Gerhard Richter

Anthony d'Offay Gallery/Faggionato Fine Arts

Ravishing though they be, Gerhard Richter’s abstractions disturb when around fifty of them are seen at one time, especially when we discover that all but one were made in just over a year. Most of them, also, were produced by the same method, and have a consistent “look”—a look that, with few exceptions, has not changed much since d’Offay’s last Richter exhibition, in 1995, a show that itself contained over forty paintings. Nor were these latest abstractions the whole exhibit, which also contained a half-dozen representational works, three photographs, and a pair of sculptures, all from roughly the same period. (The show filled the four d’Offay galleries; a series of forty-eight photographs, images of encyclopedia illustrations that Richter turned into a series of paintings in 1971 and ’72, was also on view at Faggionato.)

With another artist such a presentation might provoke cynical suspicions of a studio production line, but Richter elevates suspicion into intellectual principle. In the early ’80s, with neo-Expressionism’s breathless revival of painting as backdrop, an Artforum critic praised his “thorough demystification” of painting, which he was said to have exposed as “a null and nugatory activity.” And this was while his abstractions still showed signs of the brush (even if, as he later remarked, what looked like two large brush marks was “in reality . . . painted with a lot of little strokes”). Nowadays the impersonal surfaces of these works are almost as slick and shiny as a Cibachrome. They look as if he’d smoothed them with a squeegee—which, in fact, he has.

As images, too, the abstractions evoke photographic film, as though the chemical conversions of the developing bath had printed as rippled color. There is a constant, shimmering sense of layered transparencies and obscurities, of depthless intricacy. The palette can be violent, as when high-pitched reds, greens, and blues jump and jangle; or it can be delicate, where, say, a sheet of smoky purple mantles veil-like complementaries. Sometimes a hard outline shows where the oil pulled apart as it was spread, baring the coat underneath. More often colors mingle and fuse, striated drifts scraped too thin to hide their neighbors. Richter runs changes in format and size, from the intimate to the engulfing, and he may also adjust the support, working largely on canvas but sometimes shifting to a blocky aluminum board. The paintings are exciting to see—yet in the quantity in which he shows them, they make discrimination a daunting task.

More than simple prolificacy, quantity here appears as one of the ways Richter “demystifies” painting, impairing our faith in the uniqueness of any single work. Also relevant here, we know, is his practice of using different formal approaches simultaneously, coolly framing them as alternate visual codes, and undermining our sense of his investment in them. Abstract Painting (848-10), 1997, plays explicitly with opposing vocabularies: three thick, irregular, precisely depicted brushstrokes cross a geometric grid of colored squares, which, however, being out of focus, seems too far away to supply the ground for these gestures to mark. The work also suggests a fusion of abstraction and representation, for the grid may reproduce one of Richter’s several older color-grid paintings.

Hahnwald, 1997, is a landscape in a familiar Richter style: finely rendered, warmly colored, even domestic—yet based on a photograph, in a post-Pop mode, and again quite out of focus. (“I cannot describe anything more clearly about reality than my own relation to reality,” Richter has said, “and this has always to do with haziness, insecurity, inconsistency, fragmentary performance.”) Demo, 1997, is a street scene, also photo-derived and still more out of focus, hut here the warm colors include what seem to be red flags. The scene is presumably a political demonstration. In its nagging intimations of conscience and of large public events, Demo is a gentler exercise in the vein of Richter’s “18. Oktoher 1977” series of 1988, on the Baader-Meinhof gang.

The exhibition also included land- and seascapes in a style I believe is new, in part in its scale—the largest is over nine feet high. (The more usual references for Richter’s paintings of this kind, as Helmut Friedel writes in the catalogue, are the little landscapes of the Dutch old masters.) These paintings have a drier surface and a grainier visual texture than Hahnwald or Demo. Their size is enveloping, and invokes the grandeur of romantic landscape art, but where Caspar David Friedrich, say, puts you on the mountaintop looking down, Richter puts you in the valley, walled by less-than-majestic hills. The seascapes too echo Friedrich, yet also parallel the Zen blankness of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes; and the overall effect is to recall Benjamin Buchloh’s elegantly paradoxical description of Richter’s art as simultaneously exhibiting “verve, indifference, and virtuosity.” There was more of a sense of seething life in three lozenge-shaped Cihachromes of mixing and bubbling liquid pigment, suggesting lurid landscapes seen from the air. (It is as if Cindy Sherman, casting about in a painter’s studio, were trying to create the look of aerial photography.)

The sculptures, finally, are two crosses, one in steel, the other in gold. I suspect they refer less to Christianity per se than to the possibility of belief, a recurring issue in Richter’s published statements, despite the negations his paintings are so commonly thought to enact. Interviewed by Buchloh in 1986, the artist insisted that emotion, spirituality, and psychology are “exactly what is there” in his work—to which Buchloh replied, “Fortunately only in the weakest parts.” Richter may talk of “longing . . . for lost qualities, for a better world—for the opposite of misery and hopelessness,” but his rigorous and chilly sensibility tests that desire on a rack.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.