New York

Hans Richter

Betty Parsons and Denise René Galleries

The career of Hans Richter is so long and distinguished that if we think of him as a filmmaker, a historian of Dada, and then remember his own work as a Dadaist, we still may not acknowledge his present-day activity. Two exhibitions of Richter’s work ran in late November: one of earlier work, at Denise René, and the other of recent work, across the street at Betty Parsons.

Richter is one of the ranking draftsmen of his time, his crayon Abstraction of 1919 (illus. in his Dada; Art and Anti-Art) being one of the outstanding drawings of this century. The Denise René show included a large array of the Dada portraits, in which the negative patches of white paper assert themselves as equal in activity to the black patches of india ink. They are as elegant as they are direct. In the portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1917, for instance, the black areas float as freely as in a chance-determined Arp abstraction, yet they are at the same time locked into most sensitive formal relations. Tzara’s monocle asks to be compared with the S-curve of his lip, yet the monocle relates as much to the angular edges of the cheek which, in turn, relates to the patches that seem to represent the crown and visor of a cap, and so on.

There were a number of significant pre-Dada pieces at Denise René, including a somewhat Braque-like painting from 1915 called Workers, solid, massive and—a quality pushed even further in a later work in the same show—socially pertinent. But among the early productions a painting of the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, Ku’damm, 1911–14, was particularly noteworthy. This beautiful view of the tree-shaded street manages to combine the urgency of Berlin Expressionism with an altogether cool foliate lusciousness. Most such works from his earlier years were destroyed when the Nazi barbarians, concerned for the purity of German Kultur, raided Richter’s studio.

Invasion poses some interesting questions. When Peggy Guggenheim exhibited it at her gallery, Art of This Century, the newspaper cuttings had, for practical reasons, not all been attached—there was too much difference in color between ones that had been used and others which had been kept unexposed to light. But Peggy Guggenheim wanted it without the texts anyway, presumably because it would be more “abstract.” Similarly, the early Russian letter- and word-paintings have been attractive to modernists while later, agitprop art is supposed to contaminate art with life. Is it too much to say that one reason why Richter’s scrolls are so important is that in the face of the events iconified here, Picasso offers nothing of equal rank? That Picasso’s apolitical speak-no-evil villa painting of the 1940s is also so often esthetically disappointing tends to point in that direction.

Unfortunately, many of Richter’s latest reliefs, which appeared at Betty Parsons, are in a more innocent way disappointing. Cardboard or sheet metal is cut into bowed, planar forms combined in a cluster more or less centered against a too inactive background and within a conventional frame. The use of sheet metal in its virgin state has a certain contemporary interest, but for that very reason there is disappointment in its reduction to a question merely of color and not of the elemental qualities of the materials, of which color is but a residual symptom. In a different way, one feels that the burr left by cutting shears, both on metal and on board, has not been taken into artistic account. Also, the compositions can be too simply clusterlike, which evokes still-life painting in a conventionally pictorial way. These difficulties are pointed up by the contrasting success of a charming little Relief from 1968, of silver and copper on celluloid. Less hieratically disposed, it has a more overall artfulness largely responsible for the fact that the celluloid seems as actively substantial—and as pearly to light—as the silver. It has a jewellike aspect, but even that is not inappropriate to its diminutive size.

In the mid-1940s Richter produced several historical collages dealing with heroic themes of the Second World War. They constitute perhaps the most significant exercise in straight, celebratory history painting in modern times, Guernica—only ironically a history painting—not excepted. These works were conceived as unframed scrolls, permitting them to deal in a progressive and surprisingly expository way with the sequential unfolding of events. Three were executed: Victory in the East (Stalingrad), 1943–44; Invasion, 1944–45; and Liberation of Paris, 1944–45. And a fourth, dealing with Guadalcanal, was begun. By those years Richter was busiest as a filmmaker. The scrolls have an obvious affinity with cinema, not only with the concept of pictorial succession in time but also with the curled, unrolling reel of film itself. Today they may even call to mind the sequence in Sunday, Bloody Sunday where the unfurled segment of the Torah actually takes over and becomes the screen while we hear words sung in a language we cannot understand and see the letters of that language as a pattern of strokes. At any rate, lettering as meaning-laden and as formally detached was similarly important to Richter’s intent in the scrolls, which all unroll horizontally except for Liberation of Paris. In that instance, the scroll reads vertically to differentiate between events.

Invasion in the Denise René show tended to provoke some worthwhile speculations. Onto an entirely abstract ground, which has an expressive relation to the historical events from D Day to the German surrender, actual newspaper headlines and clippings are affixed. One is elated by these real fragments of events, their heroic scale ranging from the grandeur of the invasion to the photo of the surrender signatures, under which Richter’s own appears.

The reliefs are most disappointing when they suggest stretched canvas as a backdrop and most rewarding when they play sculpturally with the materials. No wonder why when Richter uses corrugated cardboard it is more exciting to see a narrow strip of it set on edge, as in the late relief Title at T, than when it acquiesces to a background plane, as in Dymo 101, 1973, and other works in that series. The most promise seems to lie in the direction of working with the plastic and structural properties of the materials rather than in restricting them to paper-like overlap and pileup.

There certainly are a lot of reliefs from the last couple of years, and that deserves mention in itself. Richter was born in 1888, and has produced a lot of art since then. That it is still emerging is testimony not only to his vitality but to his continuing dialectic of chance and order, of reality and form, of transience and permanence. He is less a living legend than a modern hero.

Joseph Masheck