Railing Opinionby Robert Storr
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re: Gerhard Richter’s War Cut
by Robert Storr
Towards the end of her long letter in last month’s Brooklyn Rail, (go to: www.brooklynrail.org/arts/sept04/railingopinion.html) Dore Ashton highlights the work “Rage.” Clearly that is what has motivated her diatribe, but one can only regret that the muddle of her political anger over the war in Iraq (which I and most people I know share) and her ancient art world resentments (which I do not) have been poured so gratuitously over the head of Gerhard Richter.
I will not dwell on her pointless display of literary expertise—who has not read Rimbaud at some time in their life or is not aware of his affects on the Surrealists? Nor will I linger over her assertion that “Richter’s influence is minimal in the places where works of art germinate—artists’ studio,” except to note that anyone who spends time in the studios of young artists or those not enmired in New York School provincialism encounter his impact in many places and many forms. Finally, I can only say that her characterization of Richter as being exclusively the creature of “wealthy collectors and the serried ranks of museum mafiosi,” neglects to recognize the artist’s long struggle against conservative ideologies and taste, first in Communist East Germany, and later in the Capitalist West, where he wasn’t ranked among the leading figures in Europe either by museums or the market until the mid-1980s. Neither was he widely celebrated in the United States until the dawn of the 1990s. Indeed, Richter was 70 when he had his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Artists who Ashton has championed—Rothko for example—were favorites of that institution and of dealers and collectors well before they reached the same age, suggesting that her complaint against Richter is prompted by forgetfulness, a sudden loss of sophistication, or an unadmitted double standard. Or perhaps it is simple bad faith.
More consequential, and recklessly prejudicial is the particular focus of her attack; Richter’s recent book of collages texts and images, War Cuts. Published in Germany, it consists of clippings of coverage of the Iraq war that appeared in the German press juxtaposed to details of one of Richter’s abstractions. For inexplicable reasons she describes the book as an “absurd historical novel” and proceeds to further denigrate it with hostile quotations from an interview with the artist that appeared in the New York Times on which she comments with “Gotcha!” vindictiveness on the artist’s supposed “coquetry” and “best bad boy manner.” All these complaints she then rolls into a conspiracy theory that in effect blames Richter for taking up valuable space that the paper should have devoted to more critical reporting on the war itself and to the dissent against it.
There is no doubt that the Times has failed its readers in the handling of Iraq and of Bush’s presidency generally. However, Richter can hardly be blamed for the lapses of American journalism, nor is he a witting or unwitting pawn in the power games she seems to think connect plutocrats at the Times and the Modern. Instead, Richter should be credited as one of the very few artists to have so far made work that raises questions about the war—questions brought to the surface by the dissonance between the texts and images in this book. (It is entirely unclear, by the way, whether Ashton has read the texts—does she know German?—or, if, beyond generalities, she is even aware of what they contain.) As to Richter’s reluctance to spell out the meaning of this work, it is consistent with his career-long refusal to play the accuser from a position of moral superiority or to engage in making rhetorical message art (something he had all too much experience with in East Germany.) What he does do is bring painful information to the viewer’s attention and put it in conflict with the aesthetic realm into which so many people seek to retreat in times of trouble.
Furthermore, Richter has done so for over the forty years, addressing the most difficult problems of social and artistic responsibility in works devoted to World War II, the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, and now this country’s disastrous adventure in the Middle East. In a period of extreme danger to enlightened values, when politically and artistically forward-looking people desperately need to build alliances and reinforce each other’s independent efforts, Ashton’s ill-informed and mean-spirited assault on a painter who has raised such urgent issues yet again is perverse, self-indulgent, and shameful.