October 23, 2002

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Fuzzy logic
The Gerhard Richter show mines deep emotion with maximum blur.

By Glen Helfand

GERHARD RICHTER: 40 Years of Painting hit the modern museum circuit – originating at New York's Museum of Modern Art and currently on view at San Francisco's MOMA – at nearly the same time as the Andy Warhol retrospective, a German show, pulled into Los Angeles. Both shows signal a look back at ways in which two major artists dealt with the late 20th century's popular images, and how the grand, old, seemingly antiquated art of painting fit into a culture obsessed with those images. Both artists made seminal works in the '60s that addressed darker aspects of mundane pop culture. Like Warhol, Richter has a somber Jackie Kennedy picture – the 1964 Woman with Umbrella, a newspaper-derived image in which a dark-haired woman clutches her mouth. Whereas Warhol's Factory-made Jackies are readily identifiable as the former first lady, Richter's hand-painted version is tellingly ambiguous. She's not an adored and envied icon, just a woman in an indeterminate emotional state, veiled by fog.

That out-of-focus feeling is a Richter signature. He operates from a thorny, somewhat elusive position where the clearest through-line is an engagement with his medium – and intense belief in and questioning of that medium. The 70-year-old German, considered by many to be Europe's most challenging and consistently provocative artist, is a master of constantly shifting subject matter and styles. Dealing with hot points of 20th-century civilization – war, death, terrorism – he not surprisingly expresses ambivalence, but there's something amazing about the way he smoothly smudges his pieces to generate a deeply considered uncertainty.

Technically, Richter softens his images by dragging a squeegee across still-wet oil paint and/or waving a soft brush over a composition to create a hazy effect. The aura of meaning is similarly obfuscated by his carefully contradictory statements about his work. The bottom line, however, is that he's an artist who has been deeply devoted to painting during four photography-dominated decades when the meaning and cultural position of oil on canvas has constantly been reevaluated.

Richter's hermetic practice has afforded critical distance from his subjects, lending his work a sense of clinical conceptual deconstruction of both painting and contemporary culture. One of the first pieces in the exhibition is the monochromatic 1963 canvas called Stag. It depicts its subject realistically but indistinctly, standing in a forest of sketched-out foliage, the skeleton of a painting yet to be completed. Here Richter grapples with the constructed nature of the image, and he does so with defiant resignation. Sure, there's a crisis of belief in the act of painting, but he finds that's no reason to stop.

Richter's painterly oeuvre is steeped in a compelling existential ennui and translated with an unerring photographic sense. Most of his paintings are based on images clipped from newspapers, encyclopedias, or snapshots of his family, sources that he notoriously catalogs in an archive he calls Atlas, a carefully organized trove of material that's an integral part of his work (though it's not on view here). He can render these images with photorealistic precision. Some of his abstract works are pictures of already completed gestural abstract paintings – paintings of paintings. Yet for all of the conceptualizing, the works here are unapologetic in their adoration of the medium.

The Richter show's San Francisco edition is elegantly and smartly installed, broken up into distinct, digestible galleries often arranged by theme. The Jackie picture is included in a room with images of 1960s women, Richter's series of yearbook portrait-style images of student nurses murdered by a serial killer, and two paintings of a notorious prostitute whose murder was a tabloid staple in Germany. This grouping attests to Richter's interest in the notion of victimhood. In each of these pictures, the subjects seem impassive. While they each faced a cruel fate, they endure as innocents, sexpots, or stoics in Richter's work. There's melancholy in the air, and it's captured in the blur.

You could say the same for Richter's much-discussed October 18, 1977 series, 15 paintings created in 1988 that address the tragic fate of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, a group whose radical ideals ended in death and whose legacy was shrouded in conspiracy. The monochromatic pictures, again based on newspaper images, are tinged with sadness. They depict political zealots who died, tragically and under suspicious circumstances, for a cause. Richter is interested in giving fervent ideologies a human face, and by repeatedly painting pictures of terrorists and the jail cells they once inhabited, he attempts to come to terms with that elusive sense of pure belief. The subject of terrorism obviously has deep resonance today, and the pictures continue to raise questions about its effects, both personal and political.

As the show goes on, the pictures seem to get more personal. There are images of Richter's wife and young child, and self-portraits in which the artist's aging visage is also subject to his signature blurring, this time compounded by the way he averts the viewer's gaze. The coyness is intentional and oddly heartfelt. These works are windows into one man's complicated consciousness; at the same time, they offer a trenchant view of confusing contemporary life, however difficult it might be to focus on.

'Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting' runs through Jan. 14. Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F. $10, $7 seniors, $6 students, free for 12 and under and members (free first Tues.; half-price Thurs., 6-9 p.m.). (415) 357-4000.