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The essay below is revised from an email that I sent to my friend the Chicago journalist Andrew Patner, who had referred me to Jed Perl's trashing in the New Republic of the Gerhard Richter exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2002. This exhibition traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through January 14, 2003), and will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., February 27, 2003 to May 18, 2003. I post it in part because it has some of my own views on Richter and on art in general, but to read my views on Richter in more detail, you can read my August 2, 2002 Chicago Reader review. Fred Camper 

Response to Jed Perl on Gerhard Richter

I read Perl's Richter piece with considerable discomfort. It made me wonder about my own negative reviews, not that there have been that many, in that it proves to me once again that art criticism is really pretty close to fiction writing. You like something, or you don't, and then you make up stories to justify your position. Perl's problem is not that he doesn't like Richter, but that as an art critic he spins tales to justify his dislike.

What I hated most were the bad-faith accusations against Storr and the Museum of Modern Art. Reading Perl, you'd almost imagine that Storr doesn't like Richter's art himself, and that he mounted the show as part of the Museum's current trend-following phase, with the institution going along for political or box-office reasons or both, not because anyone else there liked Richter either. Sure, a lot of that goes on, but Perl doesn't seem to believe that anyone could authentically be moved by Richter's work.

Though I've read and liked Perl often in the past, I hadn't realized that he was such a neo-con, though being a contributor to The New Criterion seems to me to be a giveaway, as his article is too.

Perl's article fits into a long tradition, I'd guess, of critics who didn't like a new artist and then accuse him of violating everything that past art has been. There was supposedly a review along those lines of an early 1950s Robert Rauschenberg show in Florence that cited the city's art treasures before suggesting that Rauschenberg throw his stuff into the Arno — which he then did with some of it, because it hadn't sold and would be expensive to transport. Perl's review reminded me of those critics who railed against Dada or Surrealism for violating "good taste," or against AbEx for violating standards of good composition. He's using old standards where they don't apply, and thus proving his utter insensitivity to the way art changes, and the way new art requires new ways of looking. Instead he compares Richter to Balthus, and find that Richter comes up wanting. But Richter is not Balthus, and each require a different way of seeing.

If we learn only one lesson from the last century, it's that artists are constantly redefining what art is, and that each redefinition requires new criteria, new ways of seeing — indeed, that's often the point of the redefinitions.

Here are some specific comments on some of Perl's statements:

...what he sends out into the world are not paintings so much as they are Neo-Dadaist puzzles engineered to inspire philosophical flights of fancy among art professionals who are more interested in massaging their world-weary minds than in using their jet-lagged eyes.
I see nothing wrong with "Neo-Dadaist puzzles." Like anything else, puzzles can be good, bad, or mediocre. The rest is an accusation of bad faith on Richter's part. Perl is saying he's not painting from the heart, but for the art market. If that were true, why didn't he didn't change what he was doing when his own early 60s gallery dropped him and he had to get a job as a schoolteacher to survive for a few years? And even if it were partly true, it would hardly be the first time that a great artist made great art in part because of the demands of the art market.
Everything in Richter's work is muffled, distanced, impassively ironic, as if it were being seen through a thick, murky sheet of glass.
Yeah, that's part of what's great about them; some even look like paintings of rippled glass, and I remember one color one that's clearly an outdoor scene seen through distorting glass. But, Richter's paintings are not ironic. That's a key point that differentiates him from his pomo cousins.
....what Storr's distillations and "uncertainty" actually amount to are Richter's chilly moods. Gray can be one of the greatest weapons in a painter's arsenal, of course, if the restrained hues are mixed from rich colors so that they have fiery undercurrents, or if they are spaced and proportioned to create a visual music.
This is pretty good proof that Perl is using old standards, and old ways of viewing. "Visual music" is not what Richter is about. Indeed, it's what he rejects. And as a lover of the films of Stan Brakhage, I'm certainly a "visual music" lover too. Curiously, some of Richter's grays — not the gray paintings so much as some of the icy later color ones that only have small amounts of color — do have "fiery undercurrents."

Of course, more significant art figures than Perl, or myself, have used the wrong standards, namely their own, in failing to see other great works. Michelangelo is said to have remarked of Titian's Danae something to the effect of, "It's a pity that in Venice they don’t learn how to draw well."

One of Richter's quixotic remarks (they come by the truckload) goes like this: "The picture [I guess he is referring to photography] is the depiction, and painting is the technique for shattering it." That little nugget takes you to the core of Richter's blandly nihilistic attitude. It is difficult to be impressed by all this talk about painting's being a destructive force, since the talk is being done by an artist who demonstrates no ability to construct a painting in the first place.
Once again, the wrong standards are being used here as to what constitutes the "ability to construct a painting." And he's got Richter's philosophy completely wrong. Richter questions belief, and he stands on the knife-edge between belief and non-belief just as Cézanne stood on his own knife-edge between representation and abstraction, but he is not "nihilistic." Indeed, part of the key to getting what's great about him is understanding that difference. A doubting of all ideology doesn't necessarily represent nihilism, and a retreat from grand meanings doesn't necessarily mean an end to all meaning.
Color in Richter's work, red and green or black and white, has no contrapuntal effect. There is no sense of how a particular amount of color creates an emotional impact.
Yeah, because that's not the only way to use color. Not every great color painting is contrapuntal, "emotional," or both. Perl is using the wrong standards again.
The sizes of the paintings are arbitrary.... Where an image begins or ends is utterly arbitrary. And his brushwork—which is all trickery and gimmickry—never serves to structure the space.
Yes, because Richter's work is partly about the arbitrariness of artistic choices, as I say in my review. He rejects the hubris of artists who claim to have access to "truth," as Perl's (and my) beloved Mondrian did. That's part of his point.

Perl also calls the toilet paper paintings "banal images," as if toilet paper is not a fitting subject for a painting. Yikes! Does he really believe that? Would he be one of those who condemned genre painting as vulgar when it emerged in the seventeenth century?

I reject the work on fundamental grounds, as a matter of principle. I do not accept the premise on which his entire career is based: that in the past half-century painting has become essentially and irreversibly problematical, a medium in a condition of perpetual crisis... Although he is quick to express his reservations about Duchamp, Richter would be nowhere without the Dadaist deity telling us that art has failed.
Perl is buying into Storr's rhetoric here, without paying attention to what Richter himself says, or what his paintings do. It's legitimate, I think, to speak of them as commenting on the question of painting, and Richter does that in interviews as well. But he has also talked about his childhood experience of seeing the symbols switch, when in 1945 the nation he lived in went from the swastika and the Hitler portrait to the hammer-and-sickle and the Stalin portrait. This experience is surely a key real-life one of the past century, and it's from it that Richter acquired his distrust of "style" and of ideology. His paintings express an unwillingness to commit to particular forms, and a doubting of the idea that an artist can find and present an organized "truth" in his images, because recent history teaches us that there are good reasons for distrusting those who are ensnared in particular beliefs.
The curators and the critics who embrace his work are the same ones who long ago accepted the most visually and intellectually impoverished forms of Minimal and Conceptual art as key late-twentieth-century achievements. They may still like that stuff, or at least they say that they like it, but art professionals know instinctively that the end-of-art pose may eventually threaten their very livelihoods. That's where Richter comes in.
So, again, the people advocating for Richter can't be authentically and deeply moved by his work — they must be cynically calculating their tastes for their professional betterment? This is an old canard, which doubtless pre-dates Tom Wolfe's stupid book, and is not worthy of a serious critic.
Richter gives us nothing to look at, but the chatter that swarms around his work is full of brain crushers.
This is a recycling of another old canard about conceptual art. Part of Perl's problem is that he seems unable to accept that the visual and conceptual elements of an artist's work can interrelate, that one can alter and enrich one's experience of the other, and that the two can come together in an experience of the whole. He also banalizes Richter's authentic interesting in "nothing," deriving in part from John Cage, and the way that it represents a response to earlier art and the ethos behind it.
My point is that there is an ideology to [the Museum of Modern Art's curators'] preferences, an ideology that is determined to deny the freedom that is inherent in the very act of painting.
Yeah, but Perl's article has "ideology" written all over it. He rejects Richter's work "as a matter of principle" because he doesn't accept its premise. How ideological is that? And gee, I wonder now, is Perl Roman Catholic? Does he accept the "premise" of Titian's great early altarpiece in the Frari, that the Virgin was bodily "assumed" into heaven? I sure as hell don't. Anyway, if he "accepts" that "premise," where does that leave him in relation to, say, Buddhist art? Does one have to accept the "premise" of a work of art to appreciate it, to love it? That view sounds as ideological as all hell.

For me, the experience of art has always been about achieving a certain mixture of ecstasy and thought, of commitment and freedom. You believe in the ideology of a great work to the extent that you're moved by it, but you also question it, doubt it, argue with it. One doesn't have to agree with Richter's opposition to ideology to love his paintings.

                                                                                                          Fred Camper
                                                                                                          Written July 20, 2002.
                                                                                                          Revised August 12, 2002.

Copyright  © Fred Camper 2002

If people would like to write me about Richter or Perl, especially anyone who's also read my review, and the messages seem likely to be of interest to others, I will post them — with the writer's permission only, of course — below.

Here's the relevant part of an email I received from my friend Malgosia Askanas on August 19, 2002. She began by mentioning reading my review, and continued:

I also read the Jed Perl piece, and your reply. What I find quite funny about Perl's article is that while he insinuates that those who praise Richter are really phonies and are not genuinely moved by him, he doesn't give a single hint about what is genuinely moving about the older art that he counterposes against Richter's supposed "failure". All that he lists are technical issues — whether or not the paintings are "well constructed", whether the greys are used "correctly", and so forth. As if those were the qualities that are synonymous with a painting being, or not being, capable of moving the viewer. One gets the distinct feeling that the "inertness" of which he accuses Richter is really within Perl himself. What he really resents, it seems, is that post-Duchampian art has made it impossible to articulate some kind of uniform expert criteria by which the worth of a piece of art should be estimated. In other words, he doesn't know how to experience art; he estimates it.

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