The painter asks: Can you trust painting?

Brilliant inconsistencies in Gerhard Richter's work seem to question the truth and value of visual experience


March 30, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

It's safe to say that the big Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington will be one of the most important shows in our region this year. Not the most beautiful or the most popular, perhaps (though it's extremely good-looking), but significant because of what it suggests about the place painting occupies in contemporary culture.

That Richter is an incredibly versatile artist is beyond doubt. He can paint with the luminous delicacy of Vermeer, as in the lovely 1994 portrait of his wife, Reader, and his 1992 Flowers, or with the deadpan muteness of Warhol, as in Mustang Squadron (1964) and Toilet Paper (1965).

Some paintings are huge, mural-size abstractions while others are jewel-like miniatures. One of the first points this exhibition proves is that Richter can do it all superbly; as you walk through the exhibit, you are continually surprised by how different the works are from one room to the next. It's almost as if the artist were taunting viewers: "Catch me if you can!"

In this sense, Richter's work suggests a radical critique not just of painting itself, but of all visual experience.

Born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, he grew up amid World War II and the postwar division of his country. After the war, his family lived in Soviet-controlled East Germany, where Richter attended art school at the Dresden Art Academy. In 1961, however, he moved to Dusseldorf, West Germany. (Twenty-two years later he moved again, to Cologne.)

His earliest works, completed in East Germany, included a mural for the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden executed in a rather conventional heroic style that, as critic Arthur C. Danto has pointed out, seemed to owe more to the Nazi strength-through-health aesthetic than to the Socialist-Realist style of the country's Soviet masters.

But after his move to the West, Richter began experimenting with ideas derived from American Pop Art. His canvases of this period were often based on snapshots of banal subjects -- office buildings, family photos, advertising and commercial shots -- and depicted ambiguous, blurred figures in monochrome shades of gray.

These works seemed to be as much about the distortions of memory as about the nominal subjects they depicted.

In Administrative Building (1964), for example, Richter's image of a bland, modern office building constructed after the war seems shot through with nostalgia and regret.

Mustang Squadron, a painting of Allied fighter planes from the same year, and Horst and His Dog, a portrait of the artist's father from 1965, both have the grainy indeterminacy of old newspaper photographs, even though they describe people and events the artist had direct experience with during the war.

In these formative works, Richter was evolving a style based on the realistic conventions of photography that at the same time questioned the truthfulness of photographic portrayal.

Richter's technique closely imitated that of the photographs on which the works were based. But he also introduced a deliberate element of ambiguity by carefully squeegeeing the surface of the paintings to blur the image, as if the camera that had taken them was always slightly out of focus.

Moreover, at the same time Richter was creating these photo-derived works, he was also producing gestural paintings in the manner of American Abstract-Expressionism, as well as series of "color chart" paintings inspired by minimalism. He seemed to find no contradiction in employing all these styles simultaneously.

The gestural paintings, in particular, are bold, colorful works that appear to combine the spontaneous splash and drip techniques of Jackson Pollock with the severe fractal geometries of Clyfford Still.

These exuberant works link Richter to his great German contemporaries such as Sigmar Polke and others. Yet in Richter's work, one gets the sense that the abstract paintings really are gestures rather than inevitable outcomes of a unique a way of seeing. The coexistence of so many apparently incompatible styles ultimately suggests a profound skepticism about the value of any single approach.

Because Richter came of age artistically after the appearance of Abstract Expressionism (and after Pop and Photo-Realism as well), perhaps he did not have to devote his energies to invention so much as to interpretation. This he was superbly equipped to do both by temperament and training.

Early on, he developed into a virtuoso practitioner whose amazing technique enabled him to imprint his personal misgivings about the reliability of visual experience onto formal strategies created by others.

What is most consistent about his work is precisely its inconsistency and a coruscating skepticism that seems mitigated only in the handful of works in which the artist portrays such intensely personal subjects as flowers; his wife, Sabine; and their infant daughter, Ella Maria.

This is a hugely thought-provoking show by an artist whose importance has begun to receive the recognition it deserves only relatively recently in the United States. Go see it for its technical brilliance, for its uneasy stew of angst and nostalgia, and for its moments of sudden, stunning beauty that appear like flashes of lightning from a lowering storm.

On exhibit

What: Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting

Where: The Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh St. S.W., Washington

When: Through May 18

Hours: Open every day, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

Call: 202-357-2700

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