New York

Gerhard Richter

There is a peculiar emptiness—a feelingless inscrutability—at the core of a Gerhard Richter picture. It is as though painting and photography, which Richter famously employs as a source for his painterly images, have neutralized each other, leaving the viewer with a groundless image. Or, from another perspective, it is as though there is some basic picture—any old image—that represents a kind of rough-and-ready cinderblock consciousness of something; it is covered over by contradictory yet complementary veneers, but nothing has been substantially altered in the process. The result is thus all the more mocking in its banal plainness. Baudelaire once said that banality was the only vice, but for Richter it is the only possibility available for art in Modernity. His images are depressing cul-de-sacs of consciousness; mimetic representation in his work is banality compounded and made ironic until it no longer seems innocently given but rather artificial—a social construction that nonetheless remains peculiarly neutral because it seems fated. No alternative to it is conceivable.

But these characteristics of Modern appearances—the reality behind them seems indeterminate, as Richter’s famous painterly blur suggests, as though his inability to bring the image into focus is less a defect of the lens than the image—are exactly the critical point in his work. It is significant here that all his “capitalist realist” themes simultaneously employ proverbial German images, particularly those associated with nature: deer (e.g., Hirsch II—192 [Deer II, 1966]), the “higher nature” of landscape and sky (e.g., Korsika—199 [Corsica, 1968]), and the higher-class pleasures of the hunt (Jagdgesellschaft—121 [Hunting party, 1966]) (“the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible,” as Oscar Wilde said, and the tone of Richter’s painting suggests he agrees). In Osterakte—148 (Easter nudes, 1967), the show-it-all nudes, their veil of erotic mystery removed, become pseudopornographic; and the sterile city of Stadtbild SL—218/l (Cityscape SL, 1969), suggests that the triumph of instrumental reason, at the expense of broader, human reason, gives rise to what may be called “pseudorational” planning. Richter neutralizes whatever he describes: he is a mystifying demystifier whose mechanical, demythologizing images represent a profound critique of Modernity, above all a militantly German Modernity—a Germany shorn of its mystique, the saving grace of culture (philosophy, music, etc.).

For me the paradigmatic painting is Hirsch—7 (Deer, 1963): I appreciate Richter’s Solomonic wisdom in cutting the deer in two with the tree trunk and his double irony in giving the deer a false painterly substance, even as it stands in the thick of a schematized forest. It is a ghost scene, rendered in a perfectionist manner—Richter is a great illusionist, creating trick appearances lacking substance. His meticulous sense of detail adds up to an indifferent whole: he, like Duchamp, is “doomed to irony,” to use the phrase by which Ortega y Gasset characterized Modernist art. Richter is a decadent Duchampian Modernist, working with found appearances and found methods—photography and painting, which, in his hands, have lost any purpose they might have once had. “The pointlessness of it all” is the stoic message of Richter’s muffled, pseudopoignant, quasi-tragic art.

Donald Kuspit