Daniel Richter, Death of the Esoteric Painter, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 106 1/4".

Daniel Richter, Death of the Esoteric Painter, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 106 1/4".

Daniel Richter

Daniel Richter, Death of the Esoteric Painter, 2011, oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 106 1/4".

During a recent conversation in his studio, Daniel Richter observed that a great deal of contemporary painting comes across as a revivification of the art produced in the twentieth century: “In formal terms, we seem to be bringing the dead to life.” The task of Richter’s generation, as he sees it, is to make the achievements of the moderns more radical. Richter’s recent exhibition “10001nacht” (10001night) offered an overview of recent developments in his art. It featured a dozen drawings from his 2008–2009 “Love Parade” series; seven small-scale paintings from a series titled with the invented word “Spagotzen,” 2010; and eighteen large paintings dated 2011. The surprising thing is that Richter’s recent paintings and drawings turn out to be much more linear and owe less to the plane and the stain than his earlier work. Some pieces, in the spirit of the remark quoted above, evoke predecessors such as Edvard Munch. But his sources extend beyond painting, into geological maps, for instance, or thermography.

After his grim cityscapes of the previous decade, Richter has now turned to landscape, a rugged, empty, unfathomable terrain populated by lonesome “heroes”—nomads, soldiers, troubadours. You can sense the undertone of German Romanticism: the emphasis on the experience of nature and the quest for the transcendent in the landscape. Indeed, in a sense Richter is a Romantic painter, but nevertheless he maintains an ironic, skeptical distance from the profound emotions and existential reflections that Romanticism entails. Consider the absurd scenes embedded in his landscapes: A Pashtun receives a blow job beneath his wide tunic (The Strangers of Comfort, 2011) while another offers a light to a Marlboro cowboy (HEY JOE, 2011). Elsewhere, men hold objects that resemble both Kalashnikovs and guitars at once; the Taliban meets pop culture.

Death of the Esoteric Painter, 2011, invokes the sublime through a landscape rendered in hallucinogenic colors. A green figure strikes out at the painter, knocking his palette out of his hands. This piece holds a prominent place in the exhibition and appears to be a key work. The death of “esoteric” painting, it seems to be saying, is in fact the demise of the sublime, existential landscape; perhaps such a landscape can exist as a brief, intoxicating surge of color, a special effect, or a memory, but not as the underlying nature of things. Nor does Richter let out with anything like Munch’s Expressionist scream that sets the entire landscape vibrating. He paints painting more than he paints the landscape.

Richter’s detachment is also the reason for the flaws in his work. His ironic narrative humor and absurdist twists become a Mannerist reflex that dominates the exhibition, detracting from his paintings by turning them into mere illustrations. He starts to seem like a joker who keeps derailing the conversation with asides and interjections. Richter’s irony is disruptive partly because his landscapes have much that is of interest: the handling of paint, the sense of color, and the tension between the impersonal use of line and an expressive, individual style. Taking his cue from Brice Marden, for instance, he constructs bleak mountain landscapes out of meandering lines. The result is utterly compelling. But then, again and again, we find yet another of Richter’s narrative incongruities bracketing and banalizing his dialogue with the modern and Romantic masters. Although this exhibition revealed Richter’s skill as a painter and draftsman, it remained thematically hollow and unsatisfying.

Jurriaan Benschop

Translated from Dutch by David McKay.