For an artist in his late 80s, Gerhard Richter has managed to remain surprisingly provocative. Critics have posited that his punk attitude exposes political contradictions that few can face. This is true to an extent. Many fail to acknowledge, however, that Richter is an archetype of accelerationism. Digital copies of his most popular paintings, particularly his abstractions, are reproduced for his museum and gallery exhibitions so frequently that the originals elicit newfound symbolic and financial value. This technique enshrouds the artist in a sort of mystery, granting him long-standing industry preeminence.
Richter’s latest retrospective at the Met Breuer, Painting After All, opens with one of his most controversial paintings, “September” (2005). His bleak representation of the 9/11 attacks blends realism and abstraction, with the smoking towers and blue sky fragmented by deep cuts into painted wood. This work has only ever been displayed as a digital print behind glass — with the original long held in storage at the Museum of Modern Art — and its placement in the gallery entryway beside more innocuous works like “Table” (1962) and “11 Panes” (2004) prepares the viewer for an artist who deals casually in enigma and controversy. Overall, this exhibition traces a lineage not of progress but of continual return. As Richter revisits each motif and theme, his motives become more commercial and the results less human.
Painting is a malleable concept for Richter, who has worked with landscape, photorealism, sculpture, and digital printing over six decades. While he maintains a semi-private lifestyle, he has detailed his experiences on the fringe of global disaster. He grew up in Germany under the Third Reich and fled to Düsseldorf during the Cold War. He was also on a plane bound for New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001, with his flight promptly redirected to Halifax. This proximity to horror, combined with the high profitability of his abstract paintings, has provided him a sort of carte blanche in the art world that goes largely unquestioned.
Early in his career, Richter painted from experience. As a young enrollee in the Deutches Jungvolk, a branch of the Hitler Youth mandatory for children under 14, he was indoctrinated into the Nazi Party’s ideology while his father and uncle both served in Hitler’s army. His portrait of “Uncle Rudi” (1965) in uniform pairs stylistically with “Aunt Marianne” (1965), a similarly hazy portrait of the artist as an infant in his 14-year-old aunt’s arms. Years after painting the latter, Richter discovered that she had been euthanized in a program connected to his father-in-law, the SS doctor Heinrich Eufinger. By running a dry brush over wet paint, Richter replicated these images only in essence, keeping them definitively in the past.
What does it mean for a German artist with Nazi family connections to abstract photographs from the Holocaust? The exhibition’s main centerpiece, Birkenau (2014), invites the viewer to sympathize with the artist. Surely it must have been painful for Richter to reckon with Sonderkommando photographs smuggled from Auschwitz, which he first encountered in the 1950s and revisited for the series. Streaks of blood red and forest green cut across shades of gunmetal in four large horizontal paintings, with four digital reproductions displayed on the opposite wall. Despite their emotional weight, these eight massive pieces feel like some kind of erasure. Considering their visual similarities to his highest-selling abstractions, it seems strange that decades of contemplation led the artist to obscure victims of genocide within his most marketable style.
The exhibition effectively portrays Richter’s all-encompassing approach to painting across two floors of the Breuer. Blurred portraits of family give way to detailed landscapes, primarily based on photographs from his ongoing Atlas series. While he experimented with numerous pictorial styles, he also pushed the limits of abstraction in chromatic designs like “4,900 Colors” (2007) and “Strip” (2013). The artist’s digital work reflects his infatuation with algorithms and chance as well as his desire to remove human gestures from painting. The curators fail to connect this intention to Richter’s treatment of more sensitive subjects, instead depicting him as a loner reacting to trends. In reality, other German artists like Anselm Kiefer were similarly reckoning with historical guilt while leaning into crude irony for shock value.
Strategically placed mirrors and glassworks encourage the viewer’s self-reflection, yet the exhibition cleverly avoids Richter’s market-based prestige. We are led to believe instead that his success comes despite indifference to high-budget art sales. Ironically, Richter is highly critical of the prices his pieces fetch at auction, even claiming that the market is “incomprehensible.” That said, one cannot help but wonder whether this retrospective has anything to do with his recent downturn in bidding. Richter is undoubtedly an impressive painter, one who exhibits a mastery of practice but confusion of tone. After so much industry praise, it can be difficult to tell when an artist is making a personal statement or just capitalizing on someone else’s tragedy.
Gerhard Richter: Painting After All was originally scheduled to continue through July 5 at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, its closing date is yet to be announced. The exhibition was curated by Sheena Wagstaff and Brinda Kumar.
Editor’s note: Physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing pandemic. Cognizant of the continued importance of discussions around art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore this exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate to mitigate against the spread of the virus. A preview and virtual tour of the exhibition is available, along with a feature-length documentary about the artist.