Gerhard Richter
Museum of Modern Art, New York, 212-708-9400
Through May 21.

And I am still wondering why I had to abruptly leave a 40-year retrospective of Gerhard Richter's paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

It's not that I ran screaming from it. It was more the gradual accumulation of a chill I could suddenly no longer tolerate. But this was a show that most critics had already fallen all over themselves to praise for its tremendous humanity and generousness. In the days following my quick exit, I was at a loss to understand why it had happened.

Richter is best known for his mastery of different styles. He is equally at ease with photographic realism (with a blurred variation), with abstraction, with precise, optically annoying tiled colors. Critics vacillate between seeing his flexibility as an assertion that painting is dead and the confirmation that painting is very much alive; I have, in the past, eminently admired Richter for failing to be slotted, for consistently painting himself out of a pigeonhole.

Writers speculate that Richter, as a postwar German painter, is unwilling to submit to any dogma. In a recent New Yorker article, critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, "...his aim is to elude the tyranny of any one game, be it conservative or radical. He will not be pinned down. Art is his means of awakening from the nightmare of history, which is a strategy common to Germans of his generation." Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, wrote, "[His work] raises questions about contemporary politics and German history, which Richter doesn't presume to answer... he has had his share of dictators and ideologues."

But anti-ideology works two ways, and resisting ideology becomes its own tyranny. To me it registered as something sinister, like the ministrations of someone who has an enormous amount of control and applies it selectively. The challenge of the work began to acquire something more than the playful sheen of thwarted expectation. I couldn't figure out what he was doing, and there was an unexpected moral dimension to it--withholding, somehow torturous. It felt ambivalent. It felt, in short, like being the object of the artist's contempt.

Finding myself at odds with good work is more distressing than you can imagine. In ordinary time it's an experience I generally thrive on: to be bowled over, to think and re-think--to be uplifted by someone else's refusal to be known in simple terms.

Had I had fallen into a trap that I had laid myself?

That I connected only with Richter's masterpiece, the series October 18, 1977, which presents fragments of the Baader-Meinhof saga (concerning a group of anti-capitalist terrorists who died in jail), seemed important; in these 15 works, his ambivalence finds a place to roost, becoming stark uncertainty about what happens to idealism when it goes sour. This chilling effect--focused and directed in the Baader-Meinhof paintings--free-floats through the rest of the show, although there are tremendous works here: the sublime blurred nudes, the seascapes both stormy and austere, the perplexing Stag. I was shivering and starving at the feast.

In the preface to The Madonna of the Future, critic Arthur Danto notes that art "is not immune to moral criticism." He goes on to say, "When I am negative... it is because [the] work, in my view, violates what I feel is the respect due human subjects." He means not the subject of the work, but we who are subjected to it, and in his essay on Bruce Nauman--like Richter, a polymath of styles--he writes, "I somehow felt that the situation of the visitor... was a kind of learned helplessness, in that we are subjected to a certain series of shocks over which we have no control, except that, unlike the laboratory rat, we can leave."

In the weeks following my desertion, as thinking took over feeling, my sense of morality and violation subsided to a more gentle wondering about the extent of Richter's cynicism (still undecided). There is comfort in intellectualizing, but I can't forget that I broke my own rule about facing difficult work. Like most guilt-ridden people, I can't decide who was wrong, the artist or me. And unlike the laboratory rat, I had a choice. I left.

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