Before it closed only nine days after opening due to the covid-19 outbreak, the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Met Breuer was set to be quite the important affair. One senses that the Met’s directorship had pulled all the stops to make its final exhibition in the Breuer building, which it has occupied since 2016, a smashing success.
In a sense, however, the prematurely shuttered exhibition is a fitting end to the Met’s tenure on Madison Avenue, which was also cut shorter than originally intended. (The Met will reportedly hand over the final three years of its contract in the building to the Frick Collection as the latter undergoes its own renovation and expansion.) I can’t think of an artist more apt than Richter to preside over this last gasp of the Met’s Thomas Campbell–led expansion project. The German artist (born in Dresden in 1932), whose work offers all the warmth and aesthetic joy of Marcel Breuer’s concrete behemoth, is nonetheless a market star and perhaps the most over-hyped phenomenon of the last fifty years in art. Richter’s paintings regularly sell for twenty million dollars or more, a circumstance that has begotten a veritable industry of curators and critics who lavish praise on his every move. Just take a look at the exhibition’s catalogue and marketing materials. In a cultural age inclined to rebuke any suggestion of genius-worship (especially if said genius is an old white male), hardly can we read Richter’s name without finding some variation on “one of the greatest artists of our time” elsewhere in the sentence.
Richter’s massive success in the art world comes from his preternatural ability to ape serious-looking artistic modes and at the same time maintain an impenetrable barrier of postmodernist nihilism between himself and the objects he constructs. This denial of self runs through all his art, from the photorealist pictures to the “squeegee” abstractions, made by pulling uneven layers of pigment across the canvas with a long blade. In Richter’s hands, the randomized squeegee surfaces act as a sort of lampooning pastiche of Abstract Expressionist facture, and these works have become perhaps the most recognizable and brandable objects in the artist’s oeuvre. (Less well known, of course, are the far superior squeegee paintings made by the African American artist Jack Whitten in the 1970s, at least a decade before Richter took blade to canvas in this fashion. Shockingly, no credit of this important precedent is given to Whitten in any of the numerous and extensive essays found in the exhibition’s catalogue.)
Richter has the whimsicality of an accountant.
Richter’s squeegee paintings, like all his art, are entirely about the assertion of surface, about denying any sense of emotional depth or human touch to the viewer. It’s a Dadaist, Pop Art sensibility, but whereas Duchamp and Warhol seemed to infuse their art world pranks with a sense of levity and humor, Richter has the whimsicality of an accountant. Hence the Very Serious subject matter: 9/11, skulls, coffin bearers, Nazis, the Holocaust, and the like. Then there are his Color Charts, which (one curator claims in the exhibition’s catalogue) “display an almost abysmal and vertiginous sense of pulsation and boundlessness, which the artist achieved by putting painting in thrall of relentlessly progressing systems of permutation and variation.” Really, they are boring panels of gridded squares whose colors were randomly generated by a computer algorithm. Richter’s idea here (as represented by a five-panel “chart” from 2007, 4,900 Colors) seems to be that maybe it would be better for all if we just let our iPhones think and feel for us.
A similar sacrifice at the altar of technology is at play in what seems to be the centerpiece of the exhibition, titled Birkenau, after KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest extermination camp in the Nazi’s Auschwitz complex. The cycle of four abstract squeegee paintings is said to have derived from the famous Sonderkommando photographs taken illicitly of the slaughter by camp inmates, which are reproduced near the wall text explaining Richter’s gambit. But with no visible evidence of those heartrending underlying images left on the canvases themselves, the works read just as blankly as any other Richter abstraction. Presumably to stave off accusations of monetizing the suffering of Holocaust victims, the artist has declared that the paintings cannot be sold. But Richter is one of those blue-chip artists who deplores the excesses of the art market while doing nothing to alter his very profitable relationship to it: hanging in the room opposite the four large works are giclée printed duplicates of the same works, which will likely sell for many millions. Painting after all, indeed.
Editor’s note: Owing to the closure of museums due to the covid-19 outbreak, exhibition dates and traveling schedules may change.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 9, on page 51
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