Walking through MOMA permanent collection galleries, the room with Gerhard Richter “October 18, 1977″ has a powerful effect. It’s a work standing apart from the rest of the art and rooms in the museum. The fact that a whole large space is dedicated to this work (rightfully so), where every inch of space, isa precious art real-estate, it is extraordinary.
The first time I viewed this set of 15 stark and severe paintings was at the NYU Gray gallery. The work was produced in 1988. I was impressed by its unusual seriousness and thoughtfulness. Apparently Mr. R. attached condition for this work not to be displayed in a commercial gallery and to be always kept whole as a set, obviously attaching a special meaning to it.
Paintings are dealing with the Baader-Meinhof group, final fragments of life and death of Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Rasspe and Gudrun Ensslin, (Ulrike Meinhof committed earlier suicide in the police custody). They were members of Red Army Faction (RAF) who grew from 68 student revolt across Europe and US. In 70s they took to armed struggle as a logical and extreme evolution of 60s anti capitalist radicalism. The deaths were considered group suicide. The prison where they died was a notorious high tech facility, build exlusively for them, with constant surveillance, so there was a suspicion that they were murdered by the state …. The unique alignment of content and form in this paintings, evoking so many memories and issues central to German and European post II world war generation, coming to maturity or growing up in 70s is extraordinary, but can be obscure and almost esoteric to today viewers, without a detailed knowledge of European history of that period. But, even if they are floating without a context, their monochrome heavy gray intriguing imagery is loaded with gravity and sense of history, like a Zeppelin ready for combustion dropping its anchor in to viewer mind.
A decade later I’m seeing these paintings again at MOMA as a part of his retrospective. This was the last exhibition before renovation of the museum and its temporary exodus to Queens. It was in 2001, but symbolically it was the last show of 20 century and there couldn’t be a better choice of the artist to do it. His work incarnates, among other things, the supremacy of Euro/Usa dynamics as central to art after II World War till the end of the century. His art dasn’t come across as segregated in a fragment of time, because he is simultaneously following few different tracks of work, figurative, abstract paintings, objects etc. and is thematically constantly renovating himself. His work looks fresh, contemporary and not dated, but he is in fact the ultimate post WWII 20 century artist and that he is able to do that, shows the strength of his work ….
When Millennium hit, it was not perceived and seen just as a change from number 1 to 2 on the date, but especially with the attack on WTC, time opened a crack. There emerged 2 sides of a very wide river, getting wider and dipper with time, accelerating to most unexpected scale. There is this side and there the other one, how something that had only a symbolical meaning, just a change of numbers, materialized a real divide,sharp and beyond imagination. It’s like being that proverbial white bear on a slice of ice, victim of global warming, broken from Northern pole, drifting in the ocean and there on the other broken piece of ice is a friend, a family or a lover, somebody that is and faster you move away from each other, is becoming a was. This goes for our sense of history, politics, economy, art, whatever represent a sense of culture, civilization that was formed in a drastic moment of change at the begging of 20 century. At the beginning the symbolical change of 1 to 2 was not a recognizable shift, suddenly just like that, those pieces of ice in cold Atlantic were drifting away, two sides of expanding river were getting out of reach, getting lost. Something intimately familiar suddenly become cold, alien and lost in the fog. The disappearing of familiarity brought a sense of anxiety and fear. The scary and unfortunate part of all of this, is that what is on this side of the river is not reassuring, it’s illogical and mainly doesn’t’ have what the other side has, a logical, dialectical, even with all its horrors of the last century, a linear narrative. (Marxist dialectics and Hegel’s spirit of history) with its inner basic optimism that has a potential of delivering a better world. Well, as they say, modernism was replaced by postmodernism or something else happened, something deeper and more sinister and non quantifiable. People are being blown apart by people blowing themselves up, and more being blown up by others with intent to prevent blowing ups in the first place, and all in the name of religion, having religious wars in the 21 century, how!? What happened to religion being opium of the masses? The question is what is going on or were do we stand.? The coarse is being dramatically changed, our near past is unrecognizable in an accelerated way. On a superficial way the new digital technology, specially communication and media revolution could be pointed out as the reason for this perception, but that is not the case, because this technology should actually reinforce the sense of reality and optimism and basically is not so different as previous technological jumps. A basic thing, humanism is being demolished from all sides and blamed for existing problems and to be dealt with. It is crucial that we don’t lose that contact with the other side of the river, or the ones stranded and slipping away on that sheet of ice on the cold ocean of time. That we trow a line to the other side is almost existentially urgent, before is to late, here the work of some great post WWII artists has a great role to play, work as this one of GR.
The horrors and the magnitude of insanity manifested in Fascism and Stalinism and WW I and especially WW II with the unspeakable Holocaust was an epic struggle between god and evil. With all resilience of the human spirit, of which art was an important driving force, god won with a huge hard learned lessons. Those lessons become drawing force and central to anything done after 45. Art was important especially to one, never forget, relax and lose the vigilance. That was especially true for German artists, GR among them, facing the fact that their culture gave birth to such a monster as Nazism, guilty of the biggest monstrosity in human history, they had embarked on a heavy self examination of their collective guilt. The work of great post World War II artists was hard, cutting and desperate, but at the same time liberating. It’s deep criticism of contemporary society, politics and especially alienating effects rapid economic growth and the raise of consumerism had on individual, was to keep human mind sharp. Art ’s total depression and nihilism in some cases was in its essence optimistic, with deep believe in future. Works of artist like Mishima, Pasolini, Celine,Visconti, Kurosawa, Beuys, Warhol, Fasbinder, Duras, Myrlin etc… and work like the “October 18, 1977″ by GR are great examples of this. At the same time, they were actively shaping change for better in nascent youth and pop culture, making difference in a fight for individual human rights, like women’s and,gays and racial equality in more and more complex world. There was support for liberation movements of colonized people to regain their independence (”Battle for Alger “) and a sense of possible utopias, obviously everything with the Cold War with the potential nuclear annihilation as a constant beat looming on the background. The other side of that Iron Curtain divide,with their paranoid high premium value placed on art, produced body of deep personal insights in works of artist like Tarkovsky, Wayda and many others …. In a brief moment, when the end of Cold War with the fall of Berlin Wall, dismantlement of South African Apartheid and Mandela’s freedom, other long conflicts like Israeli and Palestinian, Northern Irelands … being on the verge of the solution, combined with the new digital globalizing revolution, for a brief moment it did looked as things are really getting better and the ship is finally arriving to a home port, after being on stormy seas for a very long time. Art was the light house providing direction to safety from dangerous tempest. Well, all of this utopia in the making didn’t last for a long time. New, at that moment considered unthinkable and ahistorical, not recognized as a serious thing, that would eventually start dragging everything to the bottom, horror of Sarajevo and Rwanda materialized. It produced something new, a virus infecting human body of history. It was beginning of a disease, that symbolically with the new millennium, like Aids, was devastating our common immune system, taking over and rewriting all the rules and spreading rapidly. The big crack started to materialize.
Film as the ultimate incarnation of the art of the 20 century, reached its highest point in the 70s and peaked before the century was over. It influenced other forms of expression, especially Visual Art, and that is well manifested in “October 18, 1977.” Images are edited as a movie; cuts, one sequence following the other. Rhythm is materialized in the placement and different sizes of canvases in the space. Color of the paintings is monochrome dark gray, like a black and white movie. Story that is told is a documentary of tragic and traumatic events in 70s Germany, with deep political consequences, based on cold photographic documentation from police files and newspapers. It’s a personal, humanizing film, something on the line of a Fassbinder movie, at first glance looking dispassionate, cruel and removed. As Fassbinder was fascinated with Warhol and America, so was he and other German and European artist, including Beuys. In this paintings he is mimicking mechanical reproduction of Warhol silk-screens and he is follow him thematically, replacing American icons( Merlin, Jacky O, Patty Hirst …} and iconographical American tragedies (car crashes, electric chairs, police mug shots … ) with a symbolical German one. The interesting twist is that he is using instead of the direct silkscreen print, to come to the similar impact, oil paints on linen and careful time consuming soft brush work.
Why were those events he is describing so important to GR?. How do they relate to our time? GR with his stately and often very spectacular art is in a way very reassuring artist, confirming that art has still high cultural ambition and in this way with his mastery and high minded topics in an inside out inversion of progressive and simultaneously conservative stand, is producing highly priced and sought after marketable art objects. Politically his work is far of being radical, so why is he eulogizing the Bader Maincof group, that committed acts of violence against targets, that they identified as the symbols of oppressive capitalism. Fascist terror groups at that time in Europe, especially in Italy, targeted innocents in mass massacres in squares, trains, etc, with horrific acts of violence, not unlike Iraq, with the goal to destabilize civil society and bring in right wing military coup. One reason he was attracted to this subject matter could be, that even in their extreme, the romantic idea of youth fighting and being sacrificed for their idealistic believes, in a struggle for a just future, has an enduring appeal and explores the long tradition in Western art of historical paintings immortalizing acts of bravery, struggle and death; Goya’s execution of Spanish resistance fighters by the French, David’s “The Death of Marat”, Picassos Guernica among many examples. There is also the long Christian tradition, starting with crucifixion and through art history, numerous representations of saints dying and sacrificing themselves, or images from Bible of violence and death, like the intense image of Caravaggios “The sacrifice of Isac.” He is working with and reinterpreting the Western cannon of large scale historical and religious paintings. The other reason, since the work was produced in 1988, was a cautionary tale of the future that came to pass. Politically in Germany and Italy with it’s Red Brigades in late 70s, the state and politicians used cynically the excuse of fighting terrorism (RAF in Germany the topic of this work) to crash civil liberties, opposition and nascent youth and civil society. Those groups were isolated and manipulated on the margins, with no connection to lively (especially in Italy) student movements and other progressive parts of society. Example of this crack dawn were the raids by police in Italy on independent papers and radio stations and universities. In Germany the state in an infamous act, started to do political checks on teachers, preventing left leaning to be hired. The damage done was severe with long lasting consequences on the civil society. The parallel to were this work is coming from and relevance of these paintings in our age of permanent war on terrorism is obvious, the civil liberties can go out of the window incredibly fast. These are history paintings in action.