New York

Gerhard Richter

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

Sometimes I have lunch at a burrito joint near my house. In the bathroom, there is a small oblong painting, sort of a thrift-store abstraction, bearing an appropriately indecipherable signature that looks like it could be “Starck.” Painted on fiberboard, or a similar industrial-looking material, and screwed into the wall at each of its four corners, its surface and means of support could be compared to those of a Robert Ryman. But with its wedges of too-bright, acidulous red and yellow, it really looks like an unwitting parody of a Gerhard Richter abstraction. The composition is roughly unified by a thin looping dribble of white paint: a Pollockoid touch finishing off the Rymany and Richterish manners. In its own modest, unassuming way—the only one really available to an artwork hung above a toilet—this little thrift-store find rehearses many of the clichés of Modernist painterly practice. Doesn’t Richter do very much the same thing in his large-scale, super-beautiful, blue-chip, and relentlessly enigmatic abstractions?

Comparisons, we are told, are invidious, and as such impolite. Which brings us to the sustained critical exegesis of Richter’s oeuvre by the Marxist art historian Benjamin Buchloh. Buchloh’s essay for the most recent show of Richter’s work at the Marian Goodman Gallery—several characteristic abstractions and one photo-based painting of flowers—is grandly titled, “Pandora’s Painting: From Abstract Fallacies to Heroic Travesties,” and begins with an interesting asseveration that seems intuitively right: “From its inception in 1912, nonrepresentational painting faced or repressed a number of fallacies that have continued to haunt it right up to the present day: one of the less obvious ones was the threat of seriality and the condition of boundless reiteration.” After a cogent description of this predicament, Buchloh crowns Richter (once again) with the laurel of the disabused yet somehow resistant abstractish painter. According to Buchloh, his paintings, unlike so many that we see in the galleries, where painting is presumably tirelessly reborn, “are not resuscitating the infinite differentiations of nonrepresentational painting in a spirit of confident revival, trying to spark life out of the ashes of that history. Rather, they are redefining a practice of painting in constant opposition to modernism’s injunctions against painting, opposing every single prohibition and repression that the laws of modernist abstraction had encoded and enforced.” Got that? One might certainly question how this logical opposition works in a room full of splashy abstract paintings. Buchloh’s dilalectical elaboration seems so attenuated, so hair-splittingly niggling, that the wished-for sublation comes dangerously close to an equation. (Perhaps the most salient Marxist character of this exposition is the way Buchloh makes the history of Modernist abstraction sound like that of a police state.)

Buchloh then moves on to a curious but honest qualification: “It still remains to be clarified how Richter’s paintings escape the random production and repetition that are the fallacies of abstraction.” I don’t think it would be too much of a misuse of tropology to characterize this as the aporia of Buchloh’s text. By means of this tentative statement we may circumambulate its thickets and return to the initial problem posed, that of invidiousness (from invidia, that is, envy). Not content with a free-to-be-you-and-me espousal of the virtues of Richter’s painting such as has recently been proffered by Peter “Ya Gotta Love Painting ’Cause It Sure Is Beautiful” Schjeldahl in the pages of The Village Voice, Buchloh sets up the terms of the debate as Richter contra Stella and Richter contra Ryman, because Gerhard avoids the delusions that Frank Stella and Robert Ryman unquestioningly indulge. The language gets surprisingly nasty, regardless of its academic socialization: “Richter’s paintings avoid the pitfalls, on the one hand, of the merely decorative and, on the other, of the merely spectacular, pitfalls that have distinguished Stella’s work for almost thirty years now.” Buchloh’s dismissal of Ryman is even more decisive, and somehow even salutary as Ryman is being honored at the Museum of Modern Art as the preeminent painter at the end of painting: “a deconstruction of painting that has long lost its acumen and that has become the mere reiteration of administrative paradigms, adding a new dimension to the decorative through the subjection to painting’s self-imposed restrictions.”

Buchloh is admirably precise in detailing the errors he believes that Richter “escapes” from, but irritatingly diffuse when it comes to explaining the exact nature of his investment in Richter’s gesture as an exemplary one in the continuing evolution of painting as a practice. At the end of his essay, the vaunted position seems to be one of radical skepticism, a perspective taken by many artists, writers, and philosophers who come under the loose but heuristically inevitable rubric of Modernism. Deluded Modernism. Does Richter derive his preeminence within the permanent obsolescence of painting simply from his exceptionally disabused cleverness? Why is this so appealing to a Marxist critic like Buchloh? The aporetic moment of Buchloh’s text occurs at precisely that moment when he briefly entertains the possibility that, in fact, Richter may not succeed in eluding the fallacies of abstraction. Aporia can be taken as the structural divide in Richter’s world as well, as blurry, oddly cropped photo-derived images of flowers stand in mocking contrast to the heroic travesties of Richter’s abstractions—or is it the other way around? For any one familiar with Richter’s work as a whole—a perfect example would be the color charts—the axes of representational/abstract and denotative/connotative are insistently skewed. As such the aporias of critical discourse and those of artistic production can appear maddeningly similar. It seems that Richter and his foremost critical champion are engaged in a bizarre folie à deux, in which the question of whether or not what Richter is doing is what Buchloh says he’s doing never comes to an agreeable end. Buchloh’s interview with Richter on the occasion of his Tate Gallery retrospective, in which the dogged critic has an impossible time dragging a horse to water and making him drink, does nothing to dispel this impression.

The paintings remain, abstract and figurative, oddly mute given the discursive webs knit around them. Somehow, Richter’s situation strikes me as not unlike that of Flaubert’s in Madame Bovary. Sickened by the exhaustion and fatuity of previous literary models—and by the persistent undertow of his own profound attachment to those very forms—he set out quixotically to revalue the beautiful delusions of Romanticism in the cold light of pure style. The hermit of Croisset wrote to his perpetually deferred and unsatisfied mistress, “My book will have the ability to walk straight on a hair, suspended between the double abyss of lyricism and vulgarity.”

David Rimanelli is a regular contributor to Artforum.