A Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Met shows how the German artist has disembodied the medium of painting as a way to confront the 20th century’s most intolerable recollections.
“Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” is a swan song. Not for Richter, who at 88 years old is still producing new work and is widely considered one of the most significant living artists, but for the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s short-lived Madison Avenue satellite space. The Met famously brokered an eight-year lease on the Marcel Breuer-designed monolith with the Whitney Museum of American Art, its long-time occupant, in 2011. In 2016, after extensive renovation, the museum moved in with an exhibition of incomplete works made across some 500 years. Exhibitions devoted to modern and contemporary art and design—sectors of the art-historical canon the Met wished to be more readily associated with—followed. But now, as of 2020, the Met has decided to vacate the space several years early. “Painting After All” is the last show the institution will stage in the Breuer building–an exclamation point, rather than a period, at the end of the sentence.
“Painting After All” is the first survey of the German artist in the U.S. in nearly 20 years. It features more than 100 works, and as the title suggests, puts an emphasis on painting. Richter’s exploration of the medium’s formal and conceptual possibilities has been rigorous. He’s worked in both abstraction and figuration, at times simultaneously—a practice that might make a lesser artist’s work seem incohesive. Instead, the show’s combination of earlier and more recent works reveals a nuanced through line.
In The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962–1993, Richter wrote, “If the Abstract Pictures show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lifes show my yearning…though these pictures are motivated by the dream of classical order and a pristine world—by nostalgia, in other words—the anachronism in them takes on a subversive and contemporary quality.” Landscapes like the celebrated Ice (1981), which depicts a pristine frozen seascape pulled from a photograph from an excursion to Greenland, showcases Richter’s mastery of the medium and reverence for its canon. The six paintings from the Cage series, an homage to the avant garde composer John Cage, are multi-layered abstractions, achieved through the use of the squeegee, Richter’s signature tool, and an intensive process of scraping, addition, and removal.
Richter’s aptitude across media is also on full display. Photography and prints share the limelight; a rarely seen 1957 series of monoprints called Elbe is a highlight. And he debuts two previously un-exhibited works, Grey Mirrors (Four Parts) (2018) and House of Cards (Five Panes) (2020), which are both in glass, a medium Richter has employed since 1967. His enduring use of the color gray with its chromatic and conceptual nuances is also visible throughout eras and media. The show runs through July 5, then it moves on to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Met moves out.
The notion of moving on vibrates with Richter’s oeuvre in an interesting way. Throughout his career, the artist has engaged with history and memory, creating works that seem to carry remembrance within them. This engagement starts with Table, a 1962 work that Richter considers his first mature painting—a “new start,” as he described it after leaving his native East Germany (he fled to West Germany just two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961). The work began when Richter encountered an image of a modern white table designed by Ignazio Gardella in Domus magazine. Mentally isolating the photograph as “a pure picture”, Richter painted a recreation of the table in tonal grays. After it dried, he was unhappy with the painting. He initially covered parts of it with newspapers, the imprint of which is still visible in some areas. He vigorously worked over the center of the canvas with paint thinner. In the resulting work, though the table is still partially visible, it is largely obliterated by gestural swipes. The most descriptive, figurative aspect of the work is obscured by abstraction. This painting would herald the abstraction that was to come in Richter’s work, as well as the use of gray and “blurring”—a visual and conceptual signature throughout his oeuvre. But if Table holds Richter’s future, it also holds the memory of Gardella’s table, the Domus photograph, the artist’s painted table, and even the quotidian nature of the table throughout human history. Because of its abstract intervention, what it represents isn’t a table, but evocation itself.
In more recent series like Strips, which Richter produced during the turn of the 2010s, his own work operates like the photograph of the Gardella table. “Painting 2012,” the 2012 show at Marian Goodman Gallery, Richter’s longtime dealer, that debuted Strips, featured 19 large-scale compositions all born from one painting: Abstract Painting, 724-4 (1990). Using computer software, Richter extracted an image from the 1990 painting, halving it vertically, then mirroring it, and repeating the process over and over again. The continued process led to the emergence of repetitive patterns, and eventually horizontal bands of color that, like the paint thinner in Table, obliterated the referent, though here even more completely. The bands, which Richter leaves as thin, colored striations (though his process could be continued until the bands disappear into oblivion completely), are arranged into a composition. The final works are massive digital prints that Richter calls “paintings” though they only bear the memory of paint.
Less benign than Table or Strips, which deal with conceptual memory, much of Richter’s work has grappled with historic or personal memory—namely, his country and family’s place in World War II. Richter was born in Dresden in 1932. He graduated from the Dresden Academy in 1957, a social-realist mural painter. Soon after, he made a Picasso-like series of 12 drawings to illustrate The Diary of Anne Frank. He began amassing his Atlas, an enormous catalogue of archival images, which included brutal photographs documenting the Holocaust.
In the early 1960s, not long after he fled to West Germany, Richter began creating black-and-white photorealist paintings. These works, like Group of People (1965), a standout of the show, employ his so-called “blur,” an optical smear or wobble that makes his paintings appear as if they’re in motion or part of a television dream sequence. No two of his paintings blur quite the same way. Though Richter always seems coolly at a distance from these works, the blur has an entrancing effect on the viewer—like he or she is recollecting the image as his or her own memory.
A family photo is the basis of Uncle Rudi (1965), one of Richter’s most famous works. Coming to the Met show from the Lidice Memorial, to which Richter donated it, the painting depicts the artist’s uncle, a Wehrmacht soldier, in his SS uniform. In reality, this man died within the first six months of the war, but in the painting, which duplicates the photograph, he is immortalized in a smile. In Aunt Marianne (1965/2018), Richter recreates a photo of his aunt, a young woman with a blonde bob, holding him as a baby. She was schizophrenic and was killed in 1945 under the Nazi euthanasia program.
That same year, Richter painted Mr. Heyde (1965), a depiction of Werner Heyde, a protagonist in the Nazi euthanasia program. The work is an inversion of the typical objective of portraiture to honor honorable members of society. Instead, Richter’s portrayal of Heyde serves as a forthright command not to forget perpetrators of violence—a quiet protest of the leniency some Nazi war criminals were being afforded by fellow Germans. With these paintings of the early 1960s, Richter was attempting to confront the silence of Germany’s previous generation. By painting from archival materials without either sentimentality or overwrought criticism, he was trying to ensure that memories, no matter how brutal or inconvenient, would not fade.
But the question of whether a German artist—or any artist, for that matter—could create affective mnemonic representations of the atrocities committed under Nazism continued to plague Richter well past the 1960s. Birkenau, a 2014 series that will be on view in the U.S. for the first time in “Painting After All,” finds Richter reckoning again with the destruction of European Jews during the Holocaust. Named after the largest of the 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex, the series is a response to Richter’s encounter with the only known photographs taken by prisoners inside the camps. The series’ four paintings are based on four of these photographs. Richter has said that he initially began to transfer the images to canvas in 2014. He realized that he wasn’t happy with the result and scraped off what he had painted and painted again until he had four completely abstract images. The abstractions, which in their final iteration are associated with their referent in title but not imagistic representation, dispense with any sense of voyeurism. They showcase neither history nor memory, but the act of not forgetting.
In September (2005), Richter deals with the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Though the tragedy is now closely associated with the words “never forget,” artists have largely struggled with credible mnemonic representations of a day even leading media sources described as “inexpressible.” Four years after the events, Richter, who was flying back to New York from Europe and was diverted to Canada that day, painted a photograph of the Twin Towers shrouded in smoke. With a palette knife the artist scraped streaks over his fuzzy, gray-toned image. Richter says, “…only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen.” The artist hoped it would be seen as “a painting…but not a spectacle and not an illusion.” The photograph is real, the painting is just a memory.
By Sarah E. Fensom