New York

Gerhard Richter

Marian Goodman Gallery | New York

This large exhibition presented almost half of the one hundred “private” and “intimate” paintings Gerhard Richter exhibited at the Carré d’Art Contemporain in Nîmes in early 1996. Comprising primarily small- and medium-size canvases made in 1995 and 1996, the show in New York included a wide range of abstract paintings (virtually juxtaposing austere, geometrically structured canvases and grandly expressive, multichromatic tableaux), as well as photo-realistic still lifes, a broad vista of Jerusalem, several receding pastoral landscapes, two portraits of Richter’s wife reading (both entitled “Lesende”) that recalled the genre paintings of Vermeer and Chardin, and a tauromachy, Arena, 1995, that looks backward not only to Picasso, but, even more poignantly, to Goya’s treatment of this theme.

Typical of Richter’s body of work as a whole, what held together this otherwise disparate group of paintings was their insistent defiance of traditional categories. What was illuminating about this exhibition, however, was the sense it conveyed of the paintings as basically the residue of process. This was nowhere more evident than in canvases such as Piz Lunghin, 1995, which oscillated between the grand gestures of expressive abstraction and the meticulous precision of photographic representation. Superimposed on the darkened silhouette of a photorealistic panoramic view of a mountain range at twilight were the hints of a paint application that if more pronounced would inevitably overwhelm all references to the actual landscape. One was left wondering whether all of Richter’s abstract paintings began as photographically mediated investigations. To arrive at this conclusion is to see Richter as a process artist, and his canvases as the physical traces of painterly investigations.

Echoing in their own strange way Morris Louis’ stains and Larry Poons’ pours (with which Richter’s canvases establish a peculiar dialogue that is probably more structural than conscious), Richter’s abstractions seemed rote, uninspired, almost cold—the result of a highly sophisticated chance operation of wet paint systematically scraped across the flat surface of the picture plane. Similarly, though his figurative pictures possess all the complexity of traditional realist painting, they are highly artificial in appearance. Based on photographic representations and produced with the aid of an overhead projector, the mechanically transferred images are then unfocused through painterly means. Thus they at once deny the categories of the photographic (by blurring the predominant visual source of the painting) and the painterly (by offering a precise transcription of a photographic projection). What we are left with is the literal effacement or erasure not only of iconicity but of depth as well.

A particularly emphatic example of this phenomenon is the self-portrait included in this show. Evidently produced from a photograph taken of the artist (with the mediation such a strategy implies) rather than a mirror, this small painting breaks with the traditions of this well-established genre. That is, this picture “is not the painter’s mirage, nor his double, nor his likeness,” as Birgit Peltzer puts it in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, but “the working out of a dissemblance, of a disparity, of a separation” between the ways in which any two individuals see the world.

And yet unlike the work of Poons or Louis, Richter’s investigations escape the trap, particular to process-oriented art, of collapsing into mere decoration. Indeed, if on the one hand his work resists the affirmative function of the easily categorizable (and therefore of the readily assimilable); on the other, his pictorial investigations reference the destructured forms and desublimated meanings that characterize not only the work of late-Modernist painters, but much contemporary artistic practice as well, while searching for a way out of the decorative endgame.

Alexander Alberro