PRINT Summer 2002

David Reed

LIKE MOST RETROSPECTIVES, the Gerhard Richter exhibition curated by Robert Storr was organized chronologically. What was revisionist about the show was the way the installation emphasized seeing paintings either individually or in one-to-one comparisons. Seemingly unlike works were installed in proximity, with the apparent intention of bringing out specific kinds of content—personal, psychological, and iconographic—that had been latent in previous considerations of Richter's painting. This approach worked well for the photographically based figurative paintings. Portraits of the artist's uncle and father appeared psychologically deeper and more historically painful than ever before. The selection and placement highlighted oedipal tensions and complicated our view of Richter's relation to painting traditions and to other artists such as Duchamp and Beuys. Toward the end of the exhibition, portraits of Richter’s wife and young child suggested a narrative resolution of these conflicts. This “story,” however, put to rest too easily many open issues in the artist’s work.

Richter is well-known for working in groups of paintings. Two galleries installed with related works—the “October 18, 1977” cycle followed by the three large abstract diptychs November, December, and January—were the best in the show. Other rooms containing individual selections and comparisons lacked this unity and thus lost Richter’s mood of thinking and self-criticality. Instead, his comprehensive vision was simplified and reduced to choice examples, encouraging judgment rather than analysis. For instance, the several gray paintings in one gallery were too inconsistent in size, marking, and facture. In this hanging, viewers could not discover the subtle differences among examples of this body of work, and the importance of these paintings as a turning point from hopelessness to new possibility was not apparent.

Notably absent from the show were works from a group of forty-nine color-chart paintings from 1966, 1971, and 1973-74. A large color-chart painting from 1974 was exiled—out of chronological order-to a hallway, while the other inclusion seemed out of context. Without others from the series, what color there was in the exhibition seemed less integral and thoughtful than it should. In its cataloguing of colors in a manner analogous to the ordering of photographs in Atlas, this series begins Richter’s systematic thinking on the subject. As Richter avoids aesthetic decisions by using readymade sources, these paintings, although very different in appearance from the photo-based paintings, share their philosophical underpinnings. Richter absorbs aspects of photography into painting rather than relying on the appearance of the photograph per se.

In relation to this, it’s unfortunate that there was no space for many of Richter’s investigations as a painter outside painting. For example, 4 Panes of Glass, 1967, suggests how painting as a way of thinking and perception can be experienced beyond the medium’s traditional format. To audiences-unfamiliar with his work, this show introduced Richter as a traditional painter, which he certainly is not. The exhibition ignored dialogues about expanded definitions of painting—expansions of which Richter is a pioneer.

David Reed is a painter based in New York.