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Volume 18, Number 30 Thursday, August 1, 2002
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Gerhard Richter at the Chicago Art Institute : A Different Point of View by Barbara Stodola
Gerhard Richter, the German artist currently fea- tured at the Art Institute of Chicago, has done his best to confound the international art world of artists, crit- ics, dealers and scholars. The general art browser, more accustomed to happy summertime shows, will be equally puzzled.
The promotional poster image of “Betty,” showing us the back of her head, is a good clue that this exhi- bition presents a different point of view. For that matter, the very choice of Gerhard Richter has caused some wonderment, since the Art Institute rarely devotes so much space to a living artist.
Learning who he is leads quickly to the realization that Richter grew up in Nazi Germany, his father and uncles served in Hitler’s army, and those airplanes he painted are Allied planes dropping bombs on his homeland – subjects for a long time deemed taboo. The fact is, however, that Richter was only 13 years old when Dresden was bombed and he saw World War II through a kid’s eyes: “There were weapons and can- nons and guns and cigarettes. It was fantastic.”
Richter’s statements have always caught people off- guard, as have the subjects he painted: young revo- lutionaries found shot in their prison cells, rolls of toi- let paper, an occasional prostitute and, an especially morbid topic for Chicagoans, the eight student nurs- es murdered in 1966. Despite the lurid nature of his subjects, Richter’s paintings are neither sensational nor gruesome, and that is where their contradictory character becomes apparent. Death is treated often, but there are no bloody death scenes. Quite to the con- trary, the paintings depicting victims are rendered in neutral gray tones and – as a further remove from real- ity – they are based on old newspaper photographs.
The first six galleries of this large exhibition are filled almost entirely with gray paintings – BLURRY gray paintings. The consistency of this blurriness causes us spectators to readjust our eyeglasses and then, realizing our glasses are not the problem, we con- centrate less on the subjects and more on the artist’s style. In some cases there is a credible fusion, such as the “High Diver” who seems to be spinning faster than the camera’s film could catch her. Richter’s own
explanation was, “I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant.”
Still, he resisted being type-cast as an artist who did blurry paintings, so he did another type of paint- ing altogether – “color charts”, which can readily be identified as the type of paint-chip samples put out by house-paint companies. They are sharp-edged saturated color chips, artfully arranged but suppos- edly at random, so as to avoid our attempts at theo- rizing.
“Betty” (1988) is a portrait of Richter’s daughter. The viewpoint chosen by the artist makes it clear that he does not want to
be type-cast as a portrait painter, although he often does paintings of family members.
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Museum of Modern Art, New York. Copyright Gerhard Richter. Photo John Wronn.
“Meadowland” (1985) is one of the
subtly colored landscapes Richter
painted when his work was evolv-
ing out of the “gray corner” where
he had dead-ended in the late
1970s. It shows a love of the land
deeply rooted in the German
Park Hyatt Collection, Chicago. Copyright Gerhard Richter. Photo Courtesy Park Hyatt Collection, Chicago.
“Cathedral Square, Milan” (1968) is a large
gray painting produced in Richter’s
characteristic blurry style. Like many others
from this time-period, it is based on an old
black and white photo. Richter considered
this piece a memorial to all the buildings
damaged and destroyed during World War II.
August 1, 2002 Page 3
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In this exhibit, the introductory “Color Chart” (1974) is a large painting of 256 color chips; it is placed on an important wall, opposite a gray “Stag” in a forest, which symbolizes the Germanic love of the wild. This juxtaposition sets the mood of the entire exhibit; and one has to speculate that the Art Institute curator, Neil Benezra, has invited ongoing compar- isons between the intensely colored paintings, which speak a painterly language, and the black/white/gray paintings, which are drawn from the black and white world of the media and deliver their message to the general public – no matter how horrible the mes- sage may be or how often it is told.
The arbitrary nature of Richter’s viewpoint runs throughout the exhibit. One piece entitled “Ferrari” (1964) actually depicts a Corvette. Delicate portray- als of his wife and infant son were considered less beau- tiful than a Vermeer, so he smeared the paint with a palette knife. His painting of “Uncle Rudi” (1965) in a German officer’s uniform was completed 20 years after World War II – the war in which his uncle was killed. As if to say “We too suffered losses,” Richter
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“Woman Descending A Staircase” (1965) depicts a beautiful woman in an evening gown, who is sometimes identified as opera singer
Maria Callas or the late Princess Soraya of Iran, although the artist says her identity is of no consequence. Richter’s painting is based
on Duchamps’ “Nude Descending A Staircase” (1912), a famous modernist work which was not seen in Germany until 1965.
Although Duchamps’ painting was originally very controversial, Richter considered it “a beautiful, traditional painting.”
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Richter Continued from Page 3 included this work in an exhibition dedicated to 1300 civilians killed by German soldiers in Lidice, Czechoslovakia. Later he donated the painting to the Prague Museum.
Richter managed to escape from the Eastern zone to West Berlin, but he was never comfortable with polit- ical ideologies on either side of the Berlin Wall, and tried to steer a path between capitalism and social- ism. By the age of 17, he had developed a “fundamental aversion to all beliefs and ideologies,” a position that infected his attitude towards artistic movements as well. Due to Hitler’s banning of “Degenerate Art,” mod- ernist painting was not seen in Germany until well after the war’s end, and its impact on young artists was understandably different than in the United States.
The public is responding solemnly to this exhibit. The most chilling installation is the gallery with 15 paintings of the youthful revolutionaries found dead in their prison cells – the climax of a struggle between a few students and the German political establishment.
Although the Baader-Meinhof incident is virtually unknown to its Chicago audience, the grim nature of this tragic depiction evokes a hushed reaction, almost reverential.
Richter’s mid-life career turned toward abstraction, and a large number of important canvases offer food for thought – culminating in the stunning gallery which closes the exhibition. The room is do