PRINT November 2002




To the Editor:

Exhibitions are a form of representation, an interpretive “likeness” of a body of work. No more than any other representation of a complex reality can such a compound image claim to be the unmediated record of the artist’s intention or achievement, much less a definitive one. Certainly not in the case of the retrospective of someone whose production is large, various, and shot through with internal conflicts and contradictions. Essential to any such attempt, then, is the principle of metonymy, whereby a part stands in for the whole. Deciding how much of one dimension of the aggregate to include is the basis of the composition. Such decisions are not a matter of foregone intellectual conclusions or the by-product of any art-historical consensus. Neither are they an affair of mathematical proportion, according to which x percent of work of a particular variety is systematically culled to make up a “balanced” picture.

As a medium, moreover, the exhibition is primarily a matter of showing rather than telling. To the degree that linguistic models apply, individual objects are the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs from which sentences or phrases are inscribed on a wall, paragraphs or stanzas are composed within a defined area, and the larger shape of the entirety unfolds room by room, with the viewer an equal partner in determining the way in which the exhibition is read and reread. Such collaborative parity is widely recognized by contemporary critics when it comes to the experience of texts, but it must be said that this acknowledgment is markedly absent when it comes to their approach to exhibitions. Too often mistrust of the public’s intelligence overcomes principled belief in its active participation, and insistence on the overriding supremacy of expert intention reasserts itself with a vengeance. Thus those who happily attended the Death of the Author officiate at the birth of the critic/curator as “auteur.”

Nevertheless, the thoughtful disposition and sequencing of works of visual art can be every bit as articulate as the ordering of words and should be every bit as open to recomposition by circumambulatory spectators. Thus while exhibition goers may take their cues from the ways in which exhibition makers isolate or cluster objects, from the progression from gallery to gallery as well as from glimpses forward or backward, they are not bound by those cues to seeing any work or ensemble of works in only one way.

By these means “showing” serves the narrative and analytic functions of “telling” without devolving into an illustration of printed or spoken texts. Moreover, viewers are freed from the passivity normally imposed by the decorum of the museum-as-temple or museum-as-classroom. Instead they are invited to examine material from multiple vantage points, constructing in their minds their own version of what they have seen. As Ezra Pound long ago remarked, the ambition of the reader determines how rewarding such encounters will be, to which it should be added that the relatively disinterested “ambitions” of unprejudiced but intensely curious laypersons are frequently more in art’s favor than those of clerics with vested professional stakes.

As a practical matter the problematics of exhibition making are further complicated-and enriched-by the space allotted to a specific enterprise and the availability of specific works. Correspondingly, the discipline of realizing an image of images is a question of operating within the circumstantial as well as chosen limitations of the given convention, be it an artist’s project, theme show, survey, or retrospective. That said, exhibition making is no more an art form than it is a science—rather, it is a craft whose purpose is to enhance the experience and understanding of visual culture, and those who practice it best are those who regard it as such. Malpractice begins in curatorial hubris.

Any craft practiced in public is bound to attract sidewalk supervisors. In response to Artforum’s referendum on “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting” [Summer 2002] one had hoped for something more substantial. But in lieu of fresh insights into the artist’s work occasioned by the MoMA exhibition, the gist of the most extensive replies consisted of second-guessing and the reiteration of received wisdom. Aside from the brief remarks of Thomas Struth and Peter Halley, who had interesting things to say, respectively, about the increasing seriousness of this sometimes wickedly humorous artist and about his ambivalent involvement with spectacle, the contributors seemed to take Richter’s accomplishment for granted, while the show and the catalogue argue that his work needs to be reconsidered historically and formally with his frequently misunderstood preoccupations as a painter taking precedence. Incidentally, the fact that several of these critics expressed dismay over that emphasis and saw it as devaluing Richter’s contribution indicates how much in denial they remain despite all the artist has said about the importance he himself has placed on painting. It also shows how stuck they are in the now dated “avant-garde” conviction that painting is not an inherently conceptual medium. In short they purport to be Richter’s true advocates while implicitly rejecting his heavily conflicted but still firm working premise.

David Reed’s submission is particularly disappointing. First, Reed complains that certain rooms lacked the unity of the ones devoted to the “October 18,1977” series and the Saint Louis Museum of Art’s cycle of abstractions. His example is the gallery given over to gray paintings, which were selected precisely because they reveal with maximum concision the considerable range of scale and painterly attack that works widely thought to be downbeat and uniform actually encompass. (That the room was small and could accommodate only three paintings was a constraint mandated by the “incredible shrinking MoMA” of 2002, which no amount of wishful thinking on Reed’s part could have altered.) Moreover, situated in a gallery around the corner from two allover “brown” works that evoke different aspects of monochrome painting in similarly provocative ways, the ensemble of gray “abstract pictures”—to use Richter’s own term—inventories in a focused way the artist’s dialogues and disputes with Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, and Robert Ryman, among others. A painter of “abstract pictures” himself, Reed should have recognized these correspondences—and so seized on their relevance to the arguments advanced by the exhibition as a whole with respect to the formal and conceptual strategies of Richter’s painting in this period. All this seems to have escaped Reed.

Second, Reed criticizes the show for including too few “Color Chart” paintings and maintains that of the two present one is aesthetically out of context, the other chronologically misplaced and “exiled” to the stairwell. In fact the 1966 “Color Chart” was exactly where it belonged chronologically, mingled among other mid-’60s works and the last thing one saw before entering the gallery containing the sharply contrasting Ema (Nude Descending the Staircase), which was also painted in 1966. Furthermore this early quasi abstraction was straight across the room from a small shadow painting of 1968 that satirizes Minimalism in ways similar to the “Color Charts” by conjuring an image of a window out of nested white and gray bars. The work was also catercorner to Egyptian Landscape, 1964, which employed pronounced white grid margins similar to those in the “Color Chart” (although these were strikingly asymmetrical in comparison) yet used them to frame photorealist pictures. Triangulating these three canvases in one gallery diagrams the basic shift from readymade picture to readymade abstraction to pseudo-abstraction in a setting otherwise elaborating the range of photographic images that then preoccupied the artist, of which Ema, in the next gallery, is the most Duchampian and anti-Duchampian at once. As far as the larger “Color Chart” of 1974 goes, it was deliberately located at the bottom of the stairs from the second to the third floor as a counter to 48 Portraits, which was installed around the walls at the top. Both works play on enumeration, modularity, and difference; both imply but abstain from infinite expansion; one points toward and denies utopian models of nonobjective painting; the other invokes but suspends idealized icons of humanistic culture in indeterminate pictorial and historical space.

I could cite more examples of Reed’s inattention to the logic of the installation, but they would be redundant. However, considering his tendency to breeze past the works actually on view while composing his own checklist, it would seem that his ambition as a viewer was to keep score while playing curator rather than to read closely the intersecting patterns right there in front of him. Little wonder that he couldn’t divine the dialectical continuities and ruptures of Richter’s art as they were laid out painting by painting, grouping by overlapping grouping. Reed is of course at liberty to creatively “misread” all this. But rather than speculate on the possible misunderstanding of the general public on behalf of whom he is not qualified to speak, Reed might have but did not offer fresh ideas based on his own practice as a painter.

If Reed’s quick-take reactions made one wish for more imaginative engagement with the work exhibited, the ex cathedra pronouncements of Rosalind Krauss are another matter entirely. Imperious as always and oblivious as usual to the theoretically inconvenient physical realities of art as well as the critical insights of anyone not beholden to her, Krauss’s intervention is, typically, a thinly disguised power play designed to stake out territory for herself and her coterie. It should be noted that this is the second MoMA show in a row that she has thus targeted in this magazine, the first being her even more incoherent trashing of the Giacometti retrospective. But based on these two recent exercises in attempted one-upmanship, the always polemical but once thought-provoking Krauss has entered a new phase of her career: self parody.

Krauss begins by suggesting that the Richter exhibition failed in comparison to a hypothetical Jasper Johns retrospective, her familiarity with Johns’s work thus being used to establish her credentials as a connoisseur while distracting from the more important fact that she has never written on Richter before or the context from which he comes, or for that matter written anything crucial about contemporary painting of the last two decades, during which Richter’s ascendancy occurred. Having created the fiction of a Johns show to justify her assertion that the contents of the ideal Richter exhibition would be equally self-evident—and is this really true of Johns or any artist of comparable prolificacy and range?—Krauss then invents a Richter to suit her scant knowledge of the artist and his milieu. For Krauss he is a quintessential “outsider”—but this half-truth quickly escalates, by way of Mars and parachutes, into the unintentionally comical metaphor of the artist as a “permanent snorkeler experiencing everything on earth through gallons of undulating water." It is hard to conceive of Richter identifying with this bizarre conceit. However, it is not at all hard to see it as a projection of Krauss’s own predicament as a writer, who, coming in from nowhere and plainly out of her depth, flails wildly about trying to gain leverage in a critical discourse in which she has had no previous part and, it would appear, only the most hurried preparation.

That Krauss is central to her own fantasy is plain from her insistently first-person locutions: “To my way of thinking,” “My impulse would have been,” “I would also have included,” etc. At first this refrain reminds one of Bert Lahr intoning “If I were King of the Forest,” but, with the unmistakable background echoes of competitive art-world politics, it is quickly recognizable as the voice of a self-appointed spoiler.

And what do the alternatives Krauss proposes tell us about her actual grasp of Richter’s work, or for that matter her abilities as an exhibition maker? Like Daniel Soutif, Krauss complained that Atlas was not part of the retrospective. In fact, the first fifteen sections of this already vast and still-growing index of images were originally to have been included, and those fifteen are reproduced in the catalogue. However, as the project developed Richter became increasingly worried about the archival risks of exhibiting these sections. He also grew in the conviction that Atlas was a work unto itself and should be shown only in its entirety, which he understood was impossible. Therefore it was agreed that none of Atlas would be requested.

Still, Krauss and others blithely persist in the delusion that somehow it should have been squeezed in. Just to give an idea of what that would have entailed: Atlas occupied approximately seven thousand square feet of gallery space when it was presented at Dia in 1995. That would have required increasing the already large scale of the Richter exhibition by the equivalent of more than half of the existing third-floor galleries the exhibition already filled at MoMA. Or it would have dictated radical cuts in the checklist. Neither option was practical or desirable.

In a similar vein, Krauss laments the absence of Streak (in Red), 1980, a mural painting she asserts without argument is key to Richter’s oeuvre. While the painting is a technical tour de force and a bravura response to Abstract Expressionist notions of the painterly sublime—in particular those of Barnett Newman, an artist Richter admires—I do not agree with her on its significance, although, as she neglects to point out, I do discuss these issues in the catalogue. In any case Krauss cavalierly ignores the logistical implications of extracting this commissioned work from its site in Germany and having it shipped to New York and the three additional stops on the exhibition tour. I assume Krauss seized on this painting after perusing Richter’s catalogue raisonné, and I further assume that in her excitement over what she breathlessly describes as a “two-thousand-centimeter-long” work she failed to translate this into numbers that would render it more concrete. For the record, the painting measures six feet two and one-half inches by sixty-five feet seven and one-quarter inches. Simple calculations reveal that its overall area (58,453 square inches) is almost three times the size of Jackson Pollock’s One (Number One) (22,260 square inches) and, by way of further comparison, larger even than Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (54,489 square inches). Yet while Raft of the Medusa is unquestionably the great painting of the artist’s career, it would surprise no one if an American Géricault show were mounted without it; and, for what’s it worth, the equally important but much smaller Pollock almost never leaves MoMA. If the exact inch-to-square-inch correlation of pictures seems absurd, consider the greater absurdity of Krauss’s initial claim.

Next Krauss wonders why the MoMA show didn’t include the whole of the installation of paintings and mirrors Richter created for Documenta IX in 1992. Here Krauss’s disregard for practical issues is matched by her art-historical ignorance of the status of the ensemble she pretends to champion. Richter’s Documenta IX installation was a site-related project for an open-air pavilion, designed by Paul Robbrecht and Hilda Daem, made of steel, glass, and wood paneling and erected especially for that occasion. The pavilion no longer exists. Nor could it be re-created for exhibition purposes inside a museum building. Thus her point is moot, but in her haste to make it Krauss apparently overlooks or at any rate fails to mention the fact that three works from that show—Flowers, Gray Mirror, and Abstract Picture—were in the MoMA exhibition. Incidentally, when added to the space required for the other things gleaned from her catalogue shopping, Krauss’s suggestion of the whole group of 1992 Documenta works would have yet further ballooned the show.

As to her contention that my “failure to find or present such central ideas in the Richter retrospective [was] monumental,” all one can say is that Krauss dearly tramped through the show without bothering to connect the dots. For starters, from the beginning Richter’s earliest experiments with and dissection and reconfiguration of photo-and Informel painting is plainly summarized by the examples of Mouth, Table (along with its never before exhibited maquette, which is emblematic of the kind of material in Atlas), The Coffin Bearers, and Stag. In the following galleries his assimilation of and departures from Warhol are represented in works like Death, Mrs. Marlowe, Ferrari, High Diver I, Cow, and Eight Student Nurses, alongside his sometimes Warholian but in other respects very un-Warholian treatment of death, as can be seen in The Coffin Bearers, Death, Uncle Rudi, Mustangs, Bombers, Phantom Jets, and then the cul-de-sac second-floor gallery with the two “Helga Matura” paintings, Woman with Umbrella and Eight Student Nurses. The last four works foreshadow the “October 18,1977”’ cycle, just as the two uncannily light-suffused “toilet paper” paintings also on the second floor prefigure the misty vanitas-like Skull on the third. By arranging work in loose thematic clusters—the war images, the images of women associated with death—and providing some early “Pop” pictures as visual references for later “neo-classical” or “neo-Romantic” canvases, the first seven galleries of the show thus set the stage for a new reading of what critics and curators have previously tended to treat as a deliberately arbitrary neo-Dada or postmodern grab bag of images. All this is lost on Krauss, who says she could not find the thread of the show, thus exposing the degree to which she is unfamiliar with the overall fabric of Richter’s production and the ways it has been laid out in the past. What’s monumental is her insensitivity to visual data.

Clearly Krauss needs to have things spelled out. And that is just what she recommends. However the solution she offers is an excursion into surreal pedantry combining the techniques of a museum education program run amok and the graduate seminar from hell. Krauss proposes that the works in the exhibition should have been regrouped under rubrics such as Monochrome, Deductive Structure, Aura, Simulacrum, and so on. This in effect is a reprise of the experiment she and Yve-Alain Bois ran at the Pompidou when they mounted a survey of modern art hung on the “hook” of Georges Bataille’s term l’informe. The result, in the estimation of many observers, was an exhibition whose formlessness imitated rather than illuminated its title—and, naturally, a book that afforded Krauss and Bois the opportunity to showcase their sweeping reinterpretations of Bataille’s concept. But does Krauss really believe that artists create their work only so that critics can repackage them as ornaments of their pet theses? Does she really think that Richter himself would have countenanced such a misappropriation of his work—and thanked her for her didactic brilliance? While we’re at it, why not have curators of this pedagogic bent record their classes or read their lectures aloud on the Acousti- guide; “Now proceed to the next gallery, titled ‘Aura,’ and you will be told all about Walter Benjamin.” And, in the spirit of audience response polls, why not administer a pop quiz at the end to see if the public was clever enough to understand the lessons taught?

I prefer to let the work speak for itself to the fullest extent possible, and trust that alert viewers will not need to be informed that they are in the presence of monochrome paintings when the works themselves are manifestly of one color. Where more information is necessary, it should be provided not by banner wall labels and intrusive text panels but by something viewers can read at their discretion. There was such material readily available at the entrance to the exhibition: a few paragraphs introducing Richter and a free illustrated brochure that addressed key aspects of his artistic thinking and development. There was also not one but two catalogues. The first contained a long and comprehensive description and analysis of Richter’s career and production. The second was devoted entirely to a study of the political background and artistic significance of the “October 18, 1977” cycle. Krauss passes over these publications without a word, though given her misleading and mean-spirited assessment of the exhibition itself I guess I should be grateful. Maybe she simply didn’t read either book, in which case it is easier to understand why she was so perplexed by what she saw. In any case this oversight is striking when she concludes her litany of complaints about the show’s supposed lacunae by saying that “book-length analysis equal to the complexity of the artist’s oeuvre will also help fill this gap. “The turn of phrase “equal to the complexity of Richter’s oeuvre” is, of course, her evasive way of dismissing catalogues she has not deigned to tell her readers about.

But the tip-off to what she is up to is an earlier reference to Richter’s “most important critic, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh.” As it happens Buchloh is soon to publish a long-awaited monograph on the artist. He is also a member of Krauss’s inner circle. Putting these two statements together in context it becomes obvious that Krauss is warming up the crowd for that event, even as she stacks the critical deck in Buchloh’s favor by consigning the exhibition books to obscurity. But Krauss does her academic comrade-in-arms no service and his work no honor by using her “review” of the Richter exhibition to plug his project, though logrolling among members of Krauss’s entourage goes hand in hand with pretending that the work of those independent of or at odds with them does not exist—except, that is, when it serves as a straw man that can be immolated for the sake of the cause.

Buchloh is unquestionably among Richter’s most important critics, and he is certainly the critic closest to the artist. He is someone from whose writing I have learned much and whose ideas I respect even when I part company with him. Moreover, I share aspects of Buchloh’s experience of the ’60s and ’70s, crucial years for Richter and for our separate approaches to his work, and I have since spent much of my time working through the sociopolitical criticism of that era. Informed by these parallels and divergences, the two books I have written on Richter testify to my regard for Buchloh’s work as well as my disagreements with it. Beyond that I have indicated the ways in which Richter’s roughly thirty-year engagement with Buchloh, including his dissent from much of Buchloh’s interpretation of his work, have been an important catalyst in the artist’s thinking and practice. To some extent, therefore, my essays have sought to engage a public conversation with a colleague who knows and admires the same artist I do but views him from another angle. In an ill-conceived act of protectiveness Krauss has injected herself into that situation and surreptitiously presumed to fight Buchloh’s battles for him, thus making a possibly fruitful but already difficult exchange even less likely.

Ultimately, the most revealing criticism of an exhibition and of an artist’s work comes from artists. Halley’s and Struth’s reactions are in that sense the tip of an iceberg, the full dimensions of which I have been able to gauge from things said to me in galleries, on the street, and over the phone by artists of different generations and very different aesthetic allegiances and practices. Some have greeted Richter enthusiastically; others have doubted and otherwise resisted him. Either way the net result is that the discourse around painting and everything else that Richter’s work impinges on has been invigorated by his increased visibility in America. Argument is the essence of that discourse; intellectually scrupulous intensity is the tone Richter’s work demands. One can hear such argument all around, despite the tinny sound of art-world backbiting. The next indicator of how deeply Richter has made his mark and how profoundly he has made us rethink matters will be in the work that artists produce in the future.

Robert Storr
Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rosalind Krauss responds:

Robert Storr’s fulsome response to Artforum’s opening of a dialogue on the Richter exhibition shows indeed that “self-parody” is catching.

Dialogue involves a willingness to compete in the marketplace of ideas, conceptual frameworks, hypotheses. It is the form at which William Rubin, with whom the present staff of MoMA did its apprenticeship, was a supreme expert. This is why he staged the second volume of the catalogue accompanying the Braque/Picasso exhibition as a seminar of competing ideas about the meaning of Cubism, with the full debate recorded for publication. “Primitivism,” his treatment of the relation between tribal culture and twentieth-century art, was likewise a showcase of competing presentations, both in the exhibition’s catalogue and in the conference accompanying the exhibition. So much for Storr’s sneer at the “graduate seminar from hell.”

Storr’s only riposte to my contention that Richter’s position as outsider to modernism enabled a deconstructive response to its canon is to take refuge in chronology, a position consistent with his support of Painting with a capital P. His notion of Painting, apparent in his treatment of the work of Robert Ryman as well as Richter, is that it is a kind of emanation of the aesthetic organism as it produces work out of its experiences, like the silkworm spinning its thread. Such identification of maker and artifact does not allow for the irony toward the very nature of the artifact so evident in the practice of both artists. Johns’s own irony toward the medium took the form of his “devices,” as in Device Circle and Periscore (for Hart Crane). Richter’s use of squeegees in his abstractions is obviously derived from Johns’s device. Interestingly Storr has nothing to say concerning this connection.

David Reed responds:

I am surprised at the tone of Robert Storr’s response to my comments, which I made and now continue in the spirit of the “active participation” he invites from viewers of his exhibitions. I support his advocacy of painting as a “conceptual activity.”

I did see some of the connections between works that Storr mentions in his letter—and I praised these kinds of connections in my initial comments for Artforum. These “intersecting patterns” between individual paintings presented the early black-and-white photographic paintings in a refreshed context. Storr’s methodology was less successful for the “Gray” paintings, the “Color Charts,” and other groups of abstract paintings. I do not have to be “playing curator,” as Storr claims, to say this. I say it as one painter commenting on another who deals explicitly with issues of installation and presentation.

Some of Richter’s paintings are conceived as groups. The paintings in these groups reveal themselves best when seen not as individual works in a network of relationships but when presented as a group. This allows the paintings to strongly relate to each other and, in turn, to relate as a group to the whole space of the room. I have often seen Richter’s work installed in this way, both in exhibitions and in collections: in “Metropolis” in 1991 and “The Broken Mirror” in 1993, the “Gray” paintings in the Bonn retrospective of 1993-94 and in the collection of the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, and the “Color Charts” in the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld. This approach is a tested method of presentation. It is important to try to find better ways to contextualize paintings, and I wholeheartedly support Storr’s desire to devise an innovative, appropriate method of hanging the MoMA retrospective. His exhibition and scholarship showed us new aspects of Richter’s work. But not all experiments are completely successful, and his method of presentation benefited some works more than others.

I was especially surprised at the MoMA installation of Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo. I have always seen these two busts (at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, or in Richter’s retrospective in Bonn, for example) standing in a room with wall paintings in a particular Palermo style. Thus, I felt the installation at MoMA, which set the busts on either side of a doorway without the wall paintings, was only a part of the work and overlooked a concern raised in the very title. Isolated, these busts were in danger of losing their questioning relationship to the monuments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of “great men,” which they resemble. Also, the incomplete work could give no hint of what was an innovation at the time—a new kind of installation painting, taking on then current developments in Minimal and post-Minimal sculpture. Eyes closed, Palermo and Richter’s heads are covered with gray paint. They seem to be made of paint and, in the full installation, face each other in a space charged by color. They “live in their heads,” painters through and through; but they also live outside their heads, in a space that is painting.

Besides functioning in individual relationships, paintings can activate a physical space, taking on sculptural and installation qualities. This is a pioneering aspect of Richter’s work and a crucial reason for his importance to current painting.