"Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting," Feb. 14-May 21, 2002, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
As the curtain came down on the Museum of Modern Art’s last great opening night for many years to come, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Storr greeted well-wishers, holding big, bright bouquets of daffodils.
"Your Richter installation is majestic in its understatement," we remarked.
"That is exactly what I was trying to achieve," Rob responded.
Up and down the Modern’s escalators, the raffish reconnoitered with the rich and royal -- MoMA has always been special for its elitist egalitarianism, a quality markedly missing from the Whitney and Guggenheim in recent years, and from MoMA itself during a brutal strike two years ago.
Amidst the mood of Auld Lang Syne, the Richter exhibition seemed almost an afterthought, the often small and fragilely executed paintings mirroring their viewers' nostalgia.
Almost. We remember reading about Richard Speck’s brutal murder of eight student nurses in Look magazine in 1965. The shock of the crime at the time was nauseating.
When Richter turned the photographs of the young and innocent victims into art, culture types denounced him for transgressing every avenue of good taste.
Yet here was curator Storr joking about, "Going back into the galleries one more time to gaze at the student nurses," as MoMA’s clock struck midnight.
Time and change and death, Richter demonstrates, erode all that is shocking and evil into numbness. The blurry waves of Gerhard’s brushstrokes, endearingly tentative when seen in person, continually reflect this simple truth.
Yet Richter is at his best when he wearies of his signature trope, and everything comes into focus, as in the phenomenal Bette, as unique and accomplished as any painting by Ingres.
Richter is also a painter, unlike, say, Frank Stella, who gets better and better as the years progress, although, like Stella, he has produced some truly execrable abstract work.
Richter’s recent series, of the breastfeeding of now notorious Baby Moritz, is as cold and terrifying, and just as great, as his Baader-Meinhof series, which Storr has cleverly assigned to a side gallery on the third floor.
Also imposing is Richter’s Seascape from 2001, a single work summarizing the call of the millennia, crushing as gravity, yet somehow lighter than air.
When examined closely, Seascape transforms into a Color Field abstraction and then back to a photograph. The stuff of mastery.
One other thing Storr’s curation teaches us is that reproduction, often so flattering to Richter’s classics, robs them of their essence.
His candles, for example, seem forbidding in photographs, but can be as warm as Degas or Bonnard, and Richter’s spreading around of the color brown recalls the interiors of Vuillard, intimately.
Whatever your favorite Richters, this is one exhibition, curated to perfection, which will reward repeated viewings.
And for that, the MoMA board should reward Robert Storr by elevating him to Alfred Barr’s august chair, forthwith.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).