PRINT Summer 2002

Daniel Soutif

WHAT REMAINS OF AN ARTIST after the MoMA retrospective? We’ve asked the question time and again upon leaving the venerable Fifty-third Street museum, and in spite of the number of works assembled- as curator Robert Storr points out in the catalogue, it was one of the largest shows the museum has ever devoted to a contemporary artist-the Gerhard Richter retrospective did not escape the query. The throng of tourists in the museum's galleries made it a chore to see two paintings at once, much less get a sense of Storr’s hang. Still, it was impossible to miss the point: The artist, embalmed in this New York consecration, is in the end a true painter; better, he is a sort of composite sketch of the painter at once perfect and protean, inasmuch as such a figure can be imagined by a great institution devoted today to the popular celebration of modern art.

From Pop to monochromes, with journeys through gestural abstraction and realism; from the modest subjects of genre and landscape painting to great metaphysical meditations on death, not to mention the resurrection of history painting grappling with the most extreme horrors of contemporary society: Almost every artistic possibility was present, but-nota bene-in paint alone, as though, after a fractured century, it were up to oil and brush to glue all the pieces together again on the reconciliatory surface of the canvas. Moreover, the most cultivated viewers won’t have missed, just under the surface, a sort of reprise-painted, of course-of the icons of twentieth-century art history. Here, the happy phantom of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; there, the scandal of Manzoni’s insolent can of shit, metonymically cleaned up thanks to two pristine rolls of Toilet Paper. Further on, Klein's blue shaded into the gray of indifference under the hard gaze of the artist’s self-portrait, frozen in bronze across from the bust of his friend Blinky Palerrno. Elsewhere rose an eagle that would not be out of place in the Département des aigles of Marcel Broodthaers’s imaginary Museum.

The encyclopedic dimension of the retrospective was in some ways underscored by the strategic placement of 48 Portraits, 1971-72, in the interior stairwell linking the two floors of the exhibition. The work, based on four dozen photographs of illustrious men taken from an encyclopedia, was made by the artist for the German pavilion of the 1972 Venice Biennale. Here it is illuminating to compare 48 Portraits to the pages that refer to the work in Atlas, the artist’s extraordinary ensemble of photographs, collages, and sketches. Unfortunately, this fantastic scaffolding, which forms the very basis of Richter’s painted work, was nowhere to be found in the exhibition (nor were other important works, such as Panes of Glass, 1967 and 1977, and Mirrors, 1981, that would no doubt have upset the strict pictorial emphasis of the show). True enough, as Storr points out, Atlas was on view fairly recently at the Dia Center for the Arts. Nevertheless, the sketches, preparatory works, and (in this case) photographs of the first installation of the piece in Venice shed considerable light on the nature of 48 Portraits. Rather than a simple set of conventional little pictures that play perversely with photography and the logic of the encyclopedia, the work was in fact initially conceived as a symbolic arrangement largely dependent on the monumentality of a space-the German pavilion-itself symbolically loaded, as another well-known German artist, Hans Haacke, demonstrated in his own way in a subsequent Biennale.

Many other comparisons would be necessary in order to show how reductive it was to present Richter’s work in such a way as to extract its quintessence or, if you prefer, to get at what, according to this venerable museum, must remain . . . Even the numerous Abstract Pictures, whose modernism broke the tranquil thread of representation running through the show with scrapings in which flaunted haphazardness barely conceals the skillful control of superimpositions of color, could have been illuminated by certain passages of Atlas. In its pages, in effect, a process occurs that is symmetrical to that of the early photo-based paintings: We see abstraction give rise, for study after the fact, so to speak, to a photography based on painting that notably relativizes the latter’s pure, immediate pictoriality. Similarly, a particularly seductive landscape with clouds is somewhat altered in meaning if, instead of reducing it to its simple status as an autonomous painting, one imagines it, as numerous sketches in Atlas suggest, integrated in an architectural space controlled by the artist.

In short, if considered in relation to Atlas, this retrospective certainly appeared to be well behaved. And yet it may be that the show stuck perfectly to a single facet of this artist, perhaps the one he prefers today. This ambiguity, as has often been remarked, characterizes Richter’s art. By wanting to be a sort of Musilesque “painter without qualities,” indifferent to everything but the fact of painting, this “artist-painter” often allows the apparent complexity of his art—the juxtaposition of the types of paintings he brings together as though nothing could be more natural, even though we all know they should be mutually exclusive—to mask another form of complexity, a complexity to be found elsewhere than in the painting itself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Richter knows that even if the question of the end of painting is bunk, “great painting” is nevertheless behind us, and the virtuosity attributed to his practice is only an appearance, a carefully wrought appearance but an appearance nonetheless. In other words, Richter knows that the only proper way to make paintings today is to offer painting another purpose, which he did from the start by putting his work in the service of photography, as if canvas, brush, and pigment now had the modest function of making the most common images truly visible.

The obsessive character of Richter’s art has often been underscored. Though amply confirmed by Atlas and by the generalized seriality of the works (which is hardly perceptible when they are reduced to an anthology of masterpieces), this libidinal motor was muffled in the MoMA retrospective: Rather than recount the history of a contradiction never resolved and thus always, tirelessly, reworked, the exhibition slipped into the scenario of an exemplary adventure with a happy ending. Opening with the gray images of a Germany still afflicted by the memory of Nazism—Uncle Rudi!—and (in the eastern half, from which the artist hails) under the yoke of Communism, this heroic narrative passed through the somber images of the final days of the Baader-Meinhof faction in order to end, after a good dozen canvases devoted to the artist's baby, on a sumptuous image of the sea bedazzled by a rising sun. A happy ending that was too beautiful (and too happy) to speak the truth of an art whose source has more to do with the work of the mental and material processes that engender it than with the smooth surfaces of paintings. Despite everything, it is a bit premature to say that they are already what remains.

Daniel Soutif is an art historian based in Paris.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.