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By Ann Seymour

Gerhard Richter paints brilliantly in so many styles that he can appear to convey less of a message than an artist like Barnett Newman, for example, who reworks simple forms for decades. Richter's realistic works rank with Dutch masters; his painterly abstractions compare in lyricism to Clyfford Still. The New York Times' Michael Kimmelman describes the show of his works currently making the rounds this way, "One of the finest, most beautiful and strangely moving exhibitions of the work of a living painter in years."

Curator Robert Storr of New York's Museum of Modern Art organized Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. The show's 140 images are well selected, and the show has drawn huge crowds at its venues, including San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, where it currently resides. The San Francisco museum received a Richter gift, which hangs with the show: an eight-painting suite of abstractions named individually and numbered 858-1 through 858-8.

Its director, Neal Benezra, plans to exhibit the 858 series through April 1, 2003, and he says, "We were honored by the opportunity to give the 858 paintings their first U. S. museum presentation and are absolutely delighted to accept them into our collection."
A remarkable book and CD accompany the exhibition, which contains, along with Richter's images, works by thirteen poets, including Poet laureate Robert Haas, and music composed by guitarist Bill Frisell and recorded by a twenty-first century string quartet: violin, electronics, viola, cello, and guitars.

Richter assumed importance in Europe as a young man, then moved on to become an international star. He creates intelligent work of profound beauty, which must be seen to be appreciated. Born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, he is a child of war who has the hidden fury an artist needs to be heard, the energy of protest, and the desire to replace hopelessness with hope. He grew up with parades, orations, and songs praising the fatherland, then with death as men in his family were killed in action, next with the devastating bombing of his homeland that killed civilians, even boys like himself. After the war, houses, schools, neighborhoods stood in ruins, and mothers would huddle with their children in the remaining corners of crumbled buildings, trying to shelter them from the wind.

Its director, Neal Benezra, plans to exhibit the 858 series through April 1, 2003, and he says, "We were honored by the opportunity to give the 858 paintings their first U. S. museum presentation and are absolutely delighted to accept them into our collection."
planes exploding in the air and let the viewer decide how it felt to be on the ground, looking up, wondering if a shard of blazing metal would hit you.

After the war, he found himself, as an East German, living once again under a harsh and repressive Communist regime. In fact his first paying jobs involved propaganda posters. He completed the traditional curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, which included strict training in life drawing, understanding colors, how to mix them, apply them, spatial relationships and perspective, light and shadow - every aspect of technique.

He then began painting murals to subsist and to pursue his "real work" alone in his studio.

In common with other artists, he had to grope with how to create in postwar Germany after the Nazis had outlawed modern art as "decadent" when the vivid Blau Reiter school artists were producing the most exciting expressionist work in Europe. While artists continued to grow elsewhere, they, of course, did not in his country. Thus, he and others had to pull themselves into the mainstream without losing their Germanness. As a result, he works as an outsider who views his culture with a detachment comparable to Andy Warhol's view of America.

Like Warhol, Richter developed a self-protective sang froid that enabled him and viewers to view historical reality at a distance. He did not have Andy's cynical, wisecracking persona, but his work is unsettling and ambiguous; only after studying the lyrical works at some length can one find the off camera violence to which they refer. Other paintings are more direct. You know they're about violence and tragedy.

In 1955, at a time when style wars ran rampant in Germany, the first Documenta exhibition took place in Kassel, and the show remains an important force in the contemporary art world today. It's held every five years or so. In 1955, it carried immense political significance for its imprinteur of acceptance of the very art that was once ostracized. In fact it amounted almost to an historical exhibition, its full title being Documenta 1 - Modernism of the Twentieth Century before Fascism.

The German people now embraced the culture they once set out to destroy. Documenta 1 thrilled Richter and his friends, but it was the second one in 1959 that impacted his psyche to the extent of determining much of his future course. He encountered the work of the New York School Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko, Willelm de Kooning, Clifford Styll, and an outsider, Jackson Pollock. Richter burst with desire to embrace this mainstream of his time and within two years had saved enough money to move to West Germany where he could discover who he was, and what kind of man, what kind of artist he wanted to become.

He moved back and forth between abstraction, partly because he had to make a living. Meanwhile, the European art world wobbled between abstract expressionism and rather dark schools grouped around the "action painting" genre. The action artists' manifesto dictated that they could confront issues and provide carthsis through their work. Their words and images deplored repressive sexual mores, hypocritical religious power structures, the devastation of war, the destructiveness of family life. However, much of the art quickly devolved into sadomasochistic images.

Richter enrolled in the Academy of Art in Dulsseldorf and discovered more about Abstract Expressionism and also Art Informal, Neo-Dada, Fluxus and other avant garde schools. Soon Richter received a faculty appointment and joined the group of important artists: Sigmar Polke, Joseph Beuys, and Conrad Lueg, who called their art "Capitalist Realism." Richter began executing gray-scale paintings melding newspaper clips, photographs, and realistic painting, whose subject matter resembled Pop art but whose essential technique set them apart.

In the current exhibition catalogue, Storr says, "Richter the virtuoso was the product of his own recreation as a painter once he arrived in the West rather than the strange reincarnation of an accomplished but conservative technician in the East."

In the early seventies, he began painting minimalist monochromatic works that still influence artists today, but every so often he would paint one of his "old masters." Or an abstract expressionist canvas. As Andy Warhol explained, "How can you say any one style is any better than another? You ought to be an abstract expressionist one week, a pop artist the next, or perhaps a realist without feeling you are giving up anything."

Warhol often said American artists nervously tried for stylistic consistency in order to be considered serious, authentic. They clutched at schools for dear life and then never left them, as if doing so would represent death, just as boning a man out of the tribe in Haiti kills him. The stress of such aloneness is too much.

Richter proves Warhol's point - that you can be the best at several styles if you're good enough. If you're the top, your brushstroke, the way you hold a pencil or arrange a series of photographs tells the viewer who you are.



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