Gerhard Richter at The Museum of Modern Art

Gerhard Richter, October 18, 1977 (1988), a series of fifteen oil on canvas paintings; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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The retrospective of paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter, currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art, is the most depressing exhibition of art I have ever seen.

Do I exaggerate? Hardly. While there have been ample opportunities to rue the state of the contemporary art scene, there has never been a show as intensely dispiriting as this one. Walking through it I became sick to my stomach–a fact I wasn’t going to mention, so as to avoid charges of critical overkill. Yet after bumping into acquaintances who suffered a similar turning of the stomach upon visiting Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, I’ve decided to make my nausea public. It gives me no pleasure to do so.

It should be stated at the outset that the physical response to Richter’s work has little to do with what the pictures portray. There are no bisected cows or trails of turd at MOMA. Most of Richter’s subjects are mundane:  landscapes, flowers, the wife and kids, as well as spin-offs of Abstract Expressionism.

So how does Forty Years of Painting nauseate?  Through its philosophy or, more to the point, its lack of philosophy. Richter is an artist who paints about nothing. He’s a void. This isn’t what his admirers would like us to believe.

Robert Storr, MOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture and the exhibition’s organizer, wrote that Richter’s pictures “articulated the sometimes dazzling, sometimes disquieting condition of being plural.” Storr also believes they warrant comparisons to Vermeer. Michael Kimmelman, the chief art critic of The New York Times, declared Richter “Europe’s most challenging modern painter” and “a true believer in painting.”

These are impressive statements. The only thing they illuminate, however, is the depth of their authors’ delusions. Richter is incapable of articulation, just as he’s incapable of belief. As for “Europe’s greatest modern painter”, let’s just say that Richter isn’t fit to shine Max Beckmann’s shoes. Why Richter insists on putting brush to canvas is a question that’s left unanswered at MOMA.

Renowned for pursuing several types of painting simultaneously, Richter is (as a friend jokes) “the only artist who is his own group show.” Walking through MOMA’s chronological survey, we watch Richter flit from one mode to another:  Pop pastiche, photo-realism, photo-expressionism, luminism, gestural abstraction, hard-edge abstraction, paintings on glass and even sculpture. The diversity of this output puts me in mind of a curator I once heard speak derisively of “the absolute truth of style.” Richter holds style in similar contempt. The brochure accompanying the MOMA show lauds his “restless and uncompromising sensibility.”

One is tempted to say that this restlessness might be an evasive strategy designed to obscure a deficit of character. But, reading on, we discover that Richter’s stylistic leap-frogging is nothing of the sort, being ineluctably influenced by the ascendance of the Third Reich and the devastation of the Second World War. His pictorial variousness embodies “all the contradictory thoughts and emotions that accompany remembrance of the political illusions and horrific consequences of National Socialism.” Again, we are presented with high-minded verbiage meant to underscore the serious nature of Richter’s accomplishment.

But the truth is Richter is too vacuous an intellect to tell us about a century as catastrophic as the one that just passed. To pretend otherwise is to indulge in intellectual chicanery of a dangerous sort.

Besides, the “restlessness” of Richter oeuvre has been oversold. What unifies the work from the get-go–that is to say, from 1962, the starting point of the MOMA show–is futility and disaffection. Here is an artist who has no use for art and a painter with no feel for painting. What Richter does is engage in pictorial games–about representation, abstraction and the ubiquity of the photographic image. These are legitimate subjects of investigation. Yet Richter, who manipulates oils with efficient distaste, doesn’t do much more than distract himself with these issues. It’s little wonder that visitors to Forty Years of Painting drift through the show without paying much attention to it. People aren’t stupid; they know when they’re being had. Why invest one’s emotional and intellectual resources in art that lacks any kind of investment in the first place?

The only gallery visitors to MOMA do stop and look–or, rather, read–is at the explanatory wall panel preceding Richter’s infamous October 18, 1977, a suite of fifteen pictures dedicated to the Baader-Meinhof gang, a group of radicals who sought the overthrow of the German democratic government. Directly referencing a group of terrorists was a provocative gambit, but to peg Richter as a political provocateur–even one whose politics are, at best, dubious and, at worst, despicable–is to credit him with more gumption than he can claim. Richter is beyond calculation. His vacuity is no schtick. Richter is a cipher oblivious to his own lack of imagination.

“No future!” was the rallying cry of one of the favorite songs of my youth. It was this refrain that entered my head unbidden as I wandered through Forty Years of Painting. This is the last major show to be seen at MOMA’s 53rd Street location before it closes for renovation and expansion. What this numbing show portends for our premier museum of modern art is a matter of acute concern. Of equal concern is what the institutional ratification of Richter’s art augurs for the future of painting.

His work has already had a significant influence on contemporary art. One would like to say that it has been wholly dire, but that isn’t the case. Bill Jensen, whose show of works-on-paper recently closed at Danese Gallery, has looked at Richter’s squeeged runs of paint, been intrigued by them and has made something warm-blooded and real out of the chilliest expertise.

If Storr had the independence and courage–in short, the moxie–he would’ve mounted a retrospective of Jensen’s art as the send-off for the MOMA in which a lot of us came of age. If he had done so, Storr would have made a point:  about how the art of painting has a rich past and an unlimited future; how metaphor can be magic and material a pleasure; and how MOMA still cares about the life of art. The senior curator chose, instead, to celebrate a man who operates under the assumption that “the wonderful time of painting is over.” There’s the future for you: no future.

Friends like Richter and Storr, art can do without.

© 2011 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the March 18, 2002 edition of The New York Observer.

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