PRINT December 2020

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, four parts. Installation view. Photo: Chris Heins.

LATE JANUARY, a bitter wind, and we are going to Auschwitz. Before the wide Birkenau gatehouse, alongside the train tracks to the crematoria, sit the presidents of Germany and Israel, the kings of Spain and the Netherlands; also some two hundred men and women wearing blue-and-white-striped kerchiefs or hats, very old: the last survivors. Marian Turski, ninety-three, a Polish journalist, standing at the gate, says almost nothing about what he endured here. Instead, he tells the assembly of the earlier humiliations of the 1930s, how people barred from shops and swimming pools soon became “people who spread germs, diseases, and epidemics.” He talks about the American South in the ’60s, where his fellow marchers to Montgomery, Alabama, asked him if another Holocaust could happen in the US. He told them yes; tells his American grandchildren yes, now, if they stand by. “Because,” says Turski in front of the gate through which his skeletal, seventy-pound body was force-marched in January 1945, “if you become complacent, before you know it, some kind of Auschwitz will suddenly appear from nowhere.”

In the weeks before the New York coronavirus outbreak, I spent whole days looking at images from the death camp: wire photos from the memorial for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation; influencers’ shocking selfies with an Auschwitz geotag; historical documentation of the facility’s largest subcamp, Birkenau, where approximately one million people were murdered, more than 90 percent of them Jews. But the four photographs I have looked at hardest were at the Met Breuer, in the culminating gallery of “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All”: the final exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s unhappy satellite space, years in the making, vanished in days. At its dark heart were four paintings called Birkenau, which the German artist completed in 2014: abstract pictures, each eight-and-a-half feet tall, mostly gray, tipped with magenta and prasine green, uncommonly chafed and divoted. Beside them were four blurry black-and-white source photographs, which Richter initially tried to paint, then squeegeed clean. They were shot in secret by a member of the Sonderkommando in August 1944, and they depict, barely, a forest and a bonfire; depict, barely, a heap of burning bodies and women being marched naked to the gas chambers.

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau (detail), 2014, oil on canvas, four parts, each 102 3⁄8“ × 78 3⁄4”.

“Painting After All”—curated and installed with real wit by Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s contemporary chief, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, the art historian and frequent Richter foil—opened March 4 and closed eight days later; a planned tour to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was canceled. The painter, eighty-eight years old and unable to travel, never saw the show. I did, four times. It was a subdued but precisely crafted act of leave-taking, disinclined to triumphalism, much nimbler than Robert Storr’s 2002 Richter exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, ranging across two whole floors of the Breuer even though it contained about half as many works. This was emphatically not a retrospective. Among their surprises, Wagstaff and Buchloh stinted on the fan favorites, omitting Richter’s 48 Portraits of 1971–72, his 1994 epithalamium Reader, and “October 18, 1977,” his fifteen-painting cycle of the Baader-Meinhof gang from 1988 (though those are now on view at MOMA as part of the new collection rotation). They gave an unexpected prominence, instead, to Richter’s mirrors and glass panels, as well as to his digital copies and ink-jet prints, among them a series reproducing rare early abstractions from his youth in East Germany.

And far more than the 2002 show—more, too, than the retrospectives of 2011 at Tate Modern in London or 2014 at the Fondation Beyeler outside Basel—“Painting After All” placed the Holocaust at its very core: spatially, with the Birkenau cycle in the central gallery of the Breuer’s third floor, and philosophically, by casting Richter’s sixty-year career as a festival of negation. The staticky Uncle Rudi, 1965, less than three feet tall, hung next to Breuer’s massive trapezoidal window, allowing the exiled Jewish architect to literally illuminate Richter’s most nonresponsive evaluation of Nazism and family. The memory of the Holocaust rippled through the fourth-floor galleries of seascapes and portraits, whose coldness here testified to the postwar bankruptcy of each pictorial mode; rippled, next, through the third-floor presentation of the Forest abstractions, 2005, which explicitly linked the German Romantic tradition to the Final Solution. (Birkenau, site of Europe’s largest mass murder, means “birch grove.”) The didactics, throughout, made few concessions to Richter beginners, and in places their Adorno-steeped pessimism made me laugh out loud. When the grand “Cage” sextet appeared in 2011 at Tate Modern (Wagstaff’s previous bailiwick), the wall text trilled Englishly that the layering of greens and yellows “evokes the surface of a gently running river.” Here, the same paintings were glossed as a response to the allover fields of Abstract Expressionism, “in a present where the humanistic aspirations originally associated with them have no more relevance.”

Gerhard Richter, Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, oil on canvas. Installation view. Photo: Chris Heins.

In “Painting After All,” the death camp stood plainly as the disavowed term linking the family portrait to the seascape, the forest, the mirror, the wiped abstractions. Not an uncommon technique for postwar German artists; think of W. G. Sebald, whose novels hopscotched among disparate locales (zoo, train station, castle, factory) to outline the unrepresentable camp at the center. But just as the GPS-enabled smartphone has obscured the erudition of Sebald’s peregrinations, Richter’s metonymies ring differently when the dominant image epistemology has shifted from the sorted Atlas to the searchable image stream. I think it’s this that made me suspicious of the negative dialectics of the Birkenau gallery, which contained not only the four abstractions and the source photographs but also a mirror, a pre-squeegee gray abstraction, and, to top it off, four ink-jet replicas of the scoured paintings: a subsequent term, Turski’s second Auschwitz. In that gallery in early March, with freshly washed hands but as yet no mask, I cycled through a host of emotions: confusion, discontent, then real anger, especially at the inclusion of the dreadful photos. Maybe it was all the searching for images I’d done for the war’s anniversary, but I couldn’t shake the feeling (as I wrote in a review for the New York Times) that Birkenau was too easy, couldn’t agree that “gas chambers + squeegee” sums to anything at all. Nonrepresentation could not be this simple; a squeegeed pile of Jewish corpses is not an erased de Kooning; canceling is not all an abstract picture can do.

What has Richter proved these past six decades, if not that the choice to represent or to blur, to approach history through figures or through abstractions, is a false one?

Gerhard Richter, Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi), 1965, oil on canvas, 34 1⁄4 × 19 3⁄4".

THE MIDDLE OF MARCH, unseasonably warm, and another negation. This exhibition about the ethics of looking became an exhibition no one could see; the Auschwitz photographs whose visibility left me so uneasy were withdrawn. Wagstaff did what she could, discussing Richter’s influence in Zoom chats with Cecily Brown, Thomas Struth, and Jordan Casteel; the Met’s website screened Corinna Belz’s 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting and posted a YouTube walkthrough, with close-ups of the horrible photos, backed by an Arvo Pärt soundtrack. But on the OLED screen, even the most pitted painterly surfaces get smoothed out, Huawei and Samsung software autosharpens Richter’s blurs, and history has to be processed through the front-facing camera. Shut inside this year, I watched thousands of housebound and very sincere adolescents on TikTok undertake a #HolocaustChallenge, donning striped pajamas and applying gaunt-cheek filters to cosplay exterminated Jewish teens. Call it cultural poverty meeting algorithmic Pavlovianism, call it whatever you like, but these kids do at least affirm that the question of whether we can or should represent the camps has cracked completely after seventy-five years, and is no longer the exclusive province of artists and intellectuals. This coming decade, as Turski said before the Birkenau gate, is the decade when the Holocaust definitively passes from living to mediated memory. The challenge on the horizon is not how to remember it “correctly,” but whether any “correct” remembrance can have force amid an absolute flood of them, some indelible, some mendacious, many kitsch, many stupid, all equidistant from the search bar.

In an art world that has so thoroughly abandoned Adornian aesthetics, whose current vogues for small-scale charity works and affirmative traditionalist portraiture would leave the Frankfurt School aghast, the prohibition on Holocaust imagery has somehow endured as a universal and fundamental constraint. Yet as early as June 1945, when Władysław Strzemiński began his wrenching collage series “To My Friends, the Jews,” artists were depicting the camps—and artist-survivors, of course, have never been obligated to withhold. (One of the best shows I saw this year, in pre-pandemic Madrid, was the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía’s retrospective of the death-camp paintings of Ceija Stojka, an Austrian artist of the Roma minority who survived Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen.) Anyway, if you are a true-blue Adornian, isn’t all European art after 1945 nothing but a highbrow #HolocaustChallenge? And what has Richter proved these past six decades, if not that the choice to represent or to blur, to approach history through figures or through abstractions, is a false one? The achievement of his career has been to affirm that all paintings fail before history, that photorealistic portrayals and squeegeed eliminations are equally fraudulent, and that despite all that, an artist in moral paralysis—what Sebald called Schwindel, “vertigo”—can and must go on working anyway. Depicting Auschwitz or disclaiming such depictions therefore does not seem so clean a choice to me, and hardly as important as an ethical engagement with all images, representational or not.

View of “Gerhard Richter: The Birkenau Paintings,” 2020, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Left: Sonderkommando photographs of KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Germany, summer 1944. Right: Birkenau, 2014. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.

EARLY SEPTEMBER, sweat beneath my mask, and Wagstaff and her team have moved the Birkenau paintings from the shuttered Breuer building to the Met’s Lehman Wing. There, I find myself appreciating them less as triumphant negations than as perseverant, surprisingly hopeful late works by an artist as suspicious as ever of his own drive to paint. I still have real doubts about exhibiting the photos alongside the paintings, and how the former encourage a disgusting Where’s Waldo? search for the camouflaged Jews in the latter. But after months when I saw art only online, I can see the squeegee as more than an eraser, see how the vertical gray gashes of the first Birkenau painting and the stuttering reds in the top half of the fourth exceed their negated imagery even as they also deny the possibility of virtuosic representation. (Starting with a representational image and ending up with an abstraction is nothing exceptional for Richter; at least one of the Baader-Meinhof deaths also got squeegeed out.) For the fact is that every painting in Richter’s meticulous catalogue might as well be called Birkenau, and the danger of “some kind of Auschwitz” lies not in our images but in our algorithms, looms not when tasteless remembrances make us forget the first one but when the systems that regulate these memories leave us incapable of acting or thinking. All Richter has done, since his defection to West Germany in 1961, is model how to act and think when all roads seem exhausted, and with the Birkenau paintings especially he has harnessed his uncertainty and doubt to find a little space for hope. They are paintings, after all, and between individualistic bombast and absolute negativity are the worn and crevassed surfaces of a painter who has not given up.

Jason Farago is an art critic for the New York Times and the editor of Out of Practice: Ten Issues of “Even,” 2015–18 (Motto Books, 2018).