New York

Gerhard Richter

Marian Goodman; Sperone Westwater

In these works, Gerhard Richter looks like an Abstract Expressionist, but he isn’t. Yes, the works are holistic and gestural, and there are moments of illusion in them that make one think of sublimely blurred landscapes—look at the “waterfall” in Ohne Titel 595–3 (Untitled 595–3, 1986)—but the overall effect is more one of restraint than release, inhibition than “exhibition.” The paradox of Richter’s pictures is that they look sumptuous but are withholding in effect; for all their dynamics, they don’t project. They are full of ersatz Sturm and Drang; he gives us a coy perfectionism rather than the randomness that comes from abandonment to raw drive. His is a denatured gesture, if not entirely the quasi-manufactured pantomime of gesture it has been said to be. His pictures are treacherous: although they appear to be full of textural differentiations that would appeal to a connoisseur, their epic lyricism is void of intimate intention—that is, the unclarified subjectivity typically associated with the “expressive.”

Indeed, Richter is entirely—brilliantly—technical. It used to be that technique was everything, as the saying went, but now it seems less so. Richter shows the power of instrumental reason at work in the irrational—a worm in the rose. This worm of reason has a specific task: to flatten the painterly flesh until it seems more laid out than lived in, to hollow it until it seems a cosmeticized corpse. This flattening operation, with its fraudulent effect of condensation, seems at its strongest in the grand Ozu 597, 1986. For all the fluorescent vividness of colors, the surface is peculiarly blunt. It is as though we are watching a plastic surgeon mold the flesh of artificial color into abstractly interesting shapes. He does not know how to get down to the business of making a real face. The result is professional and pyrotechnic: a well-executed sound and fury of paint, signifying nothing. In other words, another pretty terrific painting that doesn’t mean a thing. (The simulated and the real are not so hard to differentiate as Jean Baudrillard thinks they are.)

It seems we are at the end of the road—by now well paved—that Turner traveled and on which Jackson Pollock went the full distance. Is Richter suggesting that abstraction and expressionism are obsolete, no longer uncanny? If, as Friedrich von Schelling said, the sense of the uncanny results fromthe experience of something that ought to have been kept hidden being revealed, then there is nothing uncanny about Richter’s paintings. They stylize an energy that has long been evident in art. But such stylization represses what it acknowledges, as if it were afraid that there is more to it than meets the eye. It would be interesting to know the psychosocial as well as esthetic reasons why Richter creates a repressively desublimated (Herbert Marcuse’s concept) version of Abstract Expressionism, in which libido is revealed in measured spendings. His paintings show us the way dead libido looks.

Donald Kuspit