Toward the end of the Gerhard Richter retrospective at MoMA—one of the largest the museum has ever devoted to a contemporary artist—there's an untypical work that nevertheless suggests a metaphor for his career. Gray Mirror (1992) consists of two rectangular canvases painted in Richter's beloved midtone gray and covered with glass, causing the panels to reflect the viewer. So it is with Richter's work: Encountering his staggeringly diverse olio of styles and methods, people naturally construe the whole according to what they value. Those who believe in the death of painting applaud Richter's deadpan images as ironic anti-art gestures. Others find reflections of their own agendas: the relevance of painting today, the need for a revitalization of realism, the virtuosity or fatuity of such a diverse approach, an appreciation of an old-masterish attention to history, a much-needed espousal of seriousness, an admirably robust independence, and so on.
At 70, Richter comes with a CV replete with all the Cold War horrors and tensions: Nazis in the family, forced participation in Hitler Youth, an East German childhood, flight to the West. Not surprisingly, considering this biography, Richter's career has been characterized by an unwillingness to march in step with any particular art movement or aesthetic ideology. He began by making crisp, though deliberately smudged, usually black-and-white representational paintings of snapshots and images torn from magazines and newspapers (see Cell, left) and, without renouncing that style, continually added others: broad-stroke, expressive cityscapes; hard-edged abstract pictures that look like industrial paint-chip samples; images of color photographs; and what is now seen as his characteristic abstract style—layered, striated, and alive with jangling colors.
Partly because he didn't fit into preconceived notions of what German artists were supposed to do—expressionism—and partly because German art has been relatively neglected in the United States since World War I, he didn't receive much attention in this country until the '80s. The MoMA exhibition more than doubles the number of pieces shown in his last American retrospective. And, with front-page coverage in the New York Times Magazine and numerous articles elsewhere, not to mention such grand attention by the grandest of modern art museums, Richter has at last been anointed a master. As MoMA director Glenn Lowry puts it, "No artist of the postwar era merits this kind of attention more than Gerhard Richter."
Though the arguments for his greatness are various, they generally arrive at some version of how, as the wall text at MoMA puts it, Richter's command of so many genres "raises fundamental questions about the truth of visual appearances—in particular the 'facts' recorded by the camera. …" But this reasoning ignores the evidence before our eyes. We live in an extraordinarily sophisticated visual culture, and we navigate digitally altered photos, appropriated images, mixed visual modes, and ironic advertising every day with ease. So it seems unlikely that a painting of a snapshot will trip viewers into fundamentally questioning the truth of representations. Besides, countless artists have already toyed with the line between photography and painting.
Nor is Richter necessarily a great artist, someone who changes the way we view art and the world. He deliberately focuses on trite subjects—a roll of toilet paper, an unremarkable landscape, a snapshot—and renders potentially dramatic subjects, like murder victims or fighter planes, in the neutral idioms of mass media. Because he traces his source images (rather than drawing them freehand), they take on a deadened quality, and he emphasizes their banality by blurring the image, making them look like unfocused photos. After 40 years of work, this technique begins to seem more like a crutch than a habit. Similar to the blurring effect is his impulse to obscure a painting when its subject is too emotionally heated, for instance in S. with Child (1995), a portrait of his wife breast-feeding his son, or in his Self-Portrait (1996). And, lovely as they are, the abstractions are all made essentially the same way.
For better or worse, Richter doesn't paint masterpieces—single, ambitious works around which an exhibition might be grouped and which viewers remember individually. Our enthusiasm for him grows by viewing the sweep of his paintings, not by standing in front of a single canvas. Consider his most notorious work, October 18, 1977, a suite of 15 paintings memorializing the deaths of the last of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Michael Kimmelman called it "simply the only great art yet made about terrorism." Yet it seems to me that sheer prurience (Ooh, terrorists!) leads museums and critics to loft it above his other work. Without the lengthy wall text (the only work in this show that requires such explanation), one would have no idea what these images refer to—how, for instance, the dead people portrayed actually died, or what the significance of the library image or the typewriter is, and why Richter chose these particular images to memorialize a group of now half-remembered radicals.
Richter's grade inflation is troubling because such overstatement draws attention away from the apparently outmoded gift Richter gives to his audience—the pleasures of looking at a painted image. "I can't paint as well as Vermeer," says Richter in an interview. Don't buy it; one glance at a painting such as Betty (1988) convinces me that he is just being cannily self-deprecating. Paradoxically for a guy who triggers distrust in "the truth of visual appearances," what one finds walking through the show is how enjoyable, how completely satisfying a painted image is. None of the snapshots from which his images are taken hold any real pictorial interest in themselves, and yet, simply by painting them they become immensely attractive. Take a look at the catalog reproductions: The images look mundane, anesthetized. In person, the paintings look so much more contingent, clearly the products of a unique human fallibility, the result of choice and touch, and because of this, they have life, purely by virtue of having been painted. Reminding us of the satisfactions of paint is a wonderful and much-needed thing these days. Beyond that, Richter needs no embellishment. By bringing a seriousness of purpose and an exquisite sensibility to painting, Richter has already surpassed what are today our much-diminished expectations.