Decades ago, Gerhard Richter found a painterly philosopher’s stone. Like Jackson Pollock before him, he discovered something that had been in painting all along, always overlooked or discounted. Just as Pollock used the drip to meld process and product, Richter “found” and used the smudge and the blur to ravish the eye, creating works of psychic and physical power.
Seen together in his current Marian Goodman show, a series of incandescently alabaster near-monochrome paintings are among the most majestic, haunting, voluptuous, and vulnerable of his career. (This despite the deathly coldness and once-removed manner at which Richter reigns supreme.) Richter’s system—skids and overlays of contrasting color, wet-on-wet paint that looks pulled with a squeegee—is so complex, supple, and subtle that it’s all but impossible to figure out how his art is made. He observes his process as much as he controls it, adding inscrutability, surprise, strangeness, and awe to his work. His marbled sweeps and sluices of high-key color, his clashing dissolves and blends of flecked, blazing paint, his erasure of spatial demarcations, and his radiance make him the most purely optical postwar artist since Dan Flavin, and one of the greatest painters alive.
In the new show, the room immediately off the elevator almost brought me to my knees. Four large, glowing horizontal canvases envelop and surround you. Each is so physical as to be almost architectural. The color is like streaked aluminum, billowy sheets of smoke, and iridescent clouds. For decades Richter has numbered his works, and these paintings are part of series No. 911. It’s no coincidence: A small print depicts two tall silvery shapes with streaks going into them as smoke flows above. It’s titled September. The paintings become an abstract conjuration, and commemoration of an indelible moment.
Richter is a complex character. He’s emphatically empirical—“I have always loathed subjectivity”—and has said that all ideologies “are superfluous and mortally dangerous.” He might cringe at this interpretation, but his 911 paintings are abstract, unsentimental evocations of the annihilation that can come from ideology.