“Birkenau.” The dread name—of the main death facilities at Auschwitz—entitles four large abstract paintings and four full-sized digital reproductions of them in the last gallery of Painting After All, a peculiarly solemn Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Met Breuer. The works are based on four clandestine photographs that were smuggled out of the concentration camp in 1944. Two, taken from the shadowed exit of a gas chamber, show naked corpses strewn on the ground and smoke rising from bodies afire in a trench beyond them. Men in uniform stand at ease—two appear to chat—amid the shambles. Richter first saw the images in the fifties. He encountered them again in 2008 and kept the worst of them hanging in his studio in Cologne. In 2014, he projected them onto canvas and traced them. As he worked, they became illegible. The finished paintings exemplify Richter’s frequent style of densely layered, dragged pigments. They are unusually harsh in aspect, with clashing red and green, sickly whites, and grim blacks. But you’d hardly guess, by looking, their awful inspiration.
Richter’s “Birkenau” is a provocation—who dares take history’s ultimate obscenity as a theme, or even an allusion, for art?—but one that makes biographical sense. Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter is haunted, like many of his German contemporaries, by memories and associations from the Third Reich and the Second World War. Previously indirect in his references to the horror, he has reason to focus on it now, for a show that comes late in his life, and which he says might be the last one of his six-decade career as a chameleon stylist and visual philosopher of painting. (He’s eighty-eight and, not well enough to travel, did not attend the opening.) The shock of “Birkenau” retroactively exposes a thread of sorrow and guilt through an art of invariably subtle, at times teasing, ambiguities. His photographic images transposed to canvas and painterly techniques that exploit chance have often seemed deliberately arbitrary, as if to forswear feeling. He brings to everything an attitude of radical skepticism. But it has dawned on many of us, over the years, that plenty of emotion, like banked fire, underlies his restless ways.
Heretofore, Richter’s only overt reference to the Holocaust was a suite of touching illustrations for an edition of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” picturing Frank’s face in a range of styles, which he made in 1957, while he was unhappily apprenticed as a Socialist Realist painter in East Germany. (The illustrations are not in the show.) Having glimpsed free-world art when he was permitted visits to exhibitions in the West, he fled via East Berlin in 1961, shortly before the Wall went up. He was soon in Düsseldorf, in the thick of an avant-garde that was both piqued and excited by Pop art and the traditions of Dada. “Capitalist Realism,” he and some new friends, including the brilliant Sigmar Polke, termed their response, which, among other things, degraded the glossiness of advertising material to matte grunge. Richter took to painting copies of banal black-and-white photographs, smearing the paint to emphasize the change of medium. Among a number of these in the show are paintings from family snapshots that touch on Richter’s and Germany’s dire past.
One, “Uncle Rudi” (1965), is of a relative—in uniform and smiling goofily—who died fighting in the war. Another, “Aunt Marianne” (painted in 1965 and rendered as a luminous digital print in 2018), shows a woman cradling baby Gerhard in her arms; she was adjudged schizophrenic, imprisoned, and then killed in a Nazi eugenics program. Keeping company with those poignancies is “Mr. Heyde” (1965), taken from a news photograph of the concentration-camp psychiatrist Werner Heyde being arrested, in 1959, after fourteen years of maintaining a false identity. (He hanged himself in prison in 1964.) Richter wouldn’t have expected viewers to recognize those subjects readily, and he was at no pains to explain them. Their meaning stayed personal, with roots in his boyhood, when he was enlisted in the junior auxiliary of the Hitler Youth and his father served in the Wehrmacht. Not until “Birkenau” would he palpate the wound again.
It feels heavy-handed of me (though on this occasion Richter quite asks for it) to be zeroing in on some specific content of his art, which always shades subjects with undecidable intention. That goes for early images of tabloid sensations, such as yearbook-style portraits of eight nurses who were murdered on a single night in Chicago, in 1966, and forty-eight deadpan copies of photographs of famous artists and intellectuals. The latter served, perhaps, as marmoreal father figures for a largely fatherless generation. (It’s estimated that more than four million German men died in the war.) Uncertainty clings, as well, to later works, including jittery cityscapes that may be bombed ruins or simply indistinct views of an intact metropolis; landscapes that could be either sarcastic or sincere revisitations to German Romanticism (I vote for wistful); funereal paintings of candles and skulls; and ravishing photo-realist pictures, true to the hues of color film, of subjects including members of his family. One of these last, from 1988, portraying his daughter Betty from behind, seems to me the single most beautiful painting made by anyone in the last half century. It is not in the present show. Nor is “October 18, 1977,” Richter’s famous series drawn from photographs of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, in life and, as suicides in prison, death. Those darkling images will always tug at our general assessments of Richter. Whatever his reason for taking on a subject that was charged, at the time, with conflicting political passions, I believe that the work asserts an artist’s license to transcend partisan judgment, independent of opinions that may even include his own.
Irony blankets Richter’s career. He is a darling of the contemporary art market, with his works selling at auction for tens of millions of dollars. But his longtime best friend, and a co-curator of this show, is the critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, a hard-bitten apostle of Frankfurt School anti-capitalist, all but anti-aesthetic, political theory. In a notorious interview, in 1986, Buchloh insisted on interpreting Richter’s art as historical critique skewering the bourgeois decadence of painting, and Richter placidly declared his wholehearted allegiance to Western painting’s grand tradition. Richter said, “The reason I don’t argue in ‘socio-political terms’ is that I want to produce a picture and not an ideology.” He declines to claim any subversive intent, even for his occasional work in odd formats, such as stark charts of random colors and the use of transparent glass in place of canvas—two predilections that came together in his successful commission, in 2007, of an immense stained-glass window for Cologne Cathedral, proving that the experiments had been exploratory rather than tendentious. I like to imagine Buchloh as a negative conscience perched on Richter’s shoulder, amusingly scandalized as the artist hews again and yet again to ancient values of meaningfulness and pleasure.
While never forsaking representation—as seen at the Met Breuer in portraits of his third wife, Sabine Moritz, and their three children, which radiate Titianesque color—Richter took up chromatic abstraction in the seventies, overlaying brushed, slathered, and scraped swaths of paint. I remember hating those on my first sight of them, circa 1980. They seemed to me sloppy travesties of Abstract Expressionism, and pointless: inferior coals to the Newcastle of Willem de Kooning. Gradually, I caught their drift as pragmatic explorations of painterly phenomena: ur-paintings. Not only condoning but soliciting accident, Richter attends to the multifarious effects of layered paint that has been repeatedly smashed and dragged, wet-in-wet. He appraises the results with an exercise of taste, deciding what to keep and what to efface. In this, his true predecessor is Jackson Pollock, who, dripping paint, collaborated with chance and monitored the results.
At last I saw, as I still see, Richter’s abstractions as miraculously, often staggeringly, beautiful, with an air of having come into being through a will of their own, happening to—rather than issuing from—their creator. They provide the chief pleasures of the show, which excludes the more brazen of his subjects—there are none of his early borrowings from pornography, for example—and the most seductive of his color-photograph transformations, including floral still-lifes. The selection favors eerie minor keys, as seems appropriate for being a retrospective bathed in the terrible resonance of “Birkenau.”
Published originally under the title “Painting History” in the March 16 The New Yorker
Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic. His latest book is Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018.