late for my next event, I was forced to forgo “the really dirty bits” promised by Wayne Koestenbaum, though my next event, a buffet dinner welcoming Richard Flood (that hard-partying pillar of the American art community) back to New York, promised our bawdy classicists a run for their money. Regrettably, chiseled centurions in leather wrist gauntlets were in short supply, though a burgeoning company, including Flood's new New York boss Lisa Phillips (he assumes the post of chief curator at the New Museum she directs this fall), his old New York boss, gallerist Barbara Galdstone, recent MoMA defector Terry Riley, the Guggenheim's freshly elevated Lisa Dennison, early-bird collectors Ilene and Michael Cohen, and lawyer to the (art) stars, Michael Stout, all looked smart in more conventional festive wear. Flood, dependably jovial and presiding over a perfectly imperial Tribeca quadplex courtesy of collectors and recent Minnesota transplants Ed Bazinet and Wouter Deruytter, did pull off a respectable Nero. I had scarcely thanked our affable hosts for this lavish entertainment when the sight of a sizable Richter on the wall behind them reminded me that I was expected for dinner uptown.

Goodman pulls out the stops when Gerhard comes to town, and I thought the venue was an inspired choice. The Grill Room—very Tom Ford for Gucci, albeit a few decades avant la lettre—has always been a personal favorite, spoiled only by the masters of the universe at lunch and the tourists at night. Taking it over is really the only way to go. As I arrived at the top of that fabled staircase, one prominent New York curator mouthed, in camp mock-dazzlement, “F-A-N-C-Y.”

Left: Catullus translator Peter Green. Right: Bookforum's Eric Banks with writers Richard Howard and Wayne Koestenbaum.

Fancy is as fancy does, I worried, confessing my decidedly unfancy behavior to Art Institute of Chicago curator James Rondeau: I was so short on time that I was forced to forego the opening, I blurted. He (squaring his shoulders) replied, “I have never done that!” Then, checking his perhaps too fulsome pride, ventured a more playful, “Something bad will happen to you.” I ventured towards the dining area with increased foreboding, but not only did my missing date miraculously materialize, but a quick scan of the seating cards revealed my assignment to be an altogether congenial one.

Another night our corner might have been deemed a kind of egghead Siberia, but if you know anything about the Goodman value system, you know that eggheads rate at least as high as titans of industry, a fact confirmed at the very next table, where the seats of honor flanking the artist were reserved for Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh. I have been given to understand that Buchloh, an essayist (along with Dieter Schwarz) for the show’s handsome catalogue found Philip Johnson's tabernacle to the power lunch an unfit setting to fête his favored vehicle. I wondered if he would have been happier with, say, the brasserie redux of a Pastis or the rigor of a Matsuri. As a one-time editor of the critic, I'm well used to his have-your-Grill-Room-and-hate-it-too schtick, but that doesn’t stop me from counting him among our most credible critics.

Left: Bill Powers and Allan Ritcher. Right: Marian Goodman's Victoria Solano with Guggenheim curator Carmen Gimenez. (Photos: David Velasco)

Speaking of October, while discourse with my immediate partners was so festive and fluid that I scarcely noticed who filled the other ninety plus seats, never mind what was said, I did pick up on some ambient chatter attending the recent spate of negative reviews greeting Art Since 1900, the revisionist Modernist history-cum-textbook penned by four of that organ's chief protagonists. Indeed, with three of the authors in our corner that evening, and one, Hal Foster, directly across the table, I had the bad taste to vent my own frustration with the study to his wife, Sandy Tate. Truth be told, I don’t know anyone, outside the authors and their minions (who are admittedly legion) that is not exasperated by the parochial cliquishness of the treatment of the art of recent decades. Even I, a normally reliable fan of their individual efforts, felt so stifled by their version of the '90s that it will be a good while before I am able to crack the tome again to investigate the probable riches of the earlier sections.

It was time to go, and Rondeau's “something bad” had yet to befall me. In fact, one day hence, a considerable dividend was paid on my opening no-show in the form of a first visit to the exhibition—sans the masses and the madness. A promising young art historian I bumped into at the gallery confessed to “never really getting the abstractions,” and I had to shush a wag that reached me by phone as I stepped back out onto 57th Street and offered up the old painting-by-the-yard quip. Richter's abstractions, of course, have always walked a difficult line: One minute they are mere ciphers—like Warhol's blanks, both foils for and negations of the blurry representations with which he juxtaposes them; the next, they are bottomless wells of nuance. “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature” . . . the refrain is Joan Didion's, and her occasion a genuinely tragic one, yet nudged by the naysayers (not to mention a hall of grisaille panels set off by a squadron of fighter planes), I took her counsel. Catalogue in hand, I stepped across the street and into a McDonald's “town house,” secured a coveted upstairs window seat, and proceeded to make my way through the Buchloch essay along with the three-cheeseburger snack that is a favorite guilty pleasure.

Left: Writer Toni Bentley. Center: Wayne Koestenbaum. Right: Writer Daniel Mendelsohn.

The frisson of fast food and a slow read was recalling for me a bit too neatly the Latin-in-Soho moment that opened my excursion. There was Buchloch's faintly archaic, overweening allegiance to modernist negativity. (Indeed, at first I was skeptical of the utility of the broad-strokes sketch of the history of painterly negation he laid in, at least at this point in the Richter conversation. What, after all, are we to do with the surplus of fresh paintings that after all pack four galleries and a long hall?) But by the time I made it through the critic's rather inspired riff on color after color, and, in fairness, absorbed his gestures towards attending to the real specificities of each micro-manifestation of refusal, I was again the devotee. As for the art? Well, a few yards—or bolts—I would happily hang.