Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter’s indebtedness to a range of photographic practices has been the taproot of his intensely admired achievements. The incipient force of this approach first emerged in the painter’s adaptations of Andy Warhol in the early 1960s (modifications he worked out concurrently with Sigmar Polke). As Richter’s work developed, its representational and abstract polarities became ever more marked—distinctly separate but equal options. After all, the aesthetic equivalence between abstraction and representation is hardly an abstruse notion; postmodern sensibility cherishes stylistic discontinuity and incongruity rather than pictorial consistency.

This recent exhibition featured forty-seven works, most resembling Richter’s familiar multicolored abstract paintings but also including five remarkable canvases that might be called “white abstractions.” There is also a freak work, a huge square mirror that seemingly argues for the putative parity of perceived reality and the reflected world, “art as a mirror of nature,” here literalized as a cunning conceit—or did Michelangelo Pistoletto just streak by? Fence, 2008, the “other” representational work in this show—that is, if the mirror was intended to remind us of Richter’s exquisite representational gifts—is slim pickings indeed when one thinks of the painter’s canonical candles, landscapes, portraits, and adaptations of domestic Hitlerzeit snapshots.

Sinbad, 2008, is a suite of paintings in lacquer behind glass. These patchy diptychs rather seminarishly conjure Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter’s Hinterglasmalerei, Blue Rider works painted behind glass in the manner of Bavarian peasant ex-votos, folkloric saints enlivened by the double refraction of the paint itself when seen through a glass surface.

But the white abstractions are the heart of the show; anything but white, they flirt with lavender casts and green tints. By instants these works are somewhat blurred—the photographic blur generative of whole ranges of Richter’s painting—their surfaces squeegeed and, at times, impacted with captured and dragged air bubbles. These small surface ruptures are akin to the occasional lines that appear to be scratched into the surface with the pointed end of a brush (or any styluslike implement that may come to hand); or the lines caused by a grain of congealed paint dragged, as it were, through the ointment; or the lines that result from the shifts in pressure when the painter, using a spatula-like instrument, trowels the pigment about during the ferule’s swipe. At times, powdery trails of color read like lesions, or the marks one might find on a soiled bandage. Still another source of these variegated surfaces may result from the lifting away of slick counterproofed laminates from one another with a resultant orange-peel-like skin.

But striving for verbal equivalents to the subtle variations available even to Richter’s rather Calvinist taste is not the point. Rather, it is that the abstractions, when met in so large a group, tend to discourage faith in them, quite as one has little faith in the myriad studies by Polke. As with the latter works, Richter’s abstractions are best encountered individually: When seen independent of one another, they possess an authority that is vitiated en masse. As a group they strike me as too easy, too formulaic, too churned-out—a reservation, in an art world whose seisms are registered on the Richter scale, that admittedly runs against the consensus that everywhere surrounds this monstre sacré.

This is related to but not the reason for my core doubt regarding Richter’s abstractions, which lies in the sense that somehow he cannot make a mistake—or, rather, that we cannot judge of that mistake. And where no mistakes are possible, the credibility of the “on purpose” work is jeopardized. Although chance certainly plays a role in his abstractions, Richter seeks to obviate the possibility of ever making a mistake by seeming to stop work at the very instant when the mistake appears to be not “in error” but “on purpose.” And yet, in time, this effect becomes normative, sits comfortably in the eye, a new paradigm. This, after all, has been the overriding argument underlying a century of abstract painting. In Richter’s case, that piece of swank jesuitry (in which, by the way, we all believe) carries the day, when perhaps a dash of doubt would not have been out of order.

Robert Pincus-Witten