This year, we will have the opportunity to judge for ourselves who is the best painter alive. Many Europeans claim that the German Gerhard Richter (b. 1931, Dresden) is the one; for Americans, Jasper Johns (b. 1930, Augusta, Georgia) takes the prize.
“Richter: Painting After All” is now online at Primers/The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Primers give an immersive look at select exhibitions at The Met.) “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” a major retrospective, will be presented jointly at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with dates to be announced following restrictions of COVID-19.
Richter began painting in Germany while the country was still recovering from the aftermath of World War II. His paintings deserve to be viewed in person, said M.H. Miller, arts editor of the The New York Times Style Magazine.
But Miller also suggests: “Don’t wait for the museum to be opened if you care at all about painting; there’s something about the 89-year-old German artist’s work that lends itself to a screen.” The opportunity is there: a chance to enjoy some 100 of Richter’s works online right now.
Conceived in close collaboration with the artist, “Richter: Painting After All” reveals the artist’s six-decade-long preoccupation with the dual means of representation and abstraction. This is the first major American survey of the artist’s work in nearly 20 years. The exhibition highlights two important series of his overall work: “Cage” (2006) and “Birkenau” (2014).
The six “Cage” paintings are key to understanding his lifelong preoccupation with abstraction through a different lens. In homage to the American composer and philosopher John Cage, whose innovative compositional techniques used chance as a way to “imitate nature,” Richter’s meticulous multi-layered paintings are based on similar principles of calculated incidents.
Richter’s encounter with the only four known photographs taken by prisoners inside the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 led to the creation of the “Birkenau” (2014). Richter revisited the horrific images, first sketching them out on individual canvases, and then gradually painting them over to produce heavily disturbed, ruptured images. The veiling holds in tension of the complex relationship of history and memory, with the forces of destruction and reconstruction and with abstraction and representation.
Richter’s paintings respond to what he sees, not just to the image forming on his own canvas. He adds broad sweeps of color with wide brushes, and later applies and removes paint with large squeegees. The process, by design, leaves much to chance, resulting in risks and rewards.
According to the painter, “Each step forward is more difficult and feels less and less free, until I conclude there’s nothing left to do.”
The four abstract paintings speak to his belief as a powerful means to address the complex and often difficult legacies of personal and civic history. Aesthetically speaking, one word will suffice: beautiful. The paintings are beautiful. Period.
“Gerhard Richter: Painting After All” comprises over 100 works, including his first painting, “Table” (1962), and the recent series “Cage” and “Birkenau.” Many of these works have never been exhibited in the United States.
By the end of this year, Americans will have had a chance to have compared and contrasted both shows — and come to their own conclusions as to who is the best painter alive.