PRINT May 2023



Gerhard Richter in his studio with Spiegel (Mirror), 1981, and Abstraktes Bild (Faust) (Abstract Painting [Faust]), 1980, Düsseldorf, 1981. © Gerhard Richter.

IN MARCH, New York’s David Zwirner opened its first solo exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work since the painter’s defection to the megagallery from Marian Goodman, his gallerist of thirty-seven years. The show featured fourteen of his last paintings, completed in 2016 and 2017, made before the artist, now ninety-one, declared his retirement from painting. It also contained seventy-six drawings—the products of the practice that replaced the physically arduous process of painting for Richter—and a single glass-and-steel sculpture. If one were looking for a kind of retrospective, or a coda and summation of the artist’s career, this exhibition might have disappointed: It was, in many ways, just another Richter show, which is to say it was still quite remarkable. Often a painter’s final works will show their style stripped down to its bare essentials, a move into monochrome, or another statement of completion, but Richter’s last abstractions, although they show subtle developments and variations from his previous work, don’t boldly declare, These are they. This is it. I have figured it out. Such a flourish would feel unnatural for a painter who has made the public performance of skepticism and self-doubt his métier. This show felt more like a continuation than a conclusion of his practice. Still, it’s possible to find, in this simultaneous refusal and acceptance of the idea of a final painting, his legacy as an artist. 

Eleven years ago, I saw the retrospective “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. At the time, I wanted to be an abstract painter, and I believed Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder were the highest accomplishments in that genre in the contemporary world. I viewed his monumental “squeegee paintings,” with their accretions and removals of pigment, with a reverence verging on worship: The sublime was still possible to convey in the medium of painting. My date was not moved; she said the works looked like something that would be in the lobby of a bank. At the time, this comment seemed to me philistine, if not altogether blasphemous. But I have to say now there was a lot more to it than I wanted to admit. 

Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (Faust), 1980, oil on canvas. Installation view, Deutsche Bank, New York, 2012. Photo: Gail Worley. © Gerhard Richter.

At least one of Richter’s paintings actually did occupy the lobby of a bank. The painter’s massive 1980 triptych Abstraktes Bild (Faust) once adorned the lobby of Deutsche Bank’s Wall Street offices. (The troubled financial institution has since had to sell the Richter, along with a good deal of its hoard of other fine artworks.) Faust is one of the artist’s “smooth” abstractions, made before he had fully developed his squeegee-and-trowel technique of layering and removing paint, leaving behind its striated and rough surfaces. Faust’s slick visual language is pulled from the world of commercial art and illustration and balanced with aspects of gestural abstraction, forming a synthetic combination of Pop art and AbEx. The garish palette—one friend compared it to a Trapper Keeper—seems to announce the arrival of the tacky excesses of 1980s Wall Street. One could interpret the painting as a sly parody of that era’s neo-expressionist schwarmerei. But there is something more there, too, a hint of the theosophist’s desire to depict thoughts and emotions in visual form. The intimation of the occult fits its title, taken, of course, from the Faust legend, most famously adapted by Goethe, about the alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for supernatural powers and hidden knowledge. There’s a photo, reproduced in more than one monograph on Richter, of the artist in his studio standing in front of his giant mirror pieces; Faust can also be seen in that same reflection, hanging behind him, perhaps suggesting some identification with that tale’s doomed striver after the infinite. And like Goethe’s Faust, Richter forswears the comforts of self-satisfaction.

View of “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” 2012, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. From left: Abstraktes Bild, 1990; Abstraktes Bild, 1980; Betty, 1988. Photo: David von Becker. © Gerhard Richter.

His studio jottings reveal that Richter is divided between a materialistic Weltschmerz that can verge on despair and a high idealism that seeks metaphysical transcendence through art. In his lectures on abstract painting, Kirk Varnedoe makes Richter sound more like Mephisto—“the spirit that denies”—than Faust when he calls Richter “the man of negation” whose “abstraction comes from a climate of dead cynicism and irony.” That’s a little hard to square with the soaring statements that the artist himself has made from time to time on behalf of abstract painting, which sound more like negative theology than negation out of dissolution or despair:

Abstract pictures . . . make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate. We denote this reality in negative terms: the unknown, the incomprehensible, the infinite. And for thousands of years we have been depicting it through surrogate images such as heaven and hell, gods and devils. In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible. . . . Art is the highest form of hope. 

These sentiments might sound naive or even embarrassing to some. But blacker moods can also befall the artist. Just a few years later, Richter would write in his studio diary: “Art is wretched, cynical, stupid, helpless, confusing—a mirror-image of our own spiritual impoverishment, our state of forsakenness and loss. We have lost the great ideas, the Utopias; we have lost all faith, everything that creates meaning.” These lines come just ten days after this entry: “Art is a pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God.” So who is the real Richter: the wide-eyed mystic or the bitter skeptic? Richter achieved success, artistically and commercially, by finding a space between those stances: There is something there for both the seeker and the cynic. Or rather, his work reflects the realization that they are aspects of the same form of subjectivity in different moments. 

Richter is divided between a materialistic Weltschmerz that can verge on despair and a high idealism that seeks metaphysical transcendence.

The works on display at David Zwirner suggested Richter’s continued investment in the via negativa. The paintings were constructed through the obiliteration, as much as through the building-up, of form: They were scraped, wiped away, smeared, cut into. In the strongest examples, these removals started to produce an illusionistic depth of field, connecting the abstract works to Richter’s engagement with Romantic landscape and the continued possibility of painting to reflect profundity. The drawings also made extensive use of erasure and smudging, of chance flows and spills of ink, to create forms that seem suspended between coalescence and dissolution. The glass-paned sculpture felt like an attempt to represent absence itself: One’s reflections appeared spectral in the glass, without characteristics or individual qualities. One couldn’t help but sense here a commentary on both the screen and the alienating glass-and-steel architecture of financial capitalism. But it was the suite of ink-jet reproductions of lyrical abstract drawings, collectively titled mood, 2022, that seemed to pose the central question of Richter’s work: Can we continue to have something like a spiritual existence, an inner life, while accepting the conditions of technology? 

View of “Gerhard Richter,” 2023, David Zwirner, New York. From left: Abstraktes Bild, 2017; Abstraktes Bild, 2017. © Gerhard Richter.

Richter once described the state of humanity as being “exposed on a kind of refuse heap.” His gambit has always been to embrace, rather than violently resist, modern life and the rule of machines. In one studio note, he set down a program for himself: “‘The centre cannot hold’: Be a reaction machine, unstable, indiscriminate, dependent. Sacrifice oneself to objectivity.” In another, he likened his strategy to General Kutuzov’s in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, his way of “not intervening, of planning nothing, but watching to see how things worked out, choosing the right moment to put his weight behind a development that was beginning of its own accord. Passivity was that general’s genius.” His work seeks to continue to make great, even monumental art by working with rather than against the refuse heap of endlessly progressing technological civilization: from a form-world of broken LCD screens, television static, damaged dot matrix printers, broken printed circuits, faulty screen prints, and discarded photographs; from images of terror, erosion, and ecological disaster. For Richter, this is its own Romantic ruin or sublime landscape.

As we enter a new stage of technological development and destruction with artificial intelligence, Richter’s work may not provide us with a center, but it can perhaps point to a way to keep going, accepting there and rejecting here, and above all continuing, finding new possibilities. As the chorus of angels tells us at the end of Faust, Part 2, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.” 

John Ganz is a writer living in New York.