Critics’ Picks

Blumen (Flowers) (detail), 1992.

Blumen (Flowers) (detail), 1992.

New York

Gerhard Richter

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
February 18–May 21, 2002

How do you compare an Old Master to a contemporary one? The question seemed to arise when Gerhard Richter’s first large-scale American retrospective opened on the same night as “Orazio and Artemesia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a show dedicated to the work of Caravaggio’s most talented follower and his hapless but accomplished daughter-pupil. One voice at the crowded MoMA evening declared Richter yet one more example of contemporary art being the emperor’s new clothes. Richter himself failed to challenge this view in a recent New York Times magazine interview in which he stated that “an idiot” could make his paintings. Nevertheless, as this show amply demonstrates, Richter’s mastery—particularly his manipulation and depiction of light, his domestic scenes, northern landscapes, and his use of the vanitas images and symbols—is unquestionable. Some of the installation in the show is unfortunate, like the group of encyclopedia portraits crowded over a staircase, or paintings hanging in dead-end rooms with only a few inches’ clearance at the floor and ceiling. The inspired moments, however, more than make up for the glitches, among them, a room filled with large-scale streaked, abstract, rainy-day-window canvases and Betty, 1994, an antiportrait of a young woman wearing a red-and-white patterned jacket turned away from us—as captivating as a Vermeer woman in ermine. Seeing Gerhard’s abstraction and photorealism together, you realize that this dual body of work is the perfect expression of what it means to paint today—and what a contemporary master might be.