Gerhard Richter: Painting After All
On ViewMet Breuer
From time to time, I receive an inquiry from a gallery far from New York—in London or Los Angeles—asking whether I’d be interested in writing about their exhibitions. Though I relish the idea of hopping a flight to somewhere else to view some art, that’s usually beyond the scope of possibility for me. The thought of trying to portray in words something I haven’t seen in real life feels untruthful, both to the artist and to the reader who might look to my writing. The laptop screen obliterates nuance, excises life force. There aren’t enough pixels in the world to replicate a heartbreaking, gestural brushstroke. If someone had asked me six weeks ago to write a review of an exhibition I couldn’t physically go to see, I would have said no.
Well, that was six weeks ago. On March 4th, the Met Breuer opened Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, a major show of work by one of the most celebrated artists of the late-20th and 21st centuries. Richter had indicated that the exhibition, curated by Sheena Wagstaff and Benjamin Buchloh, was likely to be the last, grand showing of his work in his lifetime (the 88-year-old artist was unable to travel to New York from Germany, where he lives, due to poor health). It was also a swan song to the Met’s tenure in the Whitney Museum’s former flagship. The museum will be vacating the Breuer building later this year after a four-year run of contemporary programming in the space. All in all, it was to be a significant cultural moment for the visual arts in New York. But just a week later, as the COVID-19 pandemic escalated rapidly, the Met, along with virtually all other museums around the world, shuttered its doors to the public, and we all went inside.
Now, Richter’s 100 or so works hang in the galleries only for themselves, a museum bereft of people. The Met has made the entirety of the show available for viewing online during its closure, and gallery shots there indicate that the exhibition’s installation is a masterful fit within the Brutalist architecture of the Breuer building. The work is arranged thematically, rather than strictly chronologically, allowing for the viewer to consider Richter’s varied subjects, practices, and mediums across a spectrum of time, a useful way of looking at an artist who has long eschewed a commitment to format. Richter is a painter who is as comfortable working abstractly as he is realistically. A gallery called “Figuration-Abstraction,” for instance, shows a large canvas, Abstract Painting (2009) hanging in conversation with a much smaller one, S. with Child (1995). The former, from a series of abstract works, is a painting composed of whites, a stripping of color to the point of it nearly becoming a “non-painting,” while the latter, a small canvas depicting the artist’s wife holding the couple’s infant daughter, is rendered as if through a hazy filter, and completed in tones of rosy pinks and sugary reds—nearly the antithesis of the other. The confines of the online installation photography limit how far the viewer is able to delve into this conversation, however, as one can only enlarge the image of the gallery so far before losing resolution, and thus the subject matter itself. The Met’s website makes individual shots of each work in the show available for viewing as well, but this of course negates the dialogue between paintings that was envisioned by the curators.
Elsewhere, one wishes it were possible to give closer consideration to Richter’s Birkenau (2014) cycle, which makes its American debut in this exhibition. Comprised of four paintings that are based on four clandestine photographs taken at the notorious Nazi death camp in 1944 by Jewish prisoners who were forced to dispose of the dead bodies of their brethren, the project also includes four segmented digital copies of the paintings. Richter includes copies of the original photographs alongside his work. The paintings are not facsimiles of the photos. Rather, Richter made drawings from projected copies of the images, then set to work blurring out the subject matter, until it was subsumed in layers of paint. A scrolling graphic on the Met’s website investigates this process, which aids in the understanding of Richter’s methodology. I wished I could have considered the project as a whole.
Richter has returned time and again throughout his 60-year career to Germany’s dark history, and the uneasy role he and his family played in it. (As a child he was recruited into the auxiliary branch of the Hitler Youth, though he was too young to have participated in their activities.) In this exhibition hangs one of his early paintings, Uncle Rudi (1965) an oil-based on a black-and-white photograph of Richter’s uncle, dressed proudly in his Nazi soldier’s uniform. Also included is Aunt Marianne (1965/2018), an inkjet print of another old family photo, of his young aunt tenderly holding the infant Richter. During the war, the Nazis killed Marianne, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, in one of their eugenics programs.
I’m unsure as to whether the inclusion of these horrifying photographs alongside the paintings is instructive or intrusive. It’s a conclusion I could only reach by seeing the installation in person. But until shelter in place orders are lifted, and we can begin to emerge into whatever our new reality will be going forward, the online version will have to suffice. Pixelated and imperfect though they may be, Gerhard Richter: Painting After All and similar online offerings are what we have right now to keep us connected to the potential art has to recognize, frame, and question the meaning of our greater humanity.