PRINT September 1993

Gerhard Richter’s Betty

I TAKE IT that my task here is to select a single work that has provided me particularly deep pleasure in recent years, and propose it as an emblem of contemporary art. It’s an assignment at which anyone with the usual broad range of enthusiasms would balk, as one might balk at a similar exercise with regard to, say, cities, or close friends. But beyond simple indecisiveness, I find it inherently paradoxical.

The difficulty begins with this: that the very idea of a definitive gesture, or even a typical one, is contrary to the ambitions of the art of our time. The best we have is made with a kind of contingency that, either explicitly or by example, rejects the purpose of a masterpiece; so to elevate any one work above all others would be to belie much of what there is to see in any of them. There are no movements to be championed, or paradigms to be elected; there is no air of inevitability around which a history might be composed. Nor are such lacunae incidental to the art that in fact exists. Our present esthetic modesty, and its corresponding critical restraint, are symptoms of a deeper uncertainty—not the kind that gets resolved, but the kind that stays, and therefore has to be expressed as it is.

Skepticism, or the will to doubt, and empiricism, or insistence on the priority of human experience, lie at the beginning of liberal democracy, and of what in time became its official esthetic, Romanticism. They are the elements from which this culture was synthesized. So it should come as no surprise to find that they’re waiting for us at its end—its completion, its fulfillment, perhaps its obsolescence—as well.

But doubt, too, has to be learned, and in my own art-historical education I learned it from Gerhard Richter. The lesson came with the experience of contemplating one of his paintings, not a masterpiece, exactly, but a masterful denial of the possibility of masterpieces, from an artist who takes the problem of misprision to be central to his practice.

Betty is a portrait of sorts, painted from a photograph of the artist’s daughter posed, like Ingres’ The Bather at Valpinçon, 1808, so that she is looking away from the viewer. It is oil on canvas, about life size, and so far as I know it’s Richter’s only color painting of a figure. It was made in 1988; I saw it in London a few years later. I believe it’s now in St. Louis.

The work negotiates so many ambiguities and doubts, to achieve such a carefully maintained aporia, that it immediately impressed me with what I can best describe as the force of its tentativeness. Here, for example, is the uncertainty of experience. Betty is caught in the full strangeness of her own act of observation; she’s the consummate subject, portrayed in the act of an observation purely and entirely her own. But the image is focused on the dramatic twist of her shoulder, deflecting one’s eyes away from any expression one might salvage from what little there is to see of her face. Moreover, she’s gazing into a gray blank that tells us nothing about why she’s turned, or what she sees—until one learns that it’s not a blank at all, or anyway not just a blank: it’s one of her father’s own gray abstractions, staring back at her with a gaze at least as enigmatic as her own. And then all at once the various reflections of concealed and indefinite attention combine, and something like an account appears, a report of the relationship between observer and observed, father and daughter, subject and self, which is at once acute and indecipherable.

That all of this should be painted only extends its ambivalence into art itself. Richter’s opinions about his profession are famous: it is useless, ridiculous, impossible, to be reviled. Still, he believes that to paint is an act of enormous hope, maybe the last such act available, and he’s devoted his life to it. The resulting canvases are by turns gorgeous and empty, or ashen and empty. Where the human figure appears, he paints from the distance of a photograph which is like inviting the wolf to watch over the sheep—and where the work is abstract it’s deliberately inconsequential.

He wanted his canvases to have no content, he’s said over and over again, and if he hadn’t gradually changed his mind, his career—the black and white images and banal landscapes, the fields of gray, the color charts, the arbitrary abstractions, the portraits of candles burning faithfully in otherwise empty roomscapes—might have been an exquisite folly. But the skepticism that caused him to strip his work of meaning eventually became its meaning. Betty was painted the same year Richter completed 18. Oktober, 1977, his stunning cycle of works on the Baader-Meinhof Group, and I believe that they should be looked at together, even if I’m precluded from doing so here. Because together they provide an account of horror, longing, and sorrow that’s rescued from sentimentality and self-pity first by their contrast, and then by their similarities—the latter being an unrecoverable distance that Richter gives both, by blurring the images of the Red Army Faction, and by giving Betty a pose that defies empathy or understanding. Betty and 18. Oktober, 1977 are beautiful—ravishing—and that shouldn’t be ignored or glossed. But their lesson seems brutal: the quality of being, in relation to the world and to others, is equivocal and obscure. And that, I believe, is as close to tragedy as we’re going to get out of the visual arts in our time.

The world is already well represented; there’s little sense in adding another picture to it. Experience is all we have, but it’s a faint thing, and its history, to the extent that it can be told at all, is narrated by others almost before it occurs. Art itself won’t render things more clearly or immediately; it’s just another way of asking. But our distance from the tenets of art’s own history—originality, formal achievement, expression, beauty—is coupled with a powerful desire to make something, even if it’s fashioned out of scraps and composed with a late imagination. That is contemporary art, and while it isn’t always as dark and difficult as Richter’s, or as beautiful—sometimes it’s a glad mess, sometimes an angry scrawl—it does seem to be ours.

Jim Lewis is the author of Sister, a novel, and Real Gone, a collaboration with Jack Pierson, to be published next January by Artspace Books.