The Impossibility of Seeing and Knowing: An Enigmatic German Gets a MoMA Retrospective

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Plagens

The 70-year-old German painter Gerhard Richter is one of those artists whose exhibitions prompt more discussion about the rationale behind the work than what the art looks like. Richter, you see, deliberately paints in a variety of styles. He does a lot of large, squeegeed abstractions--250 of them between 1993 and 1998. But he's a figurative artist, too, who paints from photographs: landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, aerial cityscapes and the odd still life. Perhaps it's this postmodernist multiplicity itself that makes him such an oft-cited influence on ambitious younger painters; they can paint practically anything and still claim a link to the master. And perhaps it's Richter's cachet--rather than the 188 paintings, which seem pretty cold and dry, now on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art--that prompted more than 500 art-world insiders to show up at a black-tie preview dinner.

MoMA's brochure says the question of whether a painter who veers back and forth between abstraction and realism can be taken seriously is precisely the point of Richter's work: "[He] has challenged painting to meet the demands posed by new forms of conceptual art." Conceptual artists--those playful art-world intellects from Marcel Duchamp right up through any number of tyros just out of art school yesterday--think that visual style is a fool's game, a relic of the days when art in museums was confined to brownish old paintings and sculptures. They think that consistency of style is even worse--part of an indulgent myth about overwrought artists (say, van Gogh or Pollock) who supposedly just can't help painting the way they do. Richter's supporters say that his bouncing back and forth between gooey abstraction and fussy photorealism is proof that painting can play the conceptual game, too.

Richter was born in Dresden. His father was in the Wehrmacht, and so was his uncle Rudi, the subject of one of Richter's early, fuzzily existential black-and-white portraits. (The effect comes from the artist's technique of horizontally whisking the still-wet paint with a soft brush. …