Towards the end of a pleasant evening in affable company I'll sometimes ask, just for shallow fun, who the five greatest living artists are, aside, let's say, from the obvious pair of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The answers vary, though not as much as you might think: Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman are almost always mentioned, and so is Sigmar Polke; Cy Twombly and Frank Stella come up frequently, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons more often than you'd expect. And then there's Gerhard Richter, who seems to be, by unofficial consensus, the most obviously canonical artist of our time.
For what it's worth - and whatever it may mean - I tend to agree; certainly I've spent more time thinking and writing about Richter than I have about almost anyone else. The Museum of Modern Art seems to be of the same opinion, since it has lavished on him the kind of sprawling retrospective rarely granted a living artist, and the American press has followed suit, responding to MoMA's initiative with a cataract of profiles, reviews, evaluations, explanations. And the public, at last, has literally fallen in line; I visited mid-morning on a Thursday and the queue outside the museum stretched down to Fifth Avenue. It was a truly impressive turnout, considering that most of them had probably never heard of Richter until this most recent campaign was launched. The show is a hit.
I had to wonder, then, whether it was mere contrariness or peevishness, publicity overload or proprietary jealousy, that led me to leave the galleries as profoundly disappointed as I was. For a while I considered the possibility that I'd simply overestimated the artist, that his corpus was less than the sum of its parts; and then I thought, no, the fault lies in the format.
The very idea of a retrospective serves an artist of Richter's kind badly; it's like pulling up various statues and memorials (say, the Statue of Liberty and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), bundling them up in giant vitrines and shipping them out to a cornfield in Iowa, to join a Retrospective of American Monuments. The work feels yanked out of context, stripped of its purpose, denuded and left standing bare. Thus, a Richter painting such as Horst with His Dog (1965), a blurred rendering of a black-and-white snapshot, only resonates if it's seen among roughly contemporaneous artworks - Ab Ex, Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik. There it's a startling melancholy gesture, at once sentimental, personal and sceptical. Placed in a room with a lot of other, roughly similar Richters, it seems a matter of mere content; the motivation and daring of doing such a thing gets lost, and what remains is just a somewhat odd picture. To contemplate it as such is to miss the point spectacularly, but the MoMA show leaves the viewer little choice.
It doesn't help that the work is divided up like sections of a department store: black-and-white representational paintings in one room, colour abstractions in another, landscapes in a third, Baader-Meinhof paintings in a fourth and so on. It suggests a group show of five or six German postwar painters, each rather interesting in himself but having little to do with the others aside from an accident of geo-graphy and history. Moreover, the selection is aggressively conservative: only two colour chart paintings, one candle painting, one skull painting, one pornographic painting, two mirrors, the abstractions mostly on the friendly side and too many of those very nice landscapes, which, decontextualized, inevitably look like ... very nice landscapes. Even Betty (1988), to my mind Richter's best single painting, is sapped of its power. When I first saw it in London in the early 1990s, it was the punctum of an enormous gallery, easily commanding the space the way a whispered secret might take command of a noisy conversation. At MoMA, placed at the threshold between two galleries, it's far too easy to glance at the thing, nod and move on.
The whole show is too easy; but it needn't have been so. Had the retrospective been as daring as the painting it represents, it would have demonstrated how difficult Richter's work actually is, how thoughtful, how frustrating, how perverse, how it makes you pay for every pleasure you take from it, without making you begrudge the payment or discount the pleasure. It might have shown the Richter I see, and my friends see, when, in our playful little parlour game, we vote him one of the masters.