One way to get a perspective on the contemporary art world is to look at two databases, Artprice and Artfacts, which provide rankings of artists based on saleroom prices and exhibition exposure respectively. When I first did this more than ten years ago, the artist who came out on top, outperforming all other living artists when the rankings were combined, was Gerhard Richter. When I checked again recently, he was still there in pole position, the undisputed World Number One. This is a phenomenal, Djokovic-level achievement, all the more astonishing because the correlation between the two databases isn’t generally a positive one. Artprice tracks the taste of collectors, Artfacts that of curators and gallery-goers. Every artist has a ranking on both, but they usually diverge. Artists who do better at auction generally make big, bland paintings capable of filling the emptiness that encloses the super-rich, whereas artists who do better on Artfacts make multimedia work provocative enough to entice the public back to contemporary art galleries they may have visited many times already.
Richter somehow manages to do both. On the one hand, he uses an oversized squeegee to make huge colourful abstracts that can sell for £20 million each; on the other, he is the creator of austere constructions in glass, rectangular panes either left completely clear or painted in monochrome, which can function as three-dimensional works of sculpture or form part of an installation for a museum show or a Documenta. These mirrors and blank sheets of glass attract plenty of critical attention – Benjamin Buchloh, in Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History, devotes more than a hundred pages to them – though they usually sell for thousands rather than millions. It’s as if Pollock and Duchamp had formed a partnership to establish market dominance and the company had stayed in business ever since.
Richter was born in Dresden in 1932. His early life was shaped first by the war and then by the Soviet occupation. This was the period of Brigitte Reimann’s novel Siblings (published in 1963 but only recently translated into English), when an artist’s career could be threatened because a welder didn’t like the way they had painted an acetylene flame.Richter could have had a successful career as a muralist in the GDR but, unlike Elisabeth, the painter in the novel, he was not committed to the socialist cause. In 1961, he and his first wife, Ema, defected to the West, and he started his student career over again, this time at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Beuys was a teacher. Richter later recalled that in the East he had lived with people ‘who wanted to bridge a gap, who were looking for a middle way between capitalism and socialism’, and that he too was ‘looking for a third way in which Eastern realism and Western modernism would be resolved into one redeeming construct’. But after seeing the American and Italian artists in the 1959 Documenta, he realised that he wanted to be more radical, more ‘brazen’ even. In the East ‘what we wanted for our own art was all about compromise.’
But how can you escape compromise, when the valence of the terms changes as you cross from one zone to the other? The dilemma is nicely captured in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film from 2018, Never Look Away, when the Richter character, Kurt, is painting a huge Socialist Realist mural and inadvertently reveals his defection plan to his assistant Max by offering him a bargain price on his Wartburg. Max tries to dissuade him: ‘Kurt, in the West they don’t even do painting anymore. These days painting is considered bourgeois.’ To which Kurt replies: ‘I thought for them “bourgeois” was good?’ Even if your art exhibits bourgeois tendencies, there’s no point going to live in a bourgeois society; it won’t let you make bourgeois art.
Richter’s first attempt to address the dilemma was a group show, Living with Pop: Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, in which he and his friends at the academy exhibited their work in a furniture shop where everything present became part of the exhibition – all the merchandise, and Richter himself a living sculpture seated on a sofa. It was ‘capitalist realism’ because like Socialist Realism it claimed that art could show social reality, but capitalist because it was ‘the capitalist world of goods that we were showing’. As such, it sounds like it ought to have been the ‘third way’ Richter and his friends in the East were seeking. And in a sense it was, for it neither celebrated consumer society nor made fun of its vacuity.
Richter later sought to distance himself from the term, claiming that ‘there is no such thing as capitalist realism … it made Socialist Realism look ridiculous and the possibility of capitalist realism equally so.’ But we shouldn’t necessarily take this at face value. As a dialectical synthesis, the alternative to capitalist realism would have been a socialist formalism that would reject both capitalism and realism. Richter has never shown much interest in it, but socialist formalism isn’t a bad description of the chimera for which Buchloh and other art critics of his generation often seem to be searching. Like its fleeting model in the Soviet avant-garde, this is an art of ‘critical negativity and utopian anticipation’, which simultaneously ‘deprivileges the bourgeois subject and its cultural conventions’ while creating new forms of experience for the emancipated viewer.
As Richter’s friend and interlocutor for half a century, Buchloh has gently tried to steer him towards this position. But the artist never takes the hint. Asked when he first encountered painters like Malevich, Richter replies: ‘In the West, at some point, late. I don’t know …’ Asked whether using painting is not a bit limiting, ‘when it comes to liquidating the bourgeois inheritance’, he rejects the supposition that this is what he is trying to do: ‘No … I am bourgeois enough to go on eating with a knife and fork, just as I paint in oil on canvas.’ Asked why he has rejected any political intention in his art, Richter is direct: ‘Because politics don’t suit me, because art has an entirely different function, because all I can do is paint. Call it conservative.’
That is not something Buchloh is willing to do, but he presents the dialectic of formalism and socialism with some subtlety. He wrote in 2015 that Richter is ‘involved in a programmatic dialectics of formalism and historicity. On the one hand … a modernist consciously eliminating subjective presence, referentiality and expressivity from his work … On the other almost a historian of the various forms of painterly meaning and production.’ For Buchloh, formalism is encapsulated by Joseph Kosuth’s dictum, ‘the absence of reality in art is exactly art’s reality,’ and historicity by Daniel Buren’s, ‘art, whatever it may be, is exclusively political.’ So, by implication, the ideal of a historicised formalism would be work that told us nothing about the world but did so in a way that was entirely political.
For anyone who wants to read Richter’s work this way, Table (1962) is a better place to start than Living with Pop. The source image is from an Italian design magazine, but Richter has erased the central area with a series of muddy gestures that defeat any attempt to commodify the object. For Buchloh, the result of this ‘highly fragile equilibrium between subjective gesture and objective fact’ is ‘a dual negation … On the one hand, he denied that any trajectory of the referential, presumably realist representation within which he had been trained could claim any current or future legitimacy. On the other hand, he negated with equal vehemence any of the utopian promises of traditional abstraction.’ Put like this, it sounds as though Richter might be better described as a capitalist formalist, like all those members of the New York School promoted by the CIA. But Buchloh deflects that conclusion: ‘What would actually emerge in Richter’s denials of representation and his critiques of abstraction was not going to be merely a process of voiding abstraction’s utopian hopes. Paradoxically, his abstract paintings would also become some of the most intense redemptions, if not re-enactments, of that modernist legacy.’
In Buchloh’s account, Richter decisively distances himself from both Socialist Realism and the realism of contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, who celebrate ‘the total fetishisation of object relations’, but maintains a more ambiguous relationship with formalism in which he ‘attempts to imbue abstract painting with a mnemonic dimension, commemorating, if nothing else, at least its failed historical trajectories’. Richter is said to share his generation’s scepticism towards the ‘radical and utopian dimensions of abstract art’. And yet ‘at the same time … as a former Socialist Realist painter, he had been desperate to invest it, at least temporarily, with the by then almost traditional aspirations toward universality and its formal perceptual and political egalitarianism.’ Perhaps the capitalist realist was a socialist formalist after all? As the book’s ambiguous subtitle suggests, Richter may be painting after the ‘subject of history’ (the proletariat in some readings of Marx) has left the stage, but he is still making paintings on the subject of history and its agents.
This line of argument is presented with exemplary patience and learning in a series of long, leisurely essays written across several decades and collected here. It is uphill all the way because the artist seems determined to derail the argument at every turn. One problem is that the work for which Richter is best known by the public is neither abstract nor monochrome but based on family and newspaper photographs repainted with the trademark Richter blur, which in grisaille makes them look faintly spooky and in colour strangely numinous. These virtuosic photorealist paintings are frequently reproduced, and it is tempting to weave them into a narrative. There is a hypothesis (which comes from Jürgen Schreiber’s biography of 2005 and is the basis for Henckel von Donnersmarck’s biopic) that some of them contain the key to a suppressed family narrative of tragedy and redemption. In this version of events, the lives of Richter’s aunt Marianne, who died as a result of the Nazi euthanasia programme (and is shown holding the artist as a baby in Aunt Marianne, 1965), and of his father-in-law, an SS gynaecologist (who appears in Family at the Seaside, 1964), were horribly intertwined, but nevertheless ultimately transcended by the conception of Richter’s first child in 1966, an event commemorated in Ema (Nude Descending a Staircase).
Buchloh has little to say about all this, though the speculation clearly has some foundation. The paintings themselves are bad enough. At first, Buchloh wonders whether it was ‘historical naivety or artistic callousness’ that motivated Richter’s return to such dubious genres as the nude and the family portrait. But in the end, although the return to figuration seems to imply ‘a potentially regressive, if not outright reactionary, conception of the painterly representation of subjectivity’, Buchloh argues that it ‘did not ultimately advocate a return to order’ but rather aimed ‘to integrate a new mnemonic dimension within the neo-avant-garde’s heretofore seemingly mandatory tradition of obliterating tradition’. In other words, Richter is using photorealist techniques to historicise formalism. In Ema, with its obvious reference to Duchamp’s painting, Richter is reminding the avant-garde of its own history and suggesting that the readymade is not the only way to resist the ‘collective commodification of experience’.
Although, when it comes to Ema and the family portraits, Buchloh is happy to dismiss their overt content and interpret them as a historicising turn against the grain of formalism, he shows less inhibition when it comes to Richter’s unforgettable series of paintings of the Baader-Meinhof Group, October 18, 1977. ‘That this group of paintings was first exhibited in a building by Mies van der Rohe seemed an appropriate historical coincidence,’ Buchloh remarks, given that Mies had designed the Monument to the November Revolution commemorating Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, ‘both of whom had been murdered by the Berlin police’. This implies that, like the monument, the October series constitutes a commemoration of murdered socialists. But Richter was not intentionally commemorating the Baader-Meinhof Group (‘The political topicality of my October paintings means almost nothing to me’). And the paintings were executed in 1988, after Richter had read The Baader-Meinhof Complex by Stefan Aust, a book that did much to discredit the theory that Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and other members of the Red Army Faction were murdered by the authorities. The subject apparently emerged out of an ongoing dialogue with the artist Isa Genzken (Richter’s second wife) and Buchloh himself, both of whom were sympathetic to the RAF; if so, it was surely because Richter felt that he had won the argument. Buchloh presents Richter as ‘reflecting on the viability of the radical utopian challenge’ in these paintings. But Richter’s private thoughts on the topic aren’t of the sort that Buchloh would particularly wish to hear. As far as Richter is concerned, ‘this kind of revolutionary thought and action is futile and passé,’ and Marxist intellectuals who ‘refuse to own their own disillusionment’ are vilifying and poisoning the capitalist world ‘in their hatred and despair’.
It might have started as a joke, but ‘capitalist realism’ accurately describes work which, while not necessarily figurative, consistently reflects a capitalist reality in its sources, production methods and marketing. It is the type of art that not only Richter but also Warhol (only four years his senior) started making in the 1960s, and which became internationally dominant in the late 1980s. By 1988, however, the innocent capitalist realism of the Living with Pop exhibition had turned into something else: capitalist realism in Mark Fisher’s sense of the term – not the realistic presentation of capitalism but the recognition that capitalism is the only reality that can ever be imagined. Although the October paintings refer to the German crisis of 1977, they were painted in the same year that Damien Hirst organised the Freeze exhibition and Jeff Koons created Michael Jackson and Bubbles – the year that Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe.
For Richter, the seeming inevitability of capitalism only made it a better subject. He has never been an artist who asks questions of the world around him; he paints not from life but from photographs, when the subject is settled and the angle already determined. In some ways, however, he shares Fisher’s pessimism, for he views capitalism through the optic of Hans Sedlmayr’s book Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (1948). Taking his cue from Yeats, Sedlmayr argued that capitalism had resulted in the loss of centre, a loss of religious faith that had inevitably led to ‘deep and terrible experiences of death, chaos and of the demoniac’. This analysis wasn’t necessarily at odds with communist denunciations of Western decadence, and the book had been the subject of Richter’s student thesis at the Dresden Academy in 1956. To Buchloh’s astonishment, Richter claimed in an interview in 1986 that he still saw contemporary culture in these terms, save that where Sedlmayr drew the wrong conclusion, and ‘wanted to reconstruct the Centre that had been lost … I’ve no desire to reconstruct it.’
That is just as well, for it was Sedlmayr’s desire to reconstruct the centre against the competing extremes of communism and capitalism that led to his enthusiastic support for the Nazis. Richter does not seek to have an opinion. ‘I want to be like everyone else, think what everyone else thinks, do what is being done … I don’t want to be a personality or to have an ideology. I see no sense in doing anything different.’ Sedlmayr would probably have identified Richter’s lack of commitment with that of the Biedermeier period, when there was ‘an adjustment to reality’, with people seeking ‘for no more than what lies within their reach’. In these circumstances, the reference point becomes ‘the private human being … not necessarily as a solitary figure, but as a man who has withdrawn himself from the world outside’.
It is easy to place Richter in this context. Like Herr Biedermeier in Ludwig Pfau’s poem of 1847, whose motto is ‘neither cold nor warm’, Richter treads carefully and commits to nothing, an attitude reflected in his preference for grey, the colour he describes as ‘the epitome of non-statement’, ‘the negation of commitment’. But there is a contrast between the sometimes rather chilling indifference towards the public sphere and its victims, and the tenderness of his gaze on the private. He reserves colour for the latter. The most obvious precedent for Richter’s paintings of his daughters is the work of Caspar David Friedrich’s friend Georg Friedrich Kersting, whose paintings of women in domestic interiors, such as The Embroiderer (1812), also focus on the nape of the neck. Absorbed in their own activity, these women turn away from the artist as the artist turns away from the world. Buchloh calls paintings like Betty (1988) images ‘of the private, anti-utopian pretence of happiness’.
For Richter, the flipside of the grey paintings are the colour chart paintings that represent the same negation of commitment by simply reproducing the bewildering range of possibilities available in paint catalogues. That refusal of choice is further enhanced in such late works as 4900 Colours, composed of 196 plates of 25 squares each, where the artist has made no decisions at all, the paint colours instead chosen and arranged by computer, and applied by an assistant with a spray gun. Buchloh is inclined to interpret this as a form of overidentification or ‘mimetic exacerbation’ (to use Hal Foster’s term), arguing that although
seemingly condoning the conditions of desubjectivisation, embracing the loss of agency, and succumbing to the powers of the ruling economic and technological regimes … Richter’s monotonous polychromy is a very first step at making the perpetually innovated forms and unfathomable new depths of alienation suddenly flare up from what had appeared only a moment ago as an imperturbable totality of complacency.
The problem for Buchloh’s argument is that rather than opening up new depths of alienation, Richter’s colour charts culminated in a magnificent new stained-glass window for the south transept of Cologne Cathedral. It is as though Richter had been waiting all his life for this commission. His medium has always been light as much as paint, and now he had the opportunity to create a synthesis of the glass pieces and the colour charts in Germany’s most famous cathedral. Here, finally, Buchloh seems almost at a loss for words, for he has to contemplate the possibility that the ‘grand finale’ of Richter’s ‘lifelong project of suspending painting in a multiplicity of dialectical relations’ has resulted in ‘a manifest opposition … to the enlightenment culture of modernist painting and its historical project of secularisation’.
Richter is one of the most carefully managed and corporate of contemporary artists: so why does he maintain a dialogue with someone who refuses to listen to anything he has to say? Perhaps even the greatest capitalist realist of them all has to compromise? In bourgeois society, bourgeois art may not be undervalued, but it is underappreciated, at least by those in the know. Most living artists with anything like Richter’s market profile have long since been written off by curators and critics as names attached to art factories producing overpriced schlock. Buchloh, writing in Artforum in 2012, denounced Koons, Prince and Hirst as ‘mere barnacles on the Duchamp-Warhol legacies’, artists whose work denies that it ‘might be anything but cynical affirmation of the established order’ and declares the impossibility of ‘defiance of and distance from the totalitarian regime of consumption’. Hirst, Koons and Prince have since slipped down the rankings, especially on Artfacts, where Koons and Prince no longer make the top hundred. But when Buchloh made these remarks, they were the artists who stood closest to Richter at the apex of the price and attention economies, which suggests that they may have had more in common with Richter than Buchloh allows. Indeed, there might have been people unable to distinguish clearly between what is going on in Prince’s photo-paintings and Richter’s, or to see the difference between Hirst’s production line of spot and spin paintings and Richter’s colour charts and squeegee abstracts. The number of artists achieving the highest levels of economic success is very limited compared to the number sustained by the attention economy tracked on Artfacts. Were their work acknowledged as having a more consistently critical dimension, any of these ‘barnacles’ might have threatened Richter’s position as Number One. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that Buchloh may have done more than anyone else to keep Richter in the top spot, not by boosting his prices, but by helping to ensure that he alone has the long-term critical traction needed to balance his market success.
Buchloh’s is a heroic and selfless project. But it carries two risks: underestimating realism and limiting socialism. Richter has only ever wanted ‘to be a reaction machine, unstable, indifferent, dependent. To abandon [himself] in favour of objectivity.’ He did not leave the GDR to stop being a realist but ‘to get away from the criminal “idealism” of the socialists’. Suppose Richter had managed to paint ‘the imperturbable totality of complacency’: wouldn’t that be enough? Is it not in itself an achievement to have painted what Fisher called ‘the grey curtain of reaction’ that marks the horizon of possibility under capitalism?
In these circumstances, relegating socialism to a redemptive mnemonic register in the history of modernist painting is a folly. It may be all that Richter’s work permits, but it isn’t all that is possible. If socialism isn’t an alternative to which Richter’s work in the West provides any discernible point of access, might it not be better to acknowledge its presence outside the frame, as what the artist’s work excludes and resists? Biedermeier painting provided little warning, but the 1848 Revolutions happened anyway.
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