New York

Gerhard Richter

Onnasch Gallery

Gerhard Richter raises questions of implicit value structure—not whether you like, but accept his premises. Richter’s paintings contradict successful contemporary, and especially American art over the last 15 years or so. He challenges the “single idea” approach of artists who take narrow areas of inquiry and explore them obsessively, an inquiry cutting across ideological grounds and applicable to all manner of artists. He rejects the single idea, choosing instead broad swathes of inquiry which he explores in a wide variety of ways.

Richter not only alternates between figuration and abstraction, but he also paints differently in both these modes. Sloppy expressionism and meticulous classicism coexist. Seeing Richter’s extraordinary mix is bewildering. Although all the paintings are large—they range from big, just under life-size to gigantic, just over 20’ long—you have to adjust from private to environmental scale from painting to painting. Color also varies from painting in monochrome—in homage to the value range of the black-and-white photograph—to a scrubbed and often muddy three-part color.

But it’s really the range of subjects combined with these variations in scale, color, and mark-making which make his paintings look so different. They cover a period from 1962 to the present, from the painting of a deer in ’63 with its out-of-focus deer, and in-focus branches, (Hirsch); a cow in ’64 with the word cow—in German—lettered beneath the smooth Realist painting of the cow itself (Kuh); a family portrait painted the same year in gestural slabs of black and white from a holiday snapshot (Familie am Meer); high-kicking cabaret dancers in ’66 with the paint streaked in an out-of-focus way over the whole surface, this time a chalky gray (Tanzerinnen); a seascape in ’68 with an ironic division into two of sea and sky—painted trompe-l’oeil in low-key color with meticulous detail (Seestuck); a huge aerial cityscape also from the same year instead in drippy gestural black-and-white slabs (Stadtbild P1.); a three-part abstract triptych in ’72, over 20’ long consisting of fields of gray, spaghettilike scribbles (Ohne Titel); to three Minimal looking paintings of ’73 with their gray Mardenish smooth-surfaced impastoes (Grau).

What is one to make of this incredible potpourri of subjects and approaches? Is Richter’s position, as some have suggested, a radical one? Is he one of the best painters in Europe? Is his denial of artistic style even plausible? By painting in so many styles rather than accepting the prevalent notion of stylistic continuity, is not Richter making stylistic discontinuity his own consistent style? Richter, like all gallery artists, is a token radical. What he gains in radicality on the swings, he loses on the roundabouts. You can’t have your ideological cake and eat it too. Richter is playing a particular game just by painting, he merely underlines it by showing his paintings—just as I play the game by reviewing them. Even as he rejects stylistic continuity, he paradoxically accepts one of the main premises associated with stylistic continuity—that is, doing a lot of one thing. From the evidence of Richter’s Venice Biennale catalogue, his output is prodigious. He may jump around stylistically, but he covers his moves by sheer quantity. “I may be a gadfly,” he seems to say, “but I’m a professional.”

Richter’s cow painting Kuh, with its mix of image and word, which some critics are fond of pointing out was done only a couple of years later than Warhol’s 129 Die epitomizes the problems of Richter’s paintings. I know the Kuh dates are good. I also know Richter was one of the first artists of the ’60s to take photographs seriously, and I’m even prepared to play the synchronic game of photo-Realists who pretend artists like Degas didn’t really use photographs in the same way as contemporary artists use them. Yet Kuh is still unsatisfying in the same way as Warhol’s 129 Die is unsatisfying, but without the bonus of rawness the Warhol has. I’m unhappy with the painting of the cow, and the word, and their interrelation. What it says about cows is not as much as Cuyps, and what it says about word/ image tautologies had already been said earlier and better by Johns. The difference between Warhol and Richter on this one point is while Warhol went on to solve all the problems of the dodgy and slightly amateur drawing of 129 Die with his later work by using stencilling and screening techniques as in the opulent Marilyn series, Richter still has the same kind of unresolved formal problems even in his later paintings. And I feel this about most of Richter’s work. I’m not aware of particular qualitative conceptual or formal gains from one work to the other.

The nature of Richter’s hit-and-run approach to already existing styles of painting lacks the conviction of the painting by artists more deeply committed to these modes. This is not true so much of Richter’s figurative work, especially the blurred focus paintings like Hirsch and Tanzerinnen which are more original, and for this reason alone, I suspect, more successful. It’s the abstract ones with a more readily available contemporary history that fare badly comparatively. The ’72 gray paintings particularly, with their single color matte- and gloss-inflected surfaces just seem too close, and in this case too late, to the whole Klein, Marden, Ryman Minimalist area, to have any particular importance individually. In spite of this what is still interesting is that Richter not only can one moment paint with the values of say Marden with Grau, and then with values of say Twombly with Ohne Titel, ’72, but also with the values of a Warhol or Morley in Hirsch and Tanzerinnen.

I like Richter’s pluralist ideology, but I’m not too interested in its results. In rejecting a yes/no position, and using an either/or strategy Richter doesn’t take the scrambling of categories far enough. If he did, you wouldn’t be able to make such elementary distinctions between his figurative and abstract paintings; the distinctions would be conceptual ones of a sharper, more complex kind. Much as I like the idea of juggling with different ideas, it seems important you should allow them to radically affect one another more than Richter does.

Richter’s pluralistic value structure does importantly challenge one art datum. Commerce’s twin imperatives are recognition and repeatability. Gerhard Richter is but one of increasing numbers of challenges to the strategy. of putting art objects on the same level as Pepsi-Cola and Alka-Seltzer with their Pavlovian formula of easy readability—images repeated endlessly and rewarded. Richter has not only contradicted this position by sending out different images, but also by sending them out intermittently. To have succeeded in getting these images recognized as part of the cohesive body of work by one artist, he must be congratulated.

James Collins