PRINT Summer 2002

Katy Siegel

EVERYBODY LOVES GERHARD RICHTER—artists, critics, art historians, theorists—but not for the same reasons. While the standard critical take on the German artist focuses on the medium’s bankruptcy as demonstrated by his early gray paintings, his use of photography, and his color-chart works, the version Robert Storr offered at the MoMA retrospective explored the potential that painting still holds. The curator emphasized the artist’s representational efforts and the abstractions of the ’90s to the detriment of the more conceptual work Even the awkward, often difficult abstractions of the ’70s and early ’80s were represented by unusually weak choices. But whatever the polemical intentions and the omissions they occasioned, the conjunction of early representational paintings and beautiful late abstractions highlighted some of the key visual issues Richter has been thinking through over the past four decades.

One of the first paintings the visitor encountered, Stag, 1963, provided a clue. The animal, a smear of gray oil paint, moves through or against a thicket of sharply linear woods outlined in black. The deer is a blur because it moves while the trees stand still. (By contrast, many works, such as Uncle Rudi, 1965, appear fuzzy, and the lack of clarity becomes a sign of temporal fade, loss of focus, and the emotions such conditions might connote.) Other early paintings followed, depicting increasingly various and complicated relations between fixity and motion. Fighter jets rush across the picture plane at sharp angles, some trailing vectors of smoke; a moving car freezes against an even faster, blurrier background; a racing speed boat is photographed by a camera positioned on the bow; a diver somersaults in two consecutive images.

Across the room, the masterpiece Erna (Nude on a Staircase), 1966, obviously echoed Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, one of the first paintings to depict the kind of moving image found in film. Richter captures Ema in a downward motion, each stair another step in her imagined progress. Another homage to Duchamp’s painting, Woman Descending the Staircase, 1965 (taken from a newspaper clipping), catches a society lady in a blurry leap down the stairs at a gala. The blur is doubly indexical, pointing to the artist’s hand as much as the figure’s descent. Over the course of Richter’s oeuvre, the action shifts increasingly from image or subject matter to material, particularly in some of the earliest abstractions. In Red-Blue-Yellow, 1972, a swirling, twining gesture, of paint becomes a frozen image.

Richter’s most powerful vision is of the stillness of death: His eerie 1988 cycle on the Baader-Meinhof faction is contemporary history painting derived from the media-journalistic and evidentiary images from photography and video. Three paintings titled Confrontation show a fragile, alienated-looking Gudrun Ensslin walking past a camera, turning toward and away from us; we fill in her motion, as with the earlier painting of the diver. The movement in Confrontation’s three panels is matched by the absolute inertia of the woman in the three paintings titled Dead; here, the sequence records the artist’s shifts and adjustments—slight changes in scale and composition—rather than any movement in the lifeless subject.

These two elements, stillness and motion, come together in Richter’s great abstractions of the late ’80s and ’90s. In Blanket, 1988, Richter sweeps white across a version of the Baader-Meinhof painting Hanged, leaving only glimpses of the representational image, like television static fighting with a picture. The monumental November, December, and January (all 1989) develop this theme into complete abstraction, strong reds, blues, and greens flickering through complex stretches of black and white. Not only do the colors contrast; the three paintings feature competing horizontal and vertical scrapes of the artist’s huge squeegee. In the following decade, Richter pushes this conflicted aspect in many works: In Abstract Picture, 1999, a mauve curtain drops down over a multicolored horizontal pull of paint. The brilliant, volatile late abstractions feature surprising colors as well as seemingly random changes of direction, contrasting orange and blue, pale and deep tones. Richter has emphasized painting in more than one mood in order to “interrupt” any univocal, simple message a painting might contain; we may see this also in the recent paintings of his wife and their infant son, interrupted by scrapes and smears of the palette knife.

The gestures scraping Sabine and Moritz, like the gray strokes covering the early painting Table, 1962, not only conceal or obliterate the image; they also animate it. In the works of the ’90s, Richter complicates his conflict between stillness and movement by confounding image and material, vertical and horizontal, color and black-and-white, or simply passages painted in different moments in time. In the late work, these clashes (so different from the side-by-side juxtapositions of surrealism or postmodernism) of two or more “signals” recall technological phenomena such as flicker, static, and interference: the unstable, material qualities of film, television, and video when they are running but lack a clear, uninterrupted image. Richter's pictures, both abstract and representational, seem to be “on,” particularly when placed next to the occasional flawless still life or landscape. They’re enlivened by the play of the medium as much as by the image. Storr may have shortchanged the artist’s interest in painting’s limits, but his show, whether intended or not, foregrounded painting’s possibilities in responding to contemporary ways of seeing.

Richter is undoubtedly thinking about painting as a medium, and he is one of the artists we use to assess its current conditions. The critics who see him as exposing the inadequacy of painting aren’t entirely wrong. This inadequacy, however, is not a feature of the medium’s historical obsolescence; the problem is that painting doesn’t do justice to a complex reality, one that above all moves and lives. It never did. What Richter shows us is that photography and video do no better; they have interruptions of their own, to which his painting technique subtly alludes. His most recent abstractions face the situation in their utter unpredictability: Pulsing with the impersonal Me of the medium, they escape the limits of the idiosyncratic but ultimately habitual gestures of an individual artist. To say that Richter defines the conditions of painting at this late date is to ask not only what painting has lost but what it has gained: life as well as death.

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum.