PRINT Summer 2002

Peter Halley

GERHARD RICHTER’S RISE TO HE PRESENT STATURE is fascinating. I remember that in the early ’70s he was seen in the United States as a second-tier Pop artist. His work wasn’t considered radical like Warhol’s or Lichtenstein’s. Even with the return to painting in the early ’80s, Polke was thought of as a more central figure. It was probably the work of people like Richard Prince and the emerging importance of the photographic image as referent that created a context for Richter. The Baader-Meinhof paintings, first shown in 1989, were a key factor in his upward trajectory. He was already well regarded, but that was the beginning of his apotheosis.

Richter’s popularity also reflects an important shift in the art world since 1980: With the rise of the mega-exhibition, art now needs a hook. It needs to be newsworthy, like the spectacular installations of Damien Hirst, Vanessa Beecroft, and Maurizio Cattelan. Even though he has not used particularly sensational subject matter since the Baader-Meinhof series, the belated circulation of his earlier work in the US has caused these older images to become part of his contemporary reputation. With this body of work he is one of the few painters who can compete in the arena of the spectacular.

Someone told me that when the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art building opened a few years ago, large paintings by Richter, Kiefer, and Polke were installed together in the biggest gallery. They had replaced Pollock, Newman, and Rothko as paradigmatic figures of ambitious painting with a wide worldview—painters with ideas. In the US, artists like Richter and Polke have come to represent the newest version of spirituality in a media-dominated culture.

It’s important that Richter’s work is painterly. Americans want to see subjectivity: paint that appears to be spontaneously applied, the “artist’s hand.” His work appeals because it celebrates traditional technique, transcending the materiality of the paint. With their subtleties of value, blurred edges, and satin surfaces, Richter’s paintings seem to be immaterial apparitions, like Vermeer’s, his work constantly references the old masters—Velázquez, Chardin, Manet, you name it. But in the end all of his work is an imitation of traditional painterliness. He uses oldmaster effects, but not in order to construct three-dimensional form as the old masters did, since he’s painting from photographs. Richter plays it from everyangle. His abstract works are basically inventories of kitsch painterly tricks—squeegeeing, blotting, impastoing. It's amusing that they have come to be accepted as a model of transcendental abstraction.

Richter’s work always has a double edge. It embodies a pervasive estrangement from the culture around him; but paradoxically, his artistic engagement with this estrangement is total. He’s ambivalent about modernism’s deconstruction of the spectacle, and his tabloid subject matter and shameless effects are themselves spectacular. To a real modernist, that’s anathema. But as he makes spectacle, Richter takes it apart. All this requires a very subtle mind.

Excerpted from an interview with James Meyer.

Peter Halley is a painter and writer based in New York.