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Gerhard Richter’s War Cut
Newspaper junkies—and I am one—monitor the news columns, teasing out bias and tendentiousness masquerading as objectivity. Seldom do they turn their attention to the culture pages. But if they had, they would have found a page-and-a-half of the July 4th Sunday New York Times given over to the marketing of Gerhard Richter’s book, War Cut. Not only did this report carry no less than four color reproductions, but it included a lengthy interview with Mr. Richter, "perhaps the most influential painter in the world," who was previously hailed by the Times with several hyperbolic reviews of his Museum of Modern Art exhibition a couple of years ago. When mighty institutions agree to agree, they can produce prodigies of propaganda.
Richter may be the most influential painter in the world of such institutions, peopled by wealthy collectors and the serried ranks of museum Mafiosi, but anyone who knows a few artists would know that Richter’s influence is minimal in the places where works of art germinate—artists’ studios. That, needless to say, has no bearing on the tale of the opinion fabricators.
Now, you might say that Richter is the progeny of 1930s surrealists whom Jean Paulhan, a French editor and critic of the period, called "terrorists." He meant it kindly. The surrealists, he thought, offered a purgative to literature eviscerated by rhetoric. They took their cue from the great nineteenth-century enfant terrible, Rimbaud, whom they admired, especially for his grand gesture: he left literature and Europe behind at the tender age of twenty. That Richter, a grand eclectic, thinks of himself in the wake of the drunken boat of Rimbaud, is apparent in the interview, where he says of his juxtaposition of vignettes from his own abstract painting with news reports of the Iraq war, "the real gift for me was the fact that chance could bring about wonderful combinations."
Chance, as everyone knows, was for surrealists such as André Breton, a goad to the imagination. It lingered on after the Second World War in the persons of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (to whom Richter compares himself) and also in the work of Ionesco. The interviewer in the Times spread, or perhaps it is the chief art critic of the Times himself, tells readers what they should think of War Cut in an introduction:
The book consists of collages: 216 photographic details of Mr. Richter’s 1987 painting "No. 648.2," accompanied by an equal number of newspaper articles from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 20 and 21, 2003, the beginning days of the war. The result links two normally unrelated mediums, creating a hybrid commentary that can be seen as a kind of absurd historical novel.
This absurd historical novel, in which Mr. Richter says his "layout determined what I included or didn’t include," and points out that he only read most of the texts after he had placed them with his pictures, not only displays Richter’s expertise in display technique, but also his familiar claims and disclaimers. After insisting that, "admonitions, protests and such are not my thing," he later tells us the book involves his "rage" because "war is upsetting." I could not help thinking of a recent translation of The Iliad that begins with the single word: Rage. But Richter is no Achilles, as he demonstrates eloquently, explaining that he "absolutely avoided expressing an opinion." In his best bad-boy manner, Richter concludes the interview by saying "it was fun to have produced something beautiful," calling it "the absolute opposite of war." Well…
All of this coquetry is given a spectacular "layout," as Richter would say, in The New York Times, whose hubris about the misleading coverage of the war in Iraq was daintily expressed around the same time. For those of us who, in despair, sought to publish forceful dissent to the war on the pages of the Times, this space usage is depressing to say the least. A full-page ad in the Times costs many thousands of dollars. For shareholders in the Times, it is space, not time that is money. And money and market are high on the list of subjects covered by the Times, or by any other newspapers in this country. Even Al Gore had to hire a page in the Times to vent his own rage—a rage more convincing than Richter’s.
What author was ever able to commandeer whole pages of the Times? Or for that matter what living artist? Richter’s message, a pale reflection of Duchamp’s celebrated stance of indifference, can only speak to the very rich collectors he affects to despise. His irony may be lost on them, but it certainly appeals to their wish to avoid at all costs taking a position, which Richter assures them "is completely useless here and obstructs the attempt to come somewhat closer to the truth." And—look who’s talking—he slights his own friends who condemn the war and grumble about Bush "in a way that is close to kitsch."