In the 1960s and 1970s Richter also made numerous paintings based on commercial color charts from the hardware store. Just two are here. There are beautifully installed rooms devoted to gray or black-and-white paintings, but not one is devoted to color. Color is instead scattered about, like accent pillows.
The three monumental diptychs "November," "December" and "January" (all 1989) are among Richter's most haunting gestural abstractions--they're each 13 feet tall and 10 feet wide--and they're exquisitely installed with "Betty" (1988), a small and luminous picture of the back of a blond woman's head. But these wintry abstractions are Richter's most dark and brooding, with great slabs of black, white and gray paint obscuring the color underneath.
"Betty," installed at the end of the room, turns her head away, as if staring into the grayness that fills the painted space behind her. It's a pointed echo of what visitors do when standing before the nearby diptychs.
Richter's gestural abstractions are an important body of work. Color and gesture signal a visceral immediacy in painting, which he then purposefully undermines by scraping the image. The effect is similar to what Richter gets in his photo-based figurative works, when the finished painting is gone over lightly with a dry brush and the wet paint is loosely blurred. The result is a nominally Expressionist painting, which actually looks more like a color slide of an Expressionist painting. Richter's gestural abstractions are, oddly enough, as visually photographic as his paintings based on photographs from magazines, newspapers or his own camera.
The color charts, which faithfully record the neat rows of rectangular samples, are among the few paintings Richter has made that are not softly blurred or out of focus. They don't need to be. In a painting of a commercial color chart, pure abstraction and faithful representation are already simultaneous.
Notably, Richter also tends to avoid charts that feature primary or secondary colors, choosing instead to show custom colors that cannot be pinned down. (Melon? Puce? Mocha latte?) The color is as specific yet elusive--and riveting--as the commingling of representation and abstraction.
The inclusion of just two color charts in the retrospective (one installed in a stairwell) has a "seen one, seen 'em all" feeling, which is disappointing. These pure Pop paintings are reduced to a conceptual gesture in Richter's career. And that's where this retrospective goes awry. Coupled with the general suppression of color, the show's emphasis on black and white, on representational subject matter and on photographic sources is what aligns Richter's paintings on the side of Conceptual art.
Important points of connection between Conceptual art and Richter's work can be seen, but Richter is not a Conceptual artist. Conceptual art was born of a 1960s conviction that painting was bankrupt. Richter's has asserted from the start that it's not.
The selection also plays up the dark and brooding Richter--a Romantic born under the specter of National Socialism and raised to maturity under Communism, who carries the burden of history on his sagging shoulders and whose heroic struggle in life is the salvation of painting, even as it withers on the vine. It turns him into the latest variation of a pop cliche of the German artist that has been in place for centuries--a Caspar David Friedrich for our time.
But Richter is as much a dandy, committed to fastidious stylishness and razor-sharp calculation, as he is a latter-day moralist. He's a mushy sentimentalist, too--check out all the doting recent paintings of his baby--not to mention a vulgar voyeur, as evidenced by lewd paintings of prostitutes. The retrospective flattens Richter out, making him a dour German painter acceptable to the Conceptual perspective that is institutionalized in art today.
"Conceptual painter" is a batty oxymoron. For Richter the art object and its effect are paramount, not the idea and its intention. Richter is a Pop artist. Camera pictures are treated like found objects. Painting is asserted for its capacity to manipulate materials in ways media imagery can't. Color makes a claim to delirious unruliness.
In 1963, two years after he fled East Germany for the West, Richter and a few colleagues billed themselves as "Capitalist Realists," a German variant of Pop that had fun with their former Soviet status as Socialist Realist artists. They didn't get very far with the gambit, and commentators typically describe this moment as a passing escapade. In truth, it set Richter on an amazing path--one he still follows to this day.
"Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting," Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, (212) 708-9400, or on the Web at www.moma.org, through May 21. Closed Wednesday.