Gerhard Richter at MOMA

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Gerhard Richter is a giant of contemporary art. At 70 years of age, the German master straddles the art world like Picasso and Matisse once did, a protean figure whose achievements far outstrip those of his contemporaries and for whom nothing within the expressive precincts of art seems impossible. In many ways the perfect painter for our roiling, skeptical, cussedly resilient age, Richter has tried his hand at every painting style and genre under the sun, mastering them while planting ticking time bombs inside the most durable art orthodoxies. If F. Scott Fitzgerald was right in saying that the mark of a first-rate mind is to be able to contain two ideas at once, then Richter is, hands down, the unmatched artistic genius of our time.

Name the style and genre and Richter has painted it. Following Willem de Kooning's injunction against theoretical bans on certain kinds of artmaking?"If you take the attitude that it is not possible to do something, you have to prove it by doing it"?Richter has, starting with his continued allegiance to once-maligned painting, contravened nearly every critical artistic pseudo-restriction to have emerged from the politicized 60s. Richter, contradictory and all encompassing in what he has termed "the daily practice of painting," has made of his restless eclecticism a strength. Facing the heavily ideological demands of an hermetic art world for four decades, he has paradoxically exploited the falseness of modern images while confecting some of the most affecting and incisive pictures produced inside a half-century.

Richter is both faulted and valued (though it is probably more accurate to say undervalued) for understanding that painting after modernism requires the same sort of shifting conceptual underpinning that has accompanied newer postmodern artistic practices like performance art, process art and installation art. Not content to wallow over the Greenbergian endgame of painting that followed the demise of abstract expressionism, adopt a conservative stance toward recent developments in art or to dismiss painting altogether as a viable option, Richter has successfully challenged painting to meet the demands posed by conceptualism. Has painting really been surpassed by other media like photography and video? Richter's answer, the product of a stubborn faith in the practice achieved via constant doubt, is a resounding no.

Everything in the visual world, Richter has long insisted, is always open to question, most especially art. In his large, long-overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art we see ample evidence of this questioning process in 188 of his most enigmatic, emotionally complex and immensely satisfying paintings. Dubbed the romantic painter for the age of mechanical reproduction by a New York Times critic, Richter latches onto key realistic and abstract imagery only to undermine its truth-value through a deep-seated skepticism. "I don't mistrust reality, of which I know next to nothing," Richter has said. "I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed. Our eyes have evolved for survival purposes. The fact that they can also see stars is pure accident."

Despite his virtuosic conceptual juggling, Richter's paintings communicate a solid, hard-won neutrality that some critics have interpreted as frigidity or distance. Nothing could be farther from the truth. His much-copied Vaseline-on-the-lens style, which he began using in the early 1960s, has always engaged private and public imagery of a highly dramatic, even tragic order. For example, his painting Uncle Rudi?based, like all his realist paintings, on a photograph?pictures a smiling Nazi in full regalia who was, as it happens, the painter's maternal uncle (he was "young and very stupid," according to Richter, "and then he went to war and was killed in the first days"). The prosaically titled Horst and His Dog, a piece of painterly parricide, pictures the artist's father made small, clownish and gray (on closer inspection, he also appears pathetically sad). A third subtly and disturbingly distorted work, Eight Student Nurses?which bears more than a passing resemblance to Thirteen Most Wanted Men, the parade of criminals Warhol painted for the 1964 World's Fair?turns out to be, on reading the catalog essay, individually scumbled portraits of the victims of American serial killer Richard Speck.

Painted, like most of his canvases over the years, alla prima (wet on wet) and studiedly feathered or smeared with brushes, spatulas and squeegees, these paintings are as much about the lie built into photography's documentary function as they are about the tender, often grudging empathy offered by the painter's paradoxically blurry and revealing erasures (odd, they make the paintings look even more photographic). This empathy, however curmudgeonly, is clearly illustrated by the artist's choice of subjects. These, unlike Warhol's brand of over-the-top glamour, have always tended toward the hidden, easily overlooked content of the mass media as well as the sort of personal snapshots one finds in photo albums. "When Warhol painted the killers, I painted the victims," Richter explained by way of distinguishing his appropriation of the least notable aspects of photographic images from pop's largely uncritical celebration of commercialism and star quality. "The subjects were?poor people, banal poor dogs."

And paint them he did. Take Woman with Umbrella, an astoundingly anonymous painting of Jackie Kennedy based on a photograph taken minutes after her husband was killed. Made unrecognizable thanks to the hand she clasps over her mouth, the pigment's static blurring and Richter's impersonal, equalizing treatment, the painting does what we now recognize photographs of celebrities can never do: it turns the Olympian grief of America's Widow impersonal, curbside pathetic, poignantly everyday. Later work, like his stunning seascapes or his paintings of ice floes after Caspar David Friedrich, offer some of the same fraught, contradictory qualities. Rather than embrace what John Ruskin called the Romantic fallacy?the wish to see in nature a humanly divined grandiosity and purposefulness?Richter paints nature's expansive gorgeousness complete with our ultramodern fear of its utter disregard for human needs and desires.

There is a whiff of death and inconsequentiality to many of Richter's pictures, as if history were draping over them a sepulchral winding sheet. No work evidences this more than his "October 18, 1977" cycle, a powerfully elegiac suite of 15 paintings devoted to the lives and deaths of the students-turned-terrorists who made up the ill-starred Baader-Meinhof group and died under suspicious circumstances. The serial portraits of the six terrorists?the novelist Heinrich Boll referred to the conflict they engendered with the West German nation as "a war of six against six million"?comprise a moving grisaille record of their passing and the psychic toll they exacted on a fragile democracy. Based on newspaper and police photographs, the paintings speak volumes more than the photographs ever could. The greatest work of political art since Guernica, "October 18, 1977" is at once a paean for the lost idealism of youth (as well as the dangerous utopianism it can engender) and an open, largely unarticulated piece of public catharsis. Its ultimate interpretation, like those that dog other great history paintings, will continue to vary, like Richter's own lifelong, fragmentary painting project. It will be left to others to figure out, one generation at a time.

"Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting," through May 21 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 708-9400.

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