New York

Gerhard Richter

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

I’ve never believed, as Gerhard Richter once claimed, that pictures can be made according to recipes, without personal involvement, that the making of pictures isn’t an artistic act. I’ve never thought this mission impossible ever had anything to do with how or why Richter paints. The remark is 13 years old, but it’s been quoted again on an information sheet for his recent exhibition. It comes from a “textcollage” Richter made with Sigmar Polke, another artist, in 1965 (it was later exhibited in Hannover), when they were both students at the art academy in Düsseldorf. Their ’60s tabula rasa was designed to rid painting of its stifling ich, the gesture, the subjectivity; Polke decided that all dots were his friends (another quote), and polka-dotted his paintings (to simulate the raster of the printed page); Richter, painting after amateur photos, said the paintings that resulted were really photographs. He stressed the “arbitrariness” of his selection, the banality of the views, and tried to drain painting of its Zwang to present a world view, as I said before, to kiss goodbye to the ich.

It never worked; as soon as he decided on a certain source material, selected something, began to paint, decisions were made, and a certain esthetic projected, even when the esthetic posed as no esthetic. I have always seen a statement made in the old paintings, which was a neutral, apathetic statement, but still a statement. I was always mystified, granted, at the recognition of forms in the paintings for naught; at the way Richter gave them a content which really wasn’t any. At the way they had no political or social message. They always seemed compromises to me, paint, varnish and surfaces, images, paintings in the strictest sense of the word, that tried not to be any. They are the most indecisive paintings I know.

So, in the new paintings you recognize Niagara, jet trails, jalousie; you’ve got a hold, you move closer, but the image blurs, becomes unreadable as you try to see more—it knocks at your knuckles until you let go. The same game is being played with your eyes and expectations, by pictures that invite, but don’t want, to be understood. The images you see are there, but they mean nothing.

The pictures undermine their own content, and force you back to concentrating on surfaces alone. And these are well-painted, fascinating surfaces you .can lose yourself in. Surface is so scintillating in fact, everything so meticulously painted, that it’s hard to become convinced of the hands off, “objective,” “painting is idiocy” position many credit Richter for maintaining, to make the paintings more conceptual than they are, and Richter himself more intellectual, more in control than he is. I’ve never made the leap of faith. I like looking at these paintings, which is a lot as far as I am concerned, but I’ve never bought the theoretical groundwork that goes along with them. I’ve always felt it was the work of people who liked to look at the pictures as I do, but went too far in explaining why.

Richter puts a lot of his ideas into paint; new paintings seldom look like what he’s done before, and all his works together reflect a versatility that used to fascinate me. I saw in the versatility a flexibility of thinking and the guts to paint whatever he wanted. But today the variations look like empty moves, skittishness, a lure for rather than a trick on the market. A look to Polke explains a lot, because he shared the beginning. and for a long time acted out the same inconsistencies, with dot paintings, cloth paintings, flamingo paintings, potato houses, paintings left in their packing wrappers (Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1976), no paintings. Always stylistically inconsistent while ideologically very consistent, if arrogance, wit and finally dropping out can be considered an ideology. Richter, for his part, has remained the serious player. But without a strategy of play the moves he makes become uninteresting.

Barbara Flynn