Gerhard Richter: Painting After All

Gerhard Richter (from a 2011 Documentary) 

Gerhard Richter is a master of styles, of technique, and above all, a commentator on photo-representation in the second half of the 20th Century. He’s been called “one of the greatest artists of our times,” “a capitalist realist,” and a painter of “thought pictures.” He appears to have followed every ‘ism, copied every fashion, and yet, in his own way, commented, interpreted and added layers of meaning to everything he makes. “Representation and Abstraction,” “History and Memory” are two of his lifelong themes, beginning with his unique, photo-based paintings that from a distance look like photographs but, upon close inspection, are paintings. 

Uncle Rudi, 1965
Werner Heyde and his family, 1965
Werner Hyde, 1965

Born in 1932 in Dresden – bombed to smithereens by Allied forces towards the end of World War II — he grew up in Soviet-dominated East Germany and trained as a Socialist Realist painter before moving to the West. Early paintings in this exhibition reveal how he tried to deal with Germany’s past – including his Nazi relatives – both as subject matter and style. His portraits are soft, blurred images that are haunting. When he applies his photo-based technique to other subjects, especially the natural world, his images are hauntingly beautiful. 

Ice, 1981
Seascape, 1975
Farm, 1999

There are many reasons to see this exhibition, among them the unhappy fact that it will be the final major Met Museum show in the Breuer building. In addition, it may be the last major exhibition of 88-year-old Richter’s monumental work. (It will travel to L.A. in the Fall.)

I was charmed and seduced by his unique photo-based paintings, as well as his use of reflective surfaces – including glass and Plexiglas. 

House of Cards – Two Views, 2020
Grey Mirror, 4 Parts – 2018
Daughter Betty, 1977
Daughter Betty, 1977

I was less impressed by Gerhard’s other styles (mainly on the 3rd Floor), which struck me as derivative. 

Forest, 2005 (one of 12)
Strip, 2013
4,900 Colors, 2007

Richter’s controversial “Birkenau” paintings are his attempt, in part, to deal with four gruesome photographs of guards dealing with naked dead bodies (which are part of this exhibition), apparently taken by prisoners in Birkenau and smuggled out. As unreferenced abstracts his paintings might have some power, but as interpretive messages from the Holocaust they are failures.

Clearly, Richter, like so many of his German contemporaries, remains haunted by his country’s past. I prefer his original, youthful take on this subject. His “Uncle Rudi” says it all. 

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag

Gerhard Richter: Painting After All
Met Breuer, Closes July 5th 

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (24 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.