Click here to return to the dart home page

The Empty Deep. Gerhard Richter at the MoMA.

by Bruce Bauman

When I worked at an advertising agency in New York City, blocks from MoMA and the 57th Street galleries, I spent lunch times knocking around the museum to women watch. It turned out that many more paintings spoke to me than did any women. And, in the end, reading Kafka while sitting in front of a Bacon or Rothko helped save my life. This is not hyperbole.

I bring this up now because of a trip to New York to see the Gerhard Richter exhibition at MoMA which forced me to reevaluate why I write about art; most particularly about my relationship to art. When I first read criticism it was to deepen my own understanding of the work. It was fun. Then I started to write about art for the same reasons, to help me understand. Now that I write for others to read, and I'm getting paid (if you can call enough money to buy a Happy Meal at Mc'Ds getting paid) each time I sit down to write about art I suffer a mini-existential crisis. I ask myself: What is the role of the critic? Hell, what is my role?

This problem escalated when, before seeing the Richter retrospective, I realized that I was prepared to judge it rather than let the art come to me, let it inspire me or fade away. Much of this judgment was spurred on by discussions going on in LA, and to a greater extent in New York. But what really got my opinion juices flowing were the articles by Jed Perl in The New Republic and Arthur Danto in The Nation. I respect both of these men; they are smart, well-read, well-styled writers who reach broad audiences. They have ideas and are not reviewers who are simply "describers." But in their reviews of Richter (and they are reviews of the artist as much as of they are of the art), they sounded like lawyers. Perl was the outraged prosecutor whose opening sentence was a declaration of war: "Gerhard Richter is a bullshit artist masquerading as a painter." From there he attacked either by name or implication Richter's numerous supporters. His implicit message, if I didn't agree with his assessment, indicted me as either part of the art world cabal that has high jacked serious art or, an easily conned fool.

Danto's review sounded more "objective," as he adopted the superior defense lawyer pose. His accolades were more in line with the general tenor of the reviews. He piled "fact" upon "fact," in the end, declaring that Richter did what great artists must do, which is break down barriers and confront "the terribleness of history." And the last century gave him more than enough terribleness to confront. Basically, though very subtly, Danto implied that if I didn't agree with him, it was my fault that I didn't understand the breadth of Richter's achievement.

So, I was set up to go see the art, my metaphorical thumbs ready to signal one way or the other.

Then I went to exhibition-and I found it much more complex than even a simple or long-winded yea or nay.

As I slowly made my way through the MoMA galleries, I found it impossible not to be overwhelmed at the vastness of Richter's oeuvre, the immensity of his ambition, and yes, his technical skill as a painter. And yet I felt a lack in the work. This lack, which I could not pinpoint that day or even in visits on subsequent days, sent me back to the time of my Bartleby-like life and why I left it. I thought of the advertising catalogs for which I wrote copy and I thought of my lunch times in front of a Pollack, which inspired me to scream "Yes," because he had expressed my angst on canvas. He understood my search, for what I couldn't state in words at the time, but what I later learned Maurice Blanchot calls the "empty deep." It is this search that I believe is the necessity of art: the search for that space in each individual for the longing for the lost god, for meaning, for beauty, humanity-the quest for truth which is our soul. In falling into that empty deep can we truly confront the terribleness of human history, the horror and little cruelties that live within us all. And so too, to discover the little pleasures and the immense beauty. It is that confrontation which, for me, is the way to transcend my inner demons and, I think, the only way for all of us to find our way out of the bottomless nihilism and to our soul.

Much of this recurred in my mind as I spent time going back and forth to the Richter exhibition, physically while in New York, and in reflection over the last few months. While sorting out the seeming paradox of agreeing with both Perl and Danto I came full circle to my beginnings. I realized that I must rid myself of all the opinions of others I've swallowed, and my own self-indulgent obsessions. Self-indulgence and others' opinions are not why I love art. Neither are they the reason I write about art. In my guts I found I don't agree with what Danto appropriately called Richter's "protective cool," where "the internal distance between artist and his work, as well as the work and the world" is the necessary stance of the artist. I thought of Isherwood's assertion "I am a camera," as he wrote the Berlin Stories. An apt equivalent for Richter, (one, which I later read the curator Robert Storr also suggested in their interview) whose every piece is photo-based. But Isherwood's literature verite was a lie. It did not work. It is why Cabaret is a superior work of art to the Berlin Stories; Fosse used his camera as his weapon, exploring the deviations of the human heart as well as a society on the verge of madness.

Richter could have used this opportunity to take photography and painting, realism and abstraction to a level as no one has before him. He may have succeeded philosophically, but failed artistically-when he chose not to investigate our society's madness. By this I mean that his "camera" betrayed a dictum that I believe is foremost for the artist: the obligation to tell the truth of his or her time. Richter's truth seems far too painless and without sincere self-reflection. The October 18, 1977 or Baader-Meinhoff paintings, which many celebrate as his masterpieces, should pose monumental questions of history and of the heart, but seem no more than a beautifully rendered requiem. The unfocused grays and blacks seem ultimately vacuous instead of questioning the why of the Baader-Meinhoff, of society's reaction to them, the need to mourn them or say good riddance. These choices should be implicit in the work even if the details of the history are unknown.

After the images faded, the connection between the work and me, left me feeling empty-with the exception of three paintings done a year after the Baader-Meinhoff series. In the November, December and January canvases Richter reached transcendence. The huge, densely painted abstracts with their black and white layers with flashes of red and gold contain depth and fear, vibrate with the metaphysical dread and historical terror, which when merged with his near-perfect technical skills are awash in the death of the black rain of Hiroshima, the white night of the gulag, the sorrows of the drowned and the saved of Auschwitz. In these paintings, Richter finally lost his mind and found his soul. Only in those paintings did Richter touch me in the "empty deep." But his dive did not last and I don't know why. Perhaps what he saw scared him back from the precipice and instead of Guernica we have Richter's Uncle Rudi in his Nazi uniform. That refusal to enter the empty deep is Richter's failure and our loss.

And that failure brings me back to my relationship to art, and to Danto and Perl. For me, art happens in two special spaces: when I am alone with the art, and in the realm of public discourse, whether it is with friends or in print. Perhaps I'm being impertinent and beyond presumptive here; but I think that Perl and Danto, and all serious critics, have more in common than they might admit-they desire an art that gives us beauty and meaning. And that's what matters to me. I want to hear the debate; I do not want to be shouted at or seduced. For it is a debate not only for the soul of art but for ourselves. If the artist is the spiritual guide of our culture, as I believe, I fear we who do not confront this vast emptiness are in danger of losing our way. Richter, like Warhol, denied confrontation for the mechanics of depiction; there was no attempt at resolution, at diving into the terror of the empty deep, and they have become historical too soon.

This century has barely begun and we have already seen the fear in a city full of silence; an image of a fractured skyline that no one can ever forget. It is the artists' challenge more than ever to confront the empty deep, to seek the truth of the human terror of history, to explore the unknown horrors that await us-to attempt anything less is to surrender to a world in which art has no meaning.


dart international magazine. contemporary art review and criticism. ©2004-2016. all rights reserved.


xguru, Inc. website design, email newsletters, ISP hosting
thinking web.