New York

Gerhard Richter

Despite Robert Storr’s brilliant effort to reclaim Gerhard Richter for human emotion in the artist’s 2002 MoMA retrospective, the glassy chill of his work reasserted itself in his recent show at Marian Goodman Gallery. The exhibition fell roughly into three parts, of which the first presented a familiar mystery: How do Richter’s squeegeed abstractions, utterly strange in their fusion of Expressionism and impersonality, manage both to seduce through their color and detail and to put ravishment out of reach through what Arthur Danto has called their “protective cool”?

Cool is subjective, of course, and I visited the show with a painter who praised the works for their sexiness. The viewer must also contend with the natural instinct of curators and dealers to choose as powerful a group of works as possible, an impulse honored in this show. It does occasionally happen, though, that Richter’s abstractions are shown in wholesale quantities, at which point they shrug off the usual vocabulary used to discuss gestural Expressionism. The concepts needed here seem closer to those of photography, an abiding fascination of Richter’s—yet the works’ peculiar palette, and their intricate layering of, in this group, mostly horizontally swept grounds under areas of vertical striation and occasional swooping strokes outside any grid, seem to call for an individuated response.

All of the paintings in the show’s introductory group came from a single series made in 2005, and these constituted a gorgeous suite—along one wall a gradually mutating range of grays and taupes, along the other, more dramatic contrasts of black and dark purple grounds against highlights of red, yellow, and deep blue. But even while Richter’s color astonishes, it also has an elusive, calculated quality. In part this has to do with the separateness of the different layers and strokes, as if each painting were to be received as a set of disjointed parts rather than as an integral whole, but it issues also from the colors themselves. Asked by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh whether his color has anything in common with Matisse’s—a “natural color . . . corresponding to sensory experiences or even to the experience of happiness”—Richter stiffens: His own color, he says, has “a kind of tense cheeriness, something shrill or, also, evil . . . an artificial [cheeriness], one with gritted teeth, that conveys a threat as well.” In case that mood eluded you, the first room also included a single photograph, a version of an image Richter has used before, showing World War II–era RAF warplanes. Shown with these paintings, the picture stuck in the space’s craw like a bone.

The gallery’s intermediate spaces contained a group of smaller-scale abstractions from the past five or six years, plus a single landscape and an abstraction on glass. Along with a four-panel drawing, the final group of works in this show comprised four large paintings from 2003 based on found photomicrographs of molecular structures, which in Richter’s treatment become gray-and-black honeycombs of recurring interlocking shapes. Given the way the paintings’ surfaces register the even drag of the brush, we seem to see these shapes through a screen, a steady visual blur. All the works shown were titled Silicate, and it is tempting to think that Richter’s interest in the photographs involves glass, a kind of fatal substance for him. But the silicate group is vast, containing much besides glass, and Richter has said that he doesn’t actually know what some of his photographs depict. What seems more at issue, then, is a kind of contraction: a removal of individual quality and texture from the substances included in the silicate group—which, incidentally, is the stuff of the world, the largest naturally occurring class of minerals. This leveling examination of what constitutes individuality is entirely in line with the ambivalently Expressionist paintings elsewhere in the show.

David Frankel