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RICHTER

(Gerhard Richter, 1932-)

History In a Blur

By Arthur C. Danto

[thanks to Daniel Chung for providing this article]

It seems scarcely to have required a great philosophical mind to come up with the observation that each of us is the child of our times, but that thought must have been received as thrillingly novel when Hegel wrote it in 1821. For it implied that human nature is not a timeless essence but penetrated through and through by our historical situation. Philosophers, he went on to say, grasp their times in thought, and he might as a corollary have said that artists grasp their times in images. For Hegel was the father of art history as the discipline through which we become conscious of the way art expresses the uniqueness of the time in which it is made. It is rare, however, that grasping his or her own historical moment becomes an artist's subject. It was particularly rare in American art of the second half of the twentieth century, for though the art inevitably belonged to its historical moment, that was seldom what it set out to represent. It strikes me, for example, that Andy Warhol was exceptional in seeking to make the reality of his era conscious of itself through his art.

German artists of the same period, by contrast, seem to have treated the historical situation of art in Germany as their primary preoccupation. How to be an artist in post-war Germany was part of the burden of being a German artist in that time, and this had no analogy in artistic self-consciousness anywhere else in the West. Especially those in the first generation after Nazism had to find ways of reconnecting with Modernism while still remaining German. And beyond that they had to deal with the harsh and total political divisions of the cold war, which cut their country in two like a mortal wound. Gerhard Richter was a product of these various tensions. But like Warhol, whom he resembles in profound ways, he evolved a kind of self-protective cool that enabled him and his viewers to experience historical reality as if at a distance. There is something unsettlingly mysterious about his art. Looking at any significant portion of it is like experiencing late Roman history through some Stoic sensibility. One often has to look outside his images to realize the violence to which they refer.

Richter grew up in East Germany, where he completed the traditional curriculum at the Dresden Academy of Art, executing a mural for a hygiene museum in 1956 as a kind of senior thesis. Since the institution was dedicated to health, it was perhaps politically innocuous that the imagery Richter employed owed considerably more to the joy-through-health style of representing the human figure at play, which continued to exemplify Hitler's aesthetic well after Nazism's collapse, than to the celebration of proletarian industriousness mandated by Socialist Realism under Stalin. This implies that East German artistic culture had not been Sovietized at this early date. The real style wars were taking place in West Germany and surfaced especially in the epochal first Documenta exhibition of 1955. Documenta, which usually takes place every five years in Kassel, is a major site for experiencing contemporary art on the international circuit today. But at its inception, it carried an immense political significance for German art. It explicitly marked the official acceptance by Germany of the kind of art that had been stigmatized as degenerate by the Nazis and was thus a bid by Germany for reacceptance into the culture it had set out to destroy. The content of Documenta 1-Modernism of the twentieth century before fascism-could not possibly carry the same meaning were it shown today in the modern art galleries of a fortunate museum. But modernism, and particularly abstraction, had become a crux for West German artists at the time of Documenta 1, as if figuration as such were politically dangerous. It was not until Richter received permission to visit Documenta 2 in 1959, where he first encountered the art of the New York School-Abstract Expressionism-that some internal pressure began to build in him to engage in the most advanced artistic dialogues of the time. The fact that he fled East Germany in 1961 exemplifies the way an artistic decision entailed a political choice in the German Democratic Republic.

It was always a momentous choice when an artist decided to go abstract-or to return to the figure after having been an abstractionist, the way the California painter Richard Diebenkorn was to do. But to identify oneself with Art Informel-the European counterpart of the loosely painted abstractions of the New York School-as many German artists did, was to make a political declaration as well as to take an artistic stand. Richter was to move back and forth between realism and abstraction, but these were not and, at least in his early years in the West, could not have been politically innocent decisions. Neither was the choice to go on painting when painting as such, invariantly as to any distinction between abstraction and realism, became a political matter in the 1970s.

 RICHTER_UNTITLED

Richter, Gerhard Untitled 1987 Oil on canvas 300 x 300 cm (118 1/4 x 118 1/4 in.) Private collection, Cologne

 RICHTER_richter_valery

Richter, Gerhard Paul Valery (From "48 Portraits") 1971-72 Oil on canvas 27 9/16" x 21 11/16" (70 x 55 cm) Museum Ludwig, Cologne

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Richter, Gerhard Ema (Nude on a Staircase) 1966 Oil on canvas 6' 6 3/4" x 51 3/16" (200 x 130 cm) Museum Ludwig, Cologne

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Richter, Gerhard Self-portrait 1996 Oil on linen 20 1/8" x 18 1/4" (51.1 x 46.4 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 RICHTER_richter_seascape

Richter, Gerhard Seascape (Cloudy) 1969 Oil on canvas 6' 6 3/4" x 6' 6 3/4" (200 x 200 cm) Private collection, Berlin

 RICHTER_richter_reading

Richter, Gerhard Reading 1994 Oil on linen 28 1/2" x 40 1/4" (72.4 x 102.2 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 RICHTER_richter_rby

Richter, Gerhard Red-Blue-Yellow 1972 Oil on canvas 59 1/16" x 59 1/16" (150 x 150 cm) Di Bennardo Collection

 RICHTER_richter_phantom

Richter, Gerhard Phantom Interceptors 1964 Oil on canvas 55 1/8" x 6' 2 3/4" (140 x 190 cm) Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart

 RICHTER_richter_meadowland

Richter, Gerhard Meadowland 1985 Oil on canvas 35 3/8" x 37 1/2" (90.5 x 94.9 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 RICHTER_richter_madrid

Richter, Gerhard Townscape Madrid 1968 Oil on canvas 9' 1 1/16" x 9' 6 15/16" (277 x 292 cm) Kunstmuseum, Bonn

 RICHTER_richter_himalaya

Richter, Gerhard Himalaya 1968 Oil on canvas 6' 6 3/4" x 63" (200 x 160 cm) Private collection

 RICHTER_richter_corner

Richter, Gerhard Cathedral Corner 1987 Oil on canvas 48 1/16" x 34 1/4" (122 x 87 cm) Private collection, New York

 RICHTER_richter_candles

Richter, Gerhard Two Candles 1982 Oil on canvas 55 1/8" x 55 1/8" (140 x 140 cm) Private collection

 RICHTER_richter_building

Richter, Gerhard Administrative Building 1964 Oil on canvas 38 1/4 x 59 " (97.2 x 149.9 cm) Private collection, San Francisco

 RICHTER_richter_betty

Richter, Gerhard Betty 1988 Oil on canvas 40 1/8" x 23 3/8" (101.9 x 59.4 cm) The Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri

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Richter, Gerhard Annunciation after Titian 1973 Oil on linen 49 3/8" x 6' 6 7/8" (125.4 x 200.3 cm) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington

 RICHTER_MEDIATION

Richter, Gerhard Mediation 1986 Oil on canvas 320 x 400 cm (126 x 157 1/2 in.) Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal

 RICHTER_DARK

Richter, Gerhard Dark 1986 Oil on canvas 260 x 200 cm (102 1/2 x 78 3/4 in.) Mr. and Mrs. Keith L. Sachs, Rydal, Pennsylvania

 RICHTER_COURBET

Richter, Gerhard Courbet 1986 Oil on canvas 300 x 250 cm (118 1/4 x 98 1/2 in.) Private collection, Cologne