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Friday, January 31, 2003

Press Preview: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 9:30 a.m. – noon. Curatorial presentation at 10:30 a.m. Refreshments served. R.S.V.P. (202) 357-1618 ext. 3

“Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,” the most comprehensive North American exhibition to date of the highly diverse, influential paintings by this premiere German artist (b. 1932), will open Thursday, Feb. 27, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The show continues through May 18.

Organized and first presented to critical acclaim one year ago by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, this exhibition of more than 120 works includes both the artist’s abstractions, and his photo-based depictions of historical and political figures, landscapes, family members, household objects and more. Washington is the final venue for the show, which also has been seen in Chicago and San Francisco.

“Richter’s work provocatively rethinks the role of painting, photography, death and beauty in our culture,” says Hirshhorn Director Ned Rifkin. “His virtuosity as a painter–and an uncanny ability to invoke profound and destabilizing moments of recent history–make him a major artist for our time. We are proud to bring this important exhibition to Washington, D.C.”

At 12:30 p.m. on the show’s opening day, Phyllis Rosenzweig, the Hirshhorn curator who is coordinating this project in Washington, will lead an exhibition walk-through starting from the museum’s Information Desk. Professor Robert Storr of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who organized the exhibition during his tenure as senior curator at MoMA, will discuss “Richter’s Wager” on Sunday, March 2, at 3 p.m. in the Ring Auditorium. Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, examines “Gerhard Richter’s Photography: Documentation and Metaphor” on Sunday, March 23, also at 3 p.m. in the Ring Auditorium. All three programs are free; there will also be films, programs for families and a teacher workshop. For details, call (202) 357-1618 ext. 3.

Richter’s youth in and around his birth city of Dresden coincided with the rise and fall of the Third Reich and the traumas of World War II; his father and two uncles were mobilized after the outbreak of war. In 1952, Richter entered the Art Academy in Dresden, then part of East Germany, where he was trained in traditional painting. The young artist worked odd jobs during the 1950s, painting murals and theater sets as well as propaganda posters for the new Communist regime. On a trip to West Germany in 1959, he was decisively influenced by the works of Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock and others he saw at the large art exhibition “Documenta 2.”

In 1961, Richter moved to Düsseldorf in West Germany, enrolling in that city’s Academy of Art. There, he encountered such avant-garde movements as Art Informal, Neo-Dada and Fluxus and formed ties with other artists, including Blinky Palermo and Sigmar Polke with whom he produced a satirical variant of Pop Art called “Capitalist Realism.” Among the first paintings in the exhibition are examples from this period such as “Table,” 1962, in which a swirl of gray paint obscures a realistic representation of a table.

Richter placed tragedy and death in both cultural and personal contexts with “Woman with Umbrella,” 1964, which isolates the grieving figure of Jacqueline Kennedy, and “Uncle Rudi,” 1965, a depiction of the artist’s smiling uncle in his Nazi uniform. Both images diverge from their photographic sources as a result of the artist blurring edges and forms by rubbing the wet canvas surface. This distinctive technique reappears throughout Richter’s career, separating his style from that of Photo-Realists who began to emerge in the 1960s.

Richter’s at times cool and ambivalent commemoration of historical figures continued with cycles of grisaille paintings portraying the victims of serial killer Richard Speck (“Eight Student Nurses,” 1966), a pantheon of individuals who influenced 20th-century thought (“48 Portraits,” 1971-1972) and portraits and objects related to the Baader-Meinhof group of radical students-turned-terrorists, some of whom died in a Stuttgart prison in 1977 (“October 18, 1977,” 1988).

While developing such potent figurative images, Richter also painted abstractions. Early examples include a series of abstract color charts from the late 1960s (a major work is in the show), in which the artist carefully mixed and arranged pigments in grids much like paint merchants’ samplers. During the first half of the 1970s, he produced gray monochromes using a wet-into-wet technique and, after 1977, incorporated diverse colors into his ongoing series of “Abstract Pictures,” which often have a scraped or “squeegeed” quality.

Richter also sometimes emulated the atmosphere, composition and warm colors associated with Old Master paintings. In 1973, he made five versions of a Titian masterpiece. Infused with a soft light that characterizes many of his later works, this series, titled “Annunciation after Titian,” used an apparition-like effect to both evoke and distance itself from the original religious image. A key example is part of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection and will be on view in the show.

Candles, skulls and landscapes became significant parts of the artist’s repertoire during the 1980s, the first two categories suggesting “vanitas” painting of the past and the last recalling the imagery of German Romantic artists, chiefly Caspar David Friedrich. More recent portraits of Richter’s family, such as the tender profile view of his wife, Sabine, in “Reader,” 1994, have been described as having an intimacy and mystery comparable to the paintings of Vermeer.  

Long a respected figure in Europe, Richter is largely unfamiliar to the American public. Only two museum exhibitions of his work have been shown in the United States, both in the 1980s.

The Hirshhorn Museum’s hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., seven days a week. The museum is located at Independence Avenue at Seventh Street. By Metrorail take the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop, exit at Maryland Avenue and Seventh Street.  

“Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting” was organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and made possible by Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder with generous support from Mimi and Peter Haas. An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional funding is provided by Leila and Melville Straus and The Contemporary Arts Council and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.

The Washington D.C. presentation is made possible by a generous grant from Neuberger Berman Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by the Holenia Trust in memory of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

In addition to a free illustrated brochure, a 336-page hardback catalog with over 200 color and duotone reproductions is available in the Museum Store for $75 (soft cover edition, $39.95).

The show comes to the Hirshhorn, its final venue, after The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Feb. 14 – May 21, 2002), The Art Institute of Chicago (June 22 – Sept. 8, 2002) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Oct. 11, 2002 – Jan. 14, 2003).

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