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