- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2003

In the 1994 "Reading (Lesende, )" German artist Gerhard Richter painted his wife, Sabine, in profile as she leans over a magazine, totally engrossed. A bright light falls from behind, caressing her blonde hair, the nape of her neck, curve of the cheek, pearls of her necklace and the white page she's reading. In the geometry of the background, directed light and bent posture, even the pearls, this painting evokes Jan Vermeer's many paintings of contented women.

Mr. Richter, 71, whose impersonal interpretations of banal subjects and works in both abstract and realist modes have long mesmerized museum audiences in Europe and the United States, is enjoying his first North American retrospective with "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting," now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Critics trace the artist's restless search for new styles zigzags between the poles of realism and abstraction to an unstable childhood that can only be called traumatic. He was born in 1932 in Dresden around the time Adolf Hitler took power. During World War II and postwar Soviet occupation of East Germany, Richter and his mother stayed in the town of Waltersdorf nearby for safety.

Horst Richter, his schoolteacher-father whom the younger Richter hated, was forced to join the Nazi party. He, along with two of the artist's uncles, was mobilized. Both uncles were killed, and the father was taken prisoner and sent home after the war to what was a useless life (as a former Nazi, he could no longer teach).

Further complicating his psyche, the artist had become an unenthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. His mentally ill aunt Marianne was sent to a mental institution when she was 18, where Nazi doctors euthanized her. In February 1945, the Allied firebombing of nearby Dresden was clearly heard in Waltersdorf.

Mr. Richter began his study of art among Dresden's ruins at the city's academy. The city, the base for the expressionist group Die Brucke (the Bridge), was one of Germany's most important cultural centers before the war. By the time of Mr. Richter's studies, however, after the division of Germany, the Dresden Art Academy taught only traditional techniques of representational painting in the service of officially approved art.

In 1962, he managed to make it through the Iron Curtain to the Dusseldorf Academy in West Germany and artistic and personal freedom. The artist at first made blurred and grayed memories of his family and the war his uncles Horst and Rudi, Allied bombers flying in formation and B-17s shooting out long, sticklike bombs as well as the war's aftermath, embodied in the construction of dehumanizing new government office buildings.

Ever since those blurred photo-realist images from the 1960s, the artist's work has remained contradictory and ambiguous, from the spare gray canvasses and brilliantly colored gestural paintings of the 1970s, through the austere, photo-based still-lifes and landscapes of the 1980s, right up to the haunted portraits and crusted abstractions of the 1990s.

Most museum-goers are by now familiar with the rich stylistic pluralism of our times: expressionism, surrealism, pop, minimalism, symbolism, to name a few of the past century's succession of painting styles. But pluralism in one artist. That's new. Most artists want "one voice." Not Mr. Richter. Change has been the one constant in his paradoxical career.

Mr. Richter was almost documentary in approach in painting the U.S. war planes that destroyed his native Dresden home in 1964's "Mustang Squadron (Mustang-Staffel)" or depicting in blurry black-gray-and-white the "suicide" of the notorious Baader-Meinhof terrorists in a Stuttgart prison (many thought they were murdered).

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, he swerved off into total abstraction in the Abstraktes Bild series. Typically German in their emotional intensity, works such as the 1989 suite of three huge abstractions titled "November," "December" and "January," rank among his best works. Yet Richter started off in this gestural abstract mode with some really sloppy work a sloppiness that is just that and far from expressive such as "Clouds (Wolken)" (1982) and "Marian" (1983).

His colors later became more intense with the eight-foot-square, gridded, "Wall (Wand)" and just slightly smaller "March (Marz)." As much as Mr. Richter strives to make them appear unpremeditated, his techniques for making them could hardly be more inconsistent with abstract-expressionist spontaneity, which itself was never as spontaneous as advertised.

The artist wanted to create surfaces that implied cascades of color. To do this, he used large, handmade plastic squeegees to drag layers of differently hued paints across canvases. He then applied and released the heavy squeegees, some were as wide as the canvas, for a slow color release and rich, crusted effect.

Simultaneously, the artist painted some of his most tenderly realistic portraits, such as the series "S. with Child (S. mit Kind)," and romantic landscapes "Waterfall (Wasserfall)" and "Meadowland (Wiesental)."

A maze of 120 very different works, this retrospective is confusing and unsettling in its succession of clashing styles. A reflection of Mr. Richter's brooding Germanic temperament, the exhibit is no mood-elevator.

"No artist of the postwar era merits … attention more than Gerhard Richter," says Glenn D. Lowry, director of New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), who organized the exhibit with Robert Storr, now a professor of fine arts at New York University.

Maybe. Unfortunately, no artist of the postwar era is able to sustain his own attention less than Mr. Richter. And he gave me a headache.


WHAT: "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting"

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 18

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-1618

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