PRINT Summer 2002

Rosalind E. Krauss

IN CONCEPTUAL SUPPLENESS and complex beauty, Gerhard Richter’s work strikes his supporters as offering a parallel to that of Jasper Johns. This gives a sense of the avidity with which they were waiting for the Museum of Modem Art retrospective curated by Robert Storr. It also provides a measure of their disappointment. To gauge this we have to imagine something like bringing Johns to Düsseldorf through a wholly inadequate selection of objects (how about leaving out all the maps and targets as well as According to What?) and installing them in tiny galleries in a more or less random order (say, a flagstone work next to Diver or a flag next to a numbers painting).

The curator’s role is to find a thread through work that may be diverse and a development that may be complex. Each stage needs to focus on the strongest examples it enables (in Johns’s case, Watchman as the outcome of the Souvenirs). Without such an armature, viewers are left confused. Storr’s failure to find or present such central ideas in the Richter retrospective is monumental, and the result is a series of cramped corridors without progression toward those culminations in the career that articulate its development and manifest its rewards (these culminating works include the breathtaking two-thousand-centimeter-long Streak, 1980; the generative Atlas; and the squeegee abstractions).

To my way of thinking, Richter’s work presents the viewer with an extraordinary thought experiment: How would Western culture appear to someone from Mars? Or someone parachuted into the West with no preparation whatever? Richter is that someone—trained in East Germany on a diet of socialist realism and utterly unprepared for the complex developments of the twentieth-century avant-garde. When he came to the West in the early ’60s he ended up in Düsseldorf, the capital of Germany’s modernist art world, and was exposed to the full display of all those phenomena that seem so obvious to us-Pop art, Photorealism, collage, abstraction-but would strike an outsider with a special force of uncanniness.

One of the aspects of this sudden immersion was that Richter saw all cultural production processed through the intervening layers of the media—illustrated magazines, newspapers, television, etc. It’s as though he were a permanent snorkeler experiencing everything on earth through gallons of undulating water. The gray color and blurred surface of many of the paintings are the equivalent of this mass of water—the distancing, alienating business of promotion and interpretation. The few paintings in which such intervention is absent (such as Betty, 1988, or the series of candle images) are able to take on a particular force and glow, producing a strong sense (in distinction to their fellows) of what immediacy, its sharp focus and searing color, looks like.

To get to the details of the thought experiment is to see how Richter was struck by paradigms of modernism for which he had no precedent. For example, what would monochrome painting look like to a total outsider? Richter’s answer—produced in his monochrome gray panels—is a mirror: a materially uniform surface broken by random interventions as the viewers in the galleries are reflected in the gray fields. This was also Rauschenberg’s interpretation, with his white monochromes, which John Cage called landing strips for shadows. But Richter’s reading (which I am inferring from the analysis made by his most important critic, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh) is, in its literalness, more transgressive.

Further, how would the outsider see Frank Stella’s paintings? Richter saw them as surfaces of water into which a stone is thrown, causing concentric rings to spread outward. The idea of deductive structure, with its emphasis on the framing edge as origin of the resulting pattern, simply fell away, as in Grauschlieren (Gray streaks), 1968. In fact, the importance of the framing edge within the whole of modernist painting is more or less absent from Richter’s pictorial identikit.

Another example: What about the novice who encounters Manet’s Olympia and sees in that brazen stare the echo of so many postwar targets and chevrons? Would the response be Betty, the young innocent who can reveal herself to the viewer only by turning away?

My impulse would have been to articulate this set of encounters by way of wall labels referring to the paradigms of avant-garde painting, such as Monochrome, Deductive Structure, Aura, Simulacrum. Grouping all the Gray Mirrors under the rubric “Monochrome” would instantly telegraph the fact that this is the paradigm they reinterpret; spreading them throughout the exhibition makes them look like faceless interruptions. Placing Gray Streaks under Deductive Structure would key it to Stella’s work as a reinterpretation; grouping the abstractions, particularly the most mechanically produced ones, like the squeegees, under Aura would bring out the irony. The implication is that Richter’s work is in constant dialogue with that of other major artists and that this dialogue needs to be articulated (for example, as Buchloh has often argued, Richter’s 48 Portraits seems antiquated without this massive collection’s being placed in its Warholian context). That Richter in fact collaborated with other modernists—an important example being Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo, his 1971 project with Blinky Palermo—underscores his need continually to test his understanding against the example of others. I would also have included the most important of Richter’s installations, such as his “painting cabinet” for Docurnenta IX, 1992. These are works in which Richter has served as his own curator, producing the comparative constellations that reflect on and summarize his own trajectory though the landscape of the avant-garde.

The necessary articulation of Richter's development on this continent will have to await further exhibitions, ones that can offer broader samplings of the work and better fill out the picture than the MoMA retrospective did. Book-length analysis equal to the complexity of the artist’s oeuvre will also help fill this gap. Nothing short of this will bring Richter’s work into clarity for a public whose appetite has now been whetted.

Rosalind E. Krauss is Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modem Art and Theory at Columbia University, New York.

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