Artist Richter's fame exceeds his talent

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 2, 2002 at 11:36 AM
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NEW YORK, May 2 (UPI) -- The large retrospective exhibition covering 40 years of work by Gerhard Richter at the Museum of Modern Art proves that this German painter's reputation as one of Europe's leading contemporary artists far exceeds his talents.

Nevertheless, Richter may be the world's most expensive living artist, with paintings sold privately in the $10 million to $15 million range. An auction record of $4.9 million for one of his paintings, "Three Candles," was set at a Sotheby's sale last year.

The 70-year-old German painter who lives in Cologne could have been a more impressive artist if he had depended less on photo adaptations for subject matter and painted more from life or imagination. His abstract expressionist paintings, the least known aspect of his work in America, represent his strongest vision.

The show of 188 paintings, to run through May 21 then move on to Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., is the last major exhibition at MOMA before it closes for renovation and expansion and moves to a satellite gallery in the borough of Queens until it reopens in Manhattan in 2005.

If the museum wanted to go out with a bang, it should have chosen some other artist.

Richter is technically a superb draftsman and can be an electric colorist, but he has leapfrogged through so many styles of painting without forming any strong artistic philosophy that it can make a viewer's head spin. He has tried photo-realism, blurred photo-expressionism, soft and hard edge abstraction, pop, minimalism, conceptualism and even paintings on glass.

Some of his most disturbingly paintings, vacuous when they should be challenging, are a series completed in 1988 titled "October 18, 1977." It consists of 15 pictures tied to the deaths in prison of the Baader-Meinof gang of terrorists who attempted overthrow of the German government. Painted in unrelieved tones of gray in Richter's most unfocused style, they seem to be more elegiac than critical.

A 1997 oil, "Demo," depicts demonstrators carrying red banners in an urban setting, but it has no specific political message. Whatever politics creeps into Richter's generally bland subject matter is the result of his early life under the Nazis and Communists in East Germany before he moved to West Germany in 1961 and began painting in earnest.

Among his earliest work is "Mouth," a close-up of an open mouth that recalls Edvard Munch's "The Cry," a gray-and-white semi abstraction of a funeral procession titled "The Coffin Bearers," and a confusing 1965 painting of his Uncle Rudi in Nazi uniform posed in front of a detention barrier but smiling happily. His soft-edge 1983 painting of a skull, recalling 16th century "memento mori" paintings, is his most effective, though unoriginal symbol of the terrible century in which he was living.

Richter's figural work is always refined, however fuzzy in conception. His photo-inspired profile portrait of his wife, Sabine, reading a magazine recalls a Jan Vermeer in detail, right down to the pearls she is wearing. It is exquisite but still an unnecessarily secondhand approach to the subject.

There can be overtones of cruelty in these photo-realist works. A snapshot-like portrait of his father, Horst, looking silly and inebriated and holding a white dog with bared teeth, represents the reverse of nostalgia, and some of his female nudes have no more redeeming qualities than the smut magazine photos from which they were copied.

A feeling of pessimism pervades the show and is underscored by one of Richter's comments quoted in a wall label: "Art has always basically been about agony, desperation, and helplessness." Speak for yourself, Richter! Many artists have felt that art is about joy, optimism, inspiration, and above all, beauty.

Not that Richter's paintings can't be beautiful. His 1982 oil study showing a cloud-enveloped iceberg floating in a glassy blue-green sea is gripping in the same way fantasy scenes by 19th century German romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich are captivating. But again, he is working with borrowed, not fresh, ideas.

Where originality comes in is in the artist's abstract work, which emerged in the 1970s and introduced more color to his work. The earliest on view are "Red, Blue, Yellow," an engrossing composition of wavy, entwined streamers in muted colors and a huge color board titled "256 Colors" that apes color selection cards put out by paint shops.

By the 1980s, the abstracts were big and slashing, as typified by a zig-zag composition, "Marsan." The best is an 1989 suite of three panels titled "November," "December," and "January," in black and white vertical patterns with inclusions of sticky color." One of the most recent, painted only two years ago, is a ghostly gray canvas with raking vertical figures presided over by an ectoplasmic presence.

Compared to these works, which provide the viewer with food for thought, a whole stairwell of Richter's photo-like portraits of famous people -- Enrico Fermi, Andre Gide, Igor Stravinsky, Albert Einstein, etc. - adds up to a banal display. And Richter's in-focus studies of flowers don't show even as much artistic input as do Andy Warhol's silk screen flower paintings.

Richter just might have been a great landscape painter if he had gotten away from derivative camera imagery. You can see this in an oil on linen titled "Waterfall," two paintings - "Barn" and "Meadowland" - in the atmospheric style of French Barbizon landscapes, grayish bird's eye views of Jerusalem and Madrid, and a mountainous panorama titled "Himalaya."

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Paintings (Museum of Modern Art, 336 pages, $75).

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