Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Paintings I Like, pt. 51

Gerhard Richter, "Administrative Building," 1964. Oil on canvas, 38" x 59."

Gerhard Richter, "Grey Streaks," 1968. Oil on canvas, 79" x 79."

Gerhard Richter, "Red-Blue-Yellow," 1972. Oil on canvas, 59" x 59."

Gerhard Richter, "Man Shot Down 1," 1988. Oil on canvas, 40" x 55."

Gerhard Richter, "Blanket," 1988. Oil on canvas, 79" x 55."

Gerhard Richter, "December," 1989. Oil on canvas, 126" x 158."

Gerhard Richter, "Self-Portrait," 1996. Oil on linen, 20" x 18."

Gerhard Richter, "Abstract Picture," 1999. Oil on aluminum panel, 19" x 22."

Gerhard Richter, "Court Chapel, Dresden," 2000. Oil on canvas, 32" x 37."

As I mentioned in the 50th installment of Paintings I Like, I recently took a look at the series and saw the gaps - not in art historical terms, but in terms of painters I really admire but have yet to include. The three painters who most influence the way I think about painting are Bridget Riley, featured in P.IL. #50, Manet, who pops up on these pages again and again, and Gerhard Richter, who has yet to appear in Paintings I Like.

I used the phrase "the way I think about painting" to mean something broader than "the way I paint." Riley clearly has the greatest influence on the latter in the way that she articulated space and used diminishing contrast to create atmosphere. Manet's playful and ambivalent approach to subject, underscored by his cut-and-paste perspective is endlessly interesting to me, and his confident, shorthand approach to the application of paint gives me a real thrill.

And I think Richter is one of those epochal painters - the way that Manet was in the mid-19th century and Pollock was in the mid-20th. A lot of people (including myself) couldn't quite see this until Robert Storr's excellent retrospective at MoMA in 2002, and there are still many detractors (many whom I know personally). The pictures in the show were mostly terrific - there are always a few duds in a show that big - but more importantly that body of work taken as a whole represents a very different way of thinking about painting.

The end of history and the slippery nature of identity have been two of the dominant themes in art since the '60's and '70's. But when taken up self-consciously as subject, these things tend to lapse into illustrations of philosophical or theoretical concepts - the kiss of death in my estimation. To see Richter's development since his first "official" painting ("Table," 1962, assigned the number GR1 by Richter) is to see these things playing themselves out in practice. The extent to which Richter intended this is very much up for grabs - he's notoriously coy and loves to drop cryptic and/or inflammatory comments, but the fact remains that he appeared on the scene as an artist without a stable history or identity.

As the painter George Hofmann once pointed out to me, growing up in Germany after WWII is about as close as one could come to growing up without a tangible history. The Nazi suppression of modern art followed by the occupation and the split between east and west, the horror and shame as the footage of the camps began to circulate, the level of destruction and the trials all made 1945 the year zero in the story of modern Germany. For an artist, this could be a burden or a boon; the former because it gives you few clues as to where or how to begin. But then again, how many painters get to start with a tabula rasa? Contrast this to the schooled western painter who must go through Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, up through Picasso, Matisse and so on.

To largely skip the whole parade of western art history is also to skip the idea that one must adopt a signature style and stick to it. Richter developed a few key techniques, most notably the blurring of wet oil paint, and then applied them to a variety of approaches and subjects: things that fit his technique (like pictures of cars and buildings blurred by speed and also the abstract paintings), things that had meaning for him (like pictures of his family and various German themes), and leftovers from magazines and ads. This last category is notable, because western pop culture loves nothing better than to replace local culture, and if there is a vacuum in this regard, its job is that much easier. Seen as a group, there's a logic to Richter's body of work that gives it as much cohesion as a signature motif might, but at the same time shows an indifference to the pre-1960's notion of what constitutes an artist's identity.

It is now fairly common practice for an artist to work in several styles simultaneously, and it's quite a natural way to proceed - craftsmen do it routinely. It can only be called eclectic or idiosyncratic if you internalize the idea that it's wrong or unnatural or amateurish. These attitudes are not self-evident; they have to be learned, and the ease with which they are disappearing are proof of their conventional nature. One would have to count Richter as an early exponent of this very modern approach to studio practice and the tacit disavowal that an artist's personality is a monolithic thing that can be summed up in a pictorial motif.