PRINT January 2002


The well-mannered monstre sacré of postwar German art learned his profession in the East. Gerhard Richter slipped through the iron curtain to blaze a trail beyond and against the painting of Western modernism, testing the medium’s limits yet remaining one of its most loyal adherents. Immensely reclusive and at the same time enormously ambitious, ferociously productive but refusing to display the scars that are the all-too-common medals of creative excess, Richter does not seem to fit the conventional art-historical and cultural narratives—though he is as popular and successful as an artist could hope to be.
Indeed, in 2002, it seems almost too easy to dismiss Richter as a “classic” of sorts, an “old master” to be eulogized for a lifetime’s achievement. Largely detached from the contemporary-art scene, he seems to proceed in a self-enclosed manner within various frames of reference that he himself has established for his life, his practice, and his thinking over four decades. As one of the most renowned artists in Germany, he has acquired an almost untouchable status. When he was recently awarded the prestigious Staatspreis Nordrhein-Westfalen, German politician Wolfgang Clement’s words typified the “official” appreciation of Richter’s work: an “outstanding painterly oeuvre, in which historical reflection, visual persuasiveness, and seemingly contradictory modes of representation are brought to a great synthesis.”
Of course, this isn’t the whole story, for Richter is seen not just as the great synthesizer but, more to the point, the great skeptic, critical of the means and traditions of his art and the modernist and postmodernist ideologies sustaining it. This far-reaching criticality is made accessible (and acceptable?) through works of sheer aesthetic splendor in the artist’s abstractions and in his trademark blurry, photo-figurative paintings, but the accessibility is deceiving. The always double-edged (or rather soft-edged) nature of Richter’s methods of beautification was made abundantly clear to a larger public with his notorious “October 18, 1977” cycle from 1988. This determined take on the traditions of history painting after the frequently proclaimed “end of painting” became the focus of heated debate on matters of terrorism, commemoration, mourning, and the issues related to representing victim-perpetrators like the Red Army Faction terrorists in the solemn way Richter chose for these images.
In early October 2001, just a day after the bombing of Afghanistan had begun and a month after the attacks of September 11, I met Robert Storr for a late-night appointment in his office at the Museum of Modern Art. The empty building, with its surprisingly modest office spaces, provided a perfect ascetic ambience for an intense conversation with the curator, who has been the driving force behind the acquisition of the “October 18, 1977” series for the Modern and who at the time of the interview was busy preparing his Richter retrospective, which opens at the museum next month. Two hours later, after we had discussed a wide range of topics, it became clear that the question of whether Richter’s art could offer an adequate aesthetic response to the events of September 11 (and after) would be avoided, scrupulously, by both parties.
Tom Holert

TOM HOLERT: Gerhard Richter’s work poses the difficult curatorial task of presenting the work of an artist whose output is overwhelming in quantity and elusive in the way he proposes a kind of taxonomy. He seems to suggest an order hidden in the maze of genres, techniques, and themes. How do you cope with this?

ROBERT STORR: Richter is a fastidious keeper of his own records. He spends a lot of time going back over what he has done, giving it shape, giving it order. He’s been preparing his own catalogue raisonné, whereas most artists’ catalogues raisonnés are compiled by scholars after the artist has completed his work. You can take Richter’s documentation and sift through it in a rather methodical way. So in the most practical terms it’s quite easy.

TH: And in what terms is it not easy?

RS: What one understands having talked to Richter is that there are things that are not in the catalogue raisonné, that the order of the catalogue raisonné is not strictly chronological. There is a considerable deal of flux in what seems to be an apparent order. That is, I think, by design.

TH: What sort of “design” are you pointing to?

RS: In the course of organizing this show I found a book at a flea market, an army manual from World War II that showed how to make camouflage and had these wonderful paintings of camouflaged tanks hidden in the grass and trees. I sent it to Richter, thinking it might be of interest to him. He said he was very interested in camouflage. In some ways the issue that critics and curators have to deal with is how to see Richter behind the camouflage he has created and at the same time to respect the fact that the camouflage is there for a reason. It is to prevent people from drawing too-obvious interpretations of his work and to maintain the room that he needs to keep producing. But at the same time it is a kind of hiding place.

TH: To what extent has Richter manipulated the chronology of his work in order to create a particular impression of how it evolved?

RS: When Richter and I were talking a year ago, I asked him about certain paintings at the beginning of the catalogue raisonné. The first is Table,1962, but there are in fact earlier paintings that turn up later in the catalogue sequence. Now I understand why he did that. Tableis the painting in which he recognized himself for the first time. It is not that he is creating a false chronology but that he is defining one. He is talking about a process of understanding rather than a sequence of making. In looking at the catalogue raisonné, you understand that this is a thing of inherent flux. One way to make a Richter exhibition is to establish a chronology, but in another sense you want to preserve that fluidity.

TH: One method of managing an overload of images and materials such as the one Richter provides is proposed by the artist himself. In a 1989 interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker he conceded that the only way to get control over the “flood of images” is via the order of images as it is worked over in the different published stages of his catalogue raisonné and especially in Atlas.Richter exhibits this long-term image-archive-in-progress from time to time to allow the public a glimpse of the source materials, the matrix of photographs his paintings are ultimately based upon. There, he says, the single picture vanishes in the ordering system. The grid, the context of images, reclaims the individual work.

RS: That is, if you take Atlasas the model. Richter doesn’t like to talk about specific images out of context, but he also doesn’t like to talk about groups of images that apparently relate to one another. And indeed in the catalogue raisonné he may have dispersed some of these images to avoid any appearance that he is treating a theme or a particular idea through methodological changes. The fact that he might have done this poses a challenge.

TH: This challenge seems to be part of a struggle between two authorities, between two ways of imposing order on the work. On the one hand, Gerhard Richter, manager and taxonomist of his own production; on the other, the Museum of Modern Art, the institutional actor, searching for its own “Gerhard Richter.”

RS: You might believe so, sitting in this building, which some people think of as a kind of Pentagon of art. But I don’t believe the job of the curator is to be an authority. I think the curator’s task is essentially to be an example or an agent of curiosity who acts on behalf of the art. To create a pattern is not necessarily to create a definitive order, but to create a heuristic device, a way of opening up, to make the distinctions more vivid, more interesting, more meaningful. My interest here is not above all to do the definitive Richter show. It is the most comprehensive exhibition I can do, but it is not in any way a definitive one.

TH: Did you study previous Richter retrospectives to create such patterns?

RS: Not really. I was probably more interested in the critical literature than in exhibition practice. More than that, I thought, What about this image and that, what about the flow of one type of work into another, what about the interruption of one type of work by another?

TH: But then you as well are ultimately forced into a thematic clustering of works.

RS: As an example, there are a number of images about World War II, like Bomber,1963, Stukas,1964, and Mustang-Staffel,1964. It would be inappropriate to make a “World War II room” or an “airplanes room,” but it seems overly respectful of Richter’s camouflage not to point out that these pictures have a real relation to one another thematically, that they were made at a certain time. And that they were made by somebody who experienced the Nazi period, who experienced the American bombardment, who was in the East for a long time, who came to the West, when the world was heavily politicized over issues of NATO, the cold war, rearmament. It’s simply not the same thing for Richter to paint a series of pictures of bombers and fighter aircraft as it was for Roy Lichtenstein to make Pop pictures of war comics.

TH: Speaking of intention: Over the years Richter has been carefully crafting an idea of his, the artist’s, intention by granting more and more transparency to his studio practice and by regularly disseminating “intentional” statements via published notes and interviews. What role in the interpretation and display of the work do you assign to Richter’s procedures, which he seems to be increasingly fond of?

RS: Richter’s procedures are actually remarkably straightforward. It does make a difference to see the progressions and layerings on a painting, particularly the early stages, which are almost always much more defined than most people are aware of. They’re developed compositions—particularly so in the abstractions—in styles that are not his own, as underpaintings, hard-edged perspective images or art informelgestural pictures. Often what comes later in the completed painting involves cancellation of something that is a pastiche of, say, another kind of painting.

TH: Still, given Richter’s reputation as a rather reserved and reclusive artist, he is astonishingly frank when it comes to giving insights into the laboratory of his practice. Photographs of his studio with the posing artist surrounded by unfinished paintings abound. He opens up the studio to a large extent to the public eye. That doesn’t simply seem to be a matter of being didactic about his own work. Instead he displays a particular way of dealing with one’s own practice and persona, and they become more and more visible in the process.

RS: Richter is an extraordinarily photogenic man who lives in an extraordinarily controlled environment. His world is in a sense a statement concerning his idea of order and proportion and balance and how life can be, in the best sense. What he is showing you is partially that. He is showing you the world he has created. In a way he is demystifying the artist as a dramatic figure. Sometimes this doesn’t work, because the photographers conspire to redramatize him.

TH: In the context of the West German art world, this was a unique strategy when Richter started out. From the ’60s on, artists tended to dramatize their looks and their images.

RS: Richter isn’t hanging out in bars or wearing a costume. There is no smoke and mirrors. On many levels there are corollaries between him and Willem de Kooning. Unlike Pollock, de Kooning was rarely photographed as the dramatic painter. In most of the images he’s a workmanlike artist.

TH: Richter himself once talked about the two-camp structure in the German art world. In the ’60s and ’70s there were artists like Baselitz showing with Michael Werner, and there was the other faction, Richter, Polke, and the lot, gathering around galleries like Konrad Fischer’s. Separated by temperament and style, Richter, as competitive as he has always been in his particular manner, was looking to maintain a certain distance from the Werner camp. He did so also in terms of his persona, and later came to be thought of as a bourgeois “Mr. Clean” type by the generation of German painters that followed, like Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger.

RS: It is a way of upstaging people. Everyone else is up front, gesticulating, and you just stand at the back of the stage and cross your arms and look this way and that, and soon every eye in the theater is on you. However, certainly in this country we have made too much of the personas of artists. But ultimately that is really not important. There is far more about who Richter is in Richter’s paintings than there is about who Baselitz is in Baselitz’s paintings, even though Baselitz’s paintings have actors and alter egos. Which is not a criticism of Baselitz; it is a criticism of the myth that somehow one knows an artist because he or she is emotive or dramatic. One of the things that is interesting in the German criticism I have read is the extent to which Richter is a puzzle for people; they wish he would pick some way of being a certain type so they could at least know where to place him.

TH: In what respect does Richter’s status differ in the different cultures and art worlds? How, for example, is he perceived in the US?

RS: The myth of the spontaneously inventive, emotive painting dies very hard in this country. It is still this thing that comes from Abstract Expressionism, from our infatuation with the French avant-garde, etc. From our perspective each culture has its version of this model, and of course the German equivalent is expressionism and a kind of aggressive painterliness. That may explain why Americans in the late ’70s and early ’80s, after a long time of paying almost no attention to Europe—and I speak of the broader public, not specialized audiences—became so interested in the Neue Wildepainters, etc. This was what German art was supposed to look like.

TH: But Richter didn’t fit into this version of “German” art.

RS: Americans only knew a certain set of prototypes, of models. And it is true: Richter fit virtually none of them, because his abstract paintings were “off” in some way, and because almost everything else he did looked as if it were too late to be contemporary. Photorealism was over, and the fact that he had been making these paintings before some of our photorealists had even gotten out of art school didn’t really register with anybody. Richter’s first photorealistic painting is from 1962; the first one by a New York painter, which was Malcolm Morley, is from 1965. Chuck Close didn’t make one before 1967. We have had a very skewed perspective; part of what a Richter retrospective should do and what I’m trying to do by insisting on chronology is simply to remind viewers that if you don’t pay attention to how things actually unfold in time, you won’t understand their relation to other things you take for granted.

TH: Are there any specific Richter paintings that are iconic or representative in the US, or maybe even better-known than in Europe?

RS: There are types of paintings that are known here, but his work is really not that familiar. In most people’s imagination the abstractions are not specific things. Some of the early works—Helga Matura,1966, or Eight Student Nurses,1966—that refer in a kind of Warholian way to the dark side of experience are known, but even those are not familiar enough to have the sort of instant buzz about them that an equivalent Warhol would have. They should, and they will be.

TH: How do Warhol’s and Richter’s versions of the “dark side” differ?

RS: What Warhol did was to take the public image and strip it, not emptying it entirely but making it more excruciating by depleting the accessible part of the human presence. Richter does almost the opposite. He takes depleted information and gives something back to it by this very delicate, almost tender way of painting. So, while you paint eight women who were killed by a sex fiend, you don’t get to know them any better really, and in fact his way of painting makes the already indistinct image a bit more indistinct, but the manner in which the figures are painted, the touch, the part that is painting and is not photography, returns a vulnerability and elusive quality that is very affecting. By the time you get to the Baader-Meinhof paintings, this is absolutely crucial, because they are all about what you can’t hold on to and yet what you can in certain subliminal ways feel.

TH: In your catalogue essay accompanying last year’s MoMA exhibition of the 1988 cycle “October 18, 1977,” you are asking for a “deeper and more nuanced appreciation of [Richter’s] overriding aims.” You seem to emphasize particular qualities or dimensions of the work that you consider to have been neglected or underrepresented in the Richter literature. What emerges from this critique of the critique could be called a new, let’s say epistemic, object, the “Richter touch,” i.e., this very quality included in his “overriding aims.”

RS: If that’s where I’m headed, I hope I get there. Here you have an artist who has painted probably as broad an inventory of modern situations as anyone. If you just think of the variety of things that appear in the photorealist paintings—it’s vast. It’s not just that he likes encyclopedias, he isan encyclopedia. Each of those paintings is painted in a deliberate and particular way. There is a way of painting he operates out of, but there is not a system that produces the same result with just a difference of image. I think that the tendency is to try to tidy him up, to reduce him to the few things that could be said about large groups of paintings, rather than the many things that can be said about individual works.

TH: In a now classic interview from 1988, Benjamin Buchloh and Gerhard Richter struggle over the question of whether Richter’s abstractions are mainly a critique of a certain manner of rhetoric and conventionalism in modernist painting. Richter was very reluctant to accept Buchloh’s reading of his work as being primarily of negation. Richter’s reaction reminds me of your position in relation to his work and its “elusive quality.”

RS: Yes, Buchloh wants Richter to say that he is not engaging with the rhetoric but is there to expose and destroy it. Buchloh’s understanding of conventions is that they are inherently evil and that they need to be exposed. However, it is another thing to say that the existence of certain conventions creates a kind of resistance to one’s own inclinations. And because of that resistance and the decisions you have to make about how it operates, new things can happen in the work. But if the only role of a painting in relation to convention is negation, then of course Richter is going to reject it. That’s why that interview is so fascinating. Buchloh raises many, many good topics but he assigns Richter only one role in relation to each of them. Richter’s role is always more complex than that. He usually offers a mixture of a hypothetical affirmation and a critical negation.

TH: What do you mean by “hypothetical affirmation”?

RS: For the sake of seeing what will happen he will—in a positive sense—use a certain language of painting. He doesn’t do it in order to prove that it’s null and void; he does it to see if anything will happen. And if something does happen, he respects it for what it is, but at the same time his critical intelligence says, just because you’ve accomplished something doesn’t mean that you now join the party and swear allegiance to all of the ideas that are attached to this way of painting.

Tom Holert is a critic based in Cologne.