in August 1944, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi focus and extermination camp, a Greek prisoner named Alex (his surname unknown) secretly took four photographs with a smuggled camera. Alex was a member of the Sonderkommando, a typically Jewish “special squad” pressured by the SS to exterminate its fellow, mainly Jewish, prisoners.
Two of Alex’s photos, taken by way of the darkened entranceway of Birkenau’s crematorium V, depict billowing smoke, as Sonderkommando users cremate bare corpses in open-air incineration pits. The other two snapshots—blurred and askew, shot as if in motion—show birch trees, and bare females becoming pushed towards the gas chamber.
These 4 photos are the basis for Gerhard Richter’s “Birkenau” (2014), a suite of 4 greatly impastoed summary paintings, every single about 81/2 feet tall by 61/2 feet wide. The abstractions are the centerpiece of “Gerhard Richter: The Birkenau Paintings,” a boutique exhibition curated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sheena Wagstaff and Brinda Kumar, mounted in the Met’s Lehman Wing.
Commanding three contiguous walls of the intimate gallery (an irregular nonagon), and dealing with the little source photos, “Birkenau” at first implies a substantial winged altarpiece. This feeling of reverence is heightened by the works’ seclusion driving a central wall at the gallery’s most important entrance, the place you come across Mr. Richter’s “Mirror, Blood Red” (1991)—a glass rectangle in which your reflection is bathed crimson.
Born in 1932, in what would turn out to be East Germany soon after World War II, Mr. Richter moved to West Germany in 1961. For a long time, Mr. Richter has been celebrated as the Postmodern savior of painting. In an era when several misguided up to date artists considered painting outmoded, lifeless, Mr. Richter is regarded as an antiart artist credited with reviving painting by “critiquing” and belittling it—making portray self-conscious and self-referential. Mechanical and dispassionate, his paintings are disavowals of the custom of artwork as an exploration, evocation and poetic meditation on its issue or theme. In its place, Mr. Richter’s abstract and representational paintings advocate system, accident, indifference, irony.
He has two essential modes: blurry, deadpan, black-and-white photorealism and an equally impersonal multihued abstraction that, given that the mid-1980s, as in “Birkenau,” has been executed mainly in thick swaths of intermixed paint, pushed and pulled, up and down, with giant squeegees. His abstractions’ painterly gestures are wry allusions to the emotional depth and authenticity of Summary Expressionism.
Grandiose statements are designed for the “Birkenau” series in the show’s wall text and the catalog essays for “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All,” the Satisfied Breuer’s retrospective that provided a further model of the “Birkenau” set up, and which prematurely shuttered on March 12 mainly because of Covid-19. (The building, previous internet site of the Whitney Museum of American Artwork and, most not too long ago, the Satisfied Breuer, is scheduled to reopen as the short-term dwelling of the Frick Collection though that museum undergoes renovation.)
Mr. Richter, we are educated in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s catalog essay about “Birkenau,” has extended been preoccupied with irrespective of whether “any artist, and a lot more improbably any German painter, could probably build a credible mnemonic representation” of the Holocaust. Every of the “Birkenau” paintings commenced as a grisaille photorealist rendering of one particular of Alex’s snapshots (projected onto the canvas and blown up to mural scale), but was finally protected by means of successive levels of squeegeed paint.
Although quite a few German artists—including, most notably, Anselm Kiefer—have tried to tackle the Holocaust, evidence would advise that none is equal to the undertaking. This is not Mr. Richter’s 1st endeavor. In the 1960s, he manufactured glib, irreverent photos of Hitler Anne Frank as a pinup and Warhol-inspired artworks in which he juxtaposed images of Holocaust victims with pornography.
In accordance to Mr. Buchloh, the “Birkenau” paintings preserve a “dialectical tension” concerning abstraction and illustration since the is effective started with documentary pictures. He argues that the Birkenau images demand from customers to be witnessed, but that seeing them turns the Holocaust into spectacle and viewers into sadistic voyeurs, “victimizing the victims once all over again.” Mr. Richter’s system of destruction and reassembly, Mr. Buchloh promises, solves this moral and aesthetic paradox.
I would argue otherwise. The discrepancies amid the “Birkenau” paintings are negligible. Largely black, white and in particular grey, with shots of muddied colour (purple, pink, salmon, environmentally friendly), they sense arbitrary, aimless, inert: a fake-Existential pose (at most effective basically frigid, classy surfaces). However they are striated and closely worked, a numbing, even-toned static—a visual tinnitus—spreads across all 4 canvases. Placing viewers adrift to glimpse for some sort of relationship or foothold, Mr. Richter forces them into a voyeuristic no-man’s-land.
The experience of artwork should be an orchestrated dialogue between artwork, subject matter, artist and viewer. But, getting no apparent directives from the “Birkenau” paintings (indistinguishable from Mr. Richter’s other squeegeed abstractions), viewers are compelled to obtain analogies brought on by factual cues in Alex’s photographs and by what they now know of the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau itself.
Lacking imagination, coherence, individuation, dialogue—and far from redemptive—Mr. Richter’s Holocaust paintings are an aesthetic glossing-in excess of, a manipulative obfuscation in which the artwork, lacking a everyday living of its individual, is bolstered by and hides at the rear of its morally unassailable matter make any difference. “Birkenau” does not discuss to the failures of art to tackle the Holocaust nor does it illuminate its matter. It illumines, in its place, the failures of the artist, specifically the futility of Postmodern irony in the deal with of the solemn and profound.
—Mr. Esplund, the writer of “The Art of Searching: How to Go through Fashionable and Present-day Art” (Standard Guides), writes about art for the Journal.
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