Gerhard Richter, toilet paper (Klorolle), 1965, oil on canvas



Back in ‘53, Susanne Langer proposed that the symbolic space created in painting was not real but “virtual”. Starting in ‘63, Gerhard Richter showed her to be accurate. In my assessment, this is the primary merit of the Richter retrospective now at The Museum of Modern Art, as Richter demonstrates—by the use of the swipe—how the once static Pop image became virtual: how it went into motion, how the hand was left behind, and how the gray machinic became the aesthetic of excellence in our culture (some, like Richter’s countryman Matthias Groebel—a painter of digitally produced paintings, would say the bona fide aesthetic domain of art in light of the Information Age). This is true even while half of Richter’s art ends up looking like a simulacrum of a Jules Olitski painting from the eye-candy side of the ‘70s, while the other half paints (very well) out-of-focus “dreamy” photographic techniques first made popular in fashion photography in the ‘60s. This contradiction makes his art feel both light and static, which is its important aspect in terms of viractuality.

The basis of the viractual conception is that virtual producing computer technology has become a significant means for making and understanding Contemporary Art and that this brings us artists to a place where one finds the emerging of the computed (the virtual) with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This coalescence—which tends to contradict both common Luddite and techno clichés—is what I call the viractual. This blending of computational virtual space with ordinary viewable space indicates the subsequent emergence of a new topological cognitive-vision of connection between the computed virtual and the uncomputed corporeal world. Richter is one of the viractual’s key precedents in terms of painting. Hence the show is not to be missed.

The claim that Gerhard Richter’s work is wildly eclectic—and intensely Post-Modern for being so—does not bear out on close viewing. Indeed, for me its continual swiping of paint shows the opposite—an incessant trope which endures and defines all 40 years of his work. Still the swipe does, at least, imply a rather pejorative determination on previous forms of inert Realism.

It is also consequential to note that the aspects of Dionysian celebration (the Olitskiesque eye-candy) which are in severe antagonism towards the cool-gray Apollonian Photo-Realist aesthetics are throughout never rectified. They sit side by side—but never really talk or make love. No obvious preference is expressed and then developed—just so long as all things continue to be dragged across the picture plane, leaving no trace of the brush stroke, so as to achieve the viractual condition of dynamism in situ. Hence, the experience of the show is one of reading TS Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” while dancing to house music—intrinsicly fragmentational, kooky, and just a little out of it. So, to conclude, I think that the show does not offer much information on the art of painting—as its sub-title suggests—but rather on the experience of becoming virtual. And for this Gerhard Richter proves himself a major artist of our time.

Joseph Nechvatal

New York, New York


Gerhard Richter, woman descending the staircase, 196

oil on canvas, Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago