Gerhard Richter

Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris

If, as Barnett Newman asserted, the history of Modern painting is that of “the struggle against the catalogue” then lately the catalogue seems to be winning. At first glance, this victory is confirmed by the publication that accompanies this exhibition: three large volumes, collected in a single casing, with a photograph on the cover showing Gerhard Richter in his studio, posing in profile near one of his recent works. It is a calm and clear image, full of level-headed authority. Here, the painter is not at work, but at rest, as if meditative; the painting is finished. The three books inside echo this somewhat solemn order of things: the first reproduces the works shown, in chronological order; the second is a gathering of both previously published and unpublished texts dedicated to the artist’s work by Benjamin Buchloh; the third consists of a new catalogue raisonné that covers Richter’s production from 1962—which he considers to be his true starting point—up to the present (although, curiously, without mentioning any specific location). The question of whether there is life after the catalogue can’t help being raised in the minds of those who consider this imposing object for even a moment.

But this exhibition took a sort of revenge on the catalogue. Freed from chronology—and from any hope of completion, or even enumeration—it allowed a plural, open reading of Richter’s work by instituting different approaches: it is more like an essay than a flat succession of color plates. For example, it is not insignificant that the Zwei Skulpturen für einen Raum von Palermo (Two sculptures for a room in Palermo, 1971) guarded the entrance to the hallway. Thus the visitor, before seeing a single picture, passed before a mask of the artist with eyes closed—a self-portrait as sleeper, as dreamer, or as corpse. Molded, then cast in bronze, his face is covered with a strong impasto of gray oil paint, which recalls the surface of certain monochromes created by Richter in the preceding year (hung in a room further along in the show). The brushstroke emphasizes the overshadowing of the gaze; it seals the painter’s eyelids with the very medium of his art. An odd gesture to say the least, one that could resonate like a warning: a kind of voluntary—one might even say active—blindness, constituting, as much as any form of visuality, the foundation and the stake of this artistic enterprise.

There is in Richter’s work a particular brand of violence, which stems from the way in which he criticizes (through strictly visual means) the rationalist, “Modernist” imperialism of the gaze. The mad exuberance, the chromatic immoderations of some of his abstractions enact this criticism through excess; the monochromes, the glass panels, and especially the poor, blurred, hopeless images of a number of his works taken from photographs function as criticism by default. Besides a selection from “Atlas,” 1962–88—that photographic archive conceived by the artist as a repertoire for his painted work—the exhibition gave us the opportunity to appreciate the ambiguity and the complexity of the rapport Richter establishes between photography and painting, by presenting his two most important cycles in this domain: Achtundvierzieg Portraits (Forty-eight portraits, 1972) and 18. Oktober 1977, 1988. It would not be an exaggeration to say of this latter work that Richter proposes a virtual parable of blindness—the blindness of terrorist activity and of its repression, evoked in images that either depict little or in which little can be discerned: these are icons of photographic blindness, of the photograph as the expulsion of the gaze, as much as it is also the visual form of forgetting. The Achtundvierzieg Portraits are less obviously allegorical, if only because they do not have recourse to any narrative (as opposed to 18 Oktober. 1977, 1988, which starts out with an Arrest [Festnahme] and ends with a Burial [Beerdigung]). In this sense, they do not comprise a cycle, but, rather, a grouping or collection. The genre from which they seem to borrow most directly is that of the portrait gallery—one thinks of those suites of portraits of the great figures of the world, which we tend to associate with the Renaissance and Classical periods, or of the busts at the Capitol Museum in Rome.

But the apparent homogeneity of this anthology of male, Western, and more or less famous individuals, quickly opens onto a bottomless pit of the groundless and the heteroclite. What principle could have presided over this selection, over this collection? There is a real, but rather disturbing jubilation at finding in a new arrangement—this varies, it seems, with each exhibition—Paul Claudel’s sardonic grimace, or the gravely bored expression of Alfred Mombert (famous, certainly, but for whom?). The most fascinating aspect comes, perhaps, with the sort of space suggested by this “physiognomic chart.” At the opposite extreme of the group portrait—which creates an entire network of relations between the figures it brings together, and which often in some way or other implicates the spectator—we are faced with the arbitrary and plainly abstract space of montage. As for those characters who gaze directly out of the picture, of course, it isn’t a spectator whom they affix with that air of a dead fish, but only the antiquated eternity of encyclopedias.

Across from the wall where the Achtundvierzig Portraits were spread across three stacked rows, there hung a suite of four large abstract works entitled Bach, 1992. This juxtaposition was more than a nod or a wink: it illustrates one of the correspondences I mentioned earlier, by which one gains access to the mainspring in Richter’s work—the amplification of the two-fold observation (as old as the history of painting) that a portrait or a landscape is first and last only a bit of paint placed on a surface, and that a vast, (so to speak) nonfigurative piece can also be an image. From the very beginning, the exhibition set forth this axiom, by juxtaposing two canvases in black and white in an almost identical vertical format: Ohne Titel (Strich) [Untitled (brushtroke), 1968] and Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi, 1965). That a comparison, so risky in itself, is offered between these two figures against a backdrop—the rough brushstroke, a brutal, physical, almost unseemly presence, and the blurred portrait, dramatically neutralized, of a Nazi soldier with a smile on his lips—brings us, with no detours, to the very heart of Richter’s dilemma.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is an art historian, critic, and curator who lives in Paris.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.