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Gerhard Richter: "Painting After All" at the Met Breuer and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, Oil on canvas, 8 ft. 6 3/8 in. × 78 3/4 in. (260 × 200 cm). Private collection

Gerhard Richter: Painting After All

Met Breuer

March 4 – July 5, 2020

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

August 14, 2020 – January 19, 2021

By JAN CASTRO, March 2020

Gerhard Richter’s art speaks to us of pandemics, the holocaust, and dark times. His figurative and abstract work mirrors Germany’s and the world’s struggles since World War II to face human conditions from birth to death and horrific moments in history that scream to be remembered. This exhibition opens with viewers’s images reflected in sheets of stacked glass: Richter often turns glass, usually seen as transparent, into a reflexive medium, and he uses mirrors to emphasize how much we are all in the picture. Also at the exhibition entrance is a blurry view of 9/11:  blue sky and the twin towers with two jets heading into them. This show covering floors 4 and 3 of the Met Breuer climaxes in a large interior gallery in which four paintings titled Birkenau, 2014 face four inkjet prints of the same images; a wall-sized mirror between the paintings and prints displays both walls, viewers, and the brown tones in the floor squares and the coffin-like recessed rectangles on the ceiling of the Breuer building. Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, opened in 1940 and turned an industrial town in Southern Poland into a murder factory where an estimated 1.3 million people died or were killed. The four Birkenau paintings seem abstract but were originally based on four blurry photos clandestinely taken at the death camp. In one, Richter’s signature abstract style of layering colors and then scraping some parts away shows a ghost-like white layer that peers through darker hues and surfaces. Horizontal and vertical scraped surfaces evoke ashes, time, the seasons. Viewers may see an ovoid pinkish head shape and a darker head shape behind it. Many messages seem embedded in this work. Each painting represents not just the multiplicity of lives lost but the layers of history that each human, each city, and each country contains. The inkjet prints face and duplicate the paintings – like copycat mass murders since the holocaust. The wall mirror gathers together viewers, the Breuer architecture, and Richter’s art. It’s preachy but too true that hate crimes by individuals, organized groups, and some governments are rising. Are we are all complicit – and responsible – for what happens next?

'Gerhard Richter, Painting After All' at The Met Breuer, 2020. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Chris Heins

Gerhard Richter: Painting After All at The Met Breuer (4 March – July 5, 2020) opens somberly and then leads to a series of abstract scraped paintings from 2016-17. These are among the paintings viewers see Richter creating in a nearby film on the artist’s process. They are among my favorite works in the show, in part due to the use of bright green and red hues but also because no “story” is attached. I don’t have to picture  blood and fire for the reds. These works open the exhibition and end the 270-page catalog that accompanies the exhibition. The red-spined, large, and gorgeous catalog includes essays by Sheena Wagstaff, The Met’s Chair of Modern and Contemporary Art, Benjamin Buchloh, Peter Geimer, Briony Fer, Brinda Kumar, André Rottman, and Hal Foster, and it offers much-needed background materials on Richter’s considerable body of work. 

Pictured in the exhibition but not discussed in the catalog are Richter’s 1966 blurry portraits of Eight Student Nurses --in white blouses and sporting old-fashioned hairdos, they look as innocent as I looked in high school. The nurses were murdered by Richard Speck in Chicago in 1966. 

Curiously missing are the fifteen paintings that electrified the art world when I was young – the Baader-Meinhof gang. Look them up online. There is not ONE mention of them. Space does not permit a full discussion of these left-wing “terrorists” who believed capitalism was evil.  Richter’s  15-painting cycle titled  October 18, 1977, created between March and November, 1988, showed several innocent-looking blurry young people and some blurry scenes related to the probable murder of these individuals in their prison cells. The German government claimed they committed mass suicide in prison. Why is this totally left out? 

Gerhard Richter, Vesuvius, 1976, Oil on wood, 28 3/4 × 41 5/16 in. (73 × 105 cm). Frame: 33 3/16 × 43 7/16 × 3 1/2 in. (84.3 × 110.3 × 8.9 cm). The Long View Legacy Trust, LLC

As the show bounces between hand-painted abstract work, figurative soft-focus paintings of babies, the bare back of an ex-wife, and the sideways head of Richter’s youngest daughter, the viewer gets the idea that babies and women are nice but somehow blurry and not his thing, that family is nice as long as he is on top -- as he is in the only family portrait in the show. Seeing the symbolism of everything is paramount. Forests can be a place of refuge or terror, animals in the forest can be safe or hunted, and almost every facet of life has multiple levels and meanings. His clear, famous portrait of his oldest daughter Betty is missing from the show.

Gerhard Richter, 1932, Alps, 1968, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 in. × 21 ft. 3 7/8 in. (200 × 650 cm). Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Former collection of Karl Ströher, Darmstadt

As the exhibition moves from floor 4 to floor 3, the first large gallery has giant color grid paintings that were made according to an algorithm. The artist’s participation was minimal – to select the size of the canvas and the size of each square and perhaps to select the color range; the rest is the result of mechanical operations. Colors compete, mix, match, and otherwise offer bright mechanical-looking combinations. In contrast, last fall The Shed offered an animated Richter show with a live orchestra’s playful music to accompany morphing images. 

In the final gallery, an untitled 1968 abstract work ( 31 ½ x 15 ¼”) offers an expressive, upward-curving cluster of oil on canvas vertical brush strokes at once simple, fluent, and mysterious. Richter’s strength, clearly, is taking his brush strokes in every direction we can imagine and in some directions we could never imagine; his work speaks both to the primacy of painting and to the horrors some paintings face head-on. WM

Jan Garden Castro

Jan Garden Castro (www.jancastro.com) is author/editor of six books, including The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine, and contributor for American Book Review. She has a major essay in a new edition of The Handmaid’s Tale (www.suntup.press/Atwood).

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