A Gerhard Richter show finds a home for now
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A Gerhard Richter show finds a home for now
“MV 133,” a 2011 work made by painting over a photograph, is one of the works in “Gerhard Richter: 100 Works for Berlin” at the Neue Nationalgalerie. One hundred works by the German artist will be a highlight of a new Berlin museum but the building’s costs have ballooned, and Richter is taking a cautious approach to handing the pieces over. (Gerhard Richter via The New York Times)

by Catherine Hickley

NEW YORK, NY.- Four large abstract paintings made with layered streaks of black, gray, red and green are the centerpiece of a new Gerhard Richter exhibition that opens Saturday at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. In the corners of the gallery hang four photographs from the Nazi death camp at Birkenau that show prisoners moving corpses from a heap.

Those four paintings form a cycle called “Birkenau” that Richter began in 2014 as figurative renderings of the photos. “But I realized it wasn’t working at all,” the artist said in 2016, in a rare newspaper interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “So I scraped it off and painted again until I had four abstract images.”

The “Birkenau” cycle has since become something of a German national treasure. It represents the climax of Richter’s quest for a creative response to the Holocaust, and a conclusion to decades of wrestling with the question of how much horror and brutality art can, or should, show.

Copies of the paintings were installed in Germany’s Parliament in 2017, and the originals were featured in an exhibition that opened at the Met Breuer in New York in March 2020 but shut down just eight days later, because of the coronavirus pandemic. The paintings were also exhibited at the National Museum of Modern Art in Japan last year.

But they are unlikely to travel far again, according to Joachim Jäger, the deputy director of the Neue Nationalgalerie. Richter says he is determined that “Birkenau” should never be sold. To guard against that, the Gerhard Richter Art Foundation has given them, along with dozens of other works, to the Neue Nationalgalerie, one of Berlin’s highest-profile exhibition spaces.

Those works will be on display in the exhibition “Gerhard Richter: 100 Works for Berlin” until 2026. After the completion of a new modern art museum in Berlin, designed by Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, they are set to occupy a designated gallery on that building’s upper floor. But construction is already nearly three times over budget, and the project’s terms are shifting. The artist’s foundation is taking a wait-and-see approach: All the works are on a long-term loan that may later be made permanent.

Richter is not expected to attend the show’s official opening, Jäger said. “He is well, but at 91 you have to take good care of yourself,” he said. The artist was, however, closely involved in the planning.

He requested, for example, the placement of his blurry black-and-white 1965 painting “Mr. Heyde” near more recent abstract works, Jäger said. Werner Heyde was one of the main architects of the Nazis’ euthanasia program and he committed suicide shortly before he could be tried for his crimes. That portrait’s presence colors the viewer’s perception of the abstract pieces in the same gallery.

With Richter, “nothing is innocent,” Jäger said. “Everything is loaded.”

In another disquieting juxtaposition, “Black, Red, Gold,” a glass and enamel work in the colors of the German flag, is shown with a blurred painting of a skull and two 1965 portraits: “Uncle Rudi,” a fuzzy image of Richter’s uncle in a Nazi uniform, and “Aunt Marianne,” which shows a relative who was starved to death in a Third Reich mental institution.

There are more joyful moments in the exhibition, too, including “4900 Colors” (2007), a vibrant geometric painting series that echoes Richter’s famous stained-glass windows in the Cologne Cathedral, and “Strip” (2013-16), a computer-generated work featuring long stripes of bold colors. A row of lacquer paintings on glass from his 2010 “Aladdin” series resemble fantasy landscapes.

The plans for the new museum that will eventually house these works are still evolving. Due for completion in 2027, it is now just a big hole in the ground next to the Neue Nationalgalerie — a very expensive hole. The latest Finance Ministry estimates put the final cost for the project at 550 million euros, around $600 million. The initial estimate was 200 million euros.

Jäger said the artist’s foundation had been wary of donating the works outright while the “museum landscape is in flux,” and so they were given as a long-term loan, the terms of which will be reviewed at an unspecified point in the future, with a view to becoming a permanent arrangement.

The Neue Nationalgalerie’s director, Klaus Biesenbach — a former MoMA chief curator-at-large and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles — is closely involved in the planning for the new museum. In an interview, he said the institution, which was announced in 2013 as “the Museum of the 20th Century,” was now coming together under the working title “Berlin Modern.” When completed, it will display Berlin’s vast store of 20th-century art, which has outgrown its current home in the Neue Nationalgalerie.

Berliners were underwhelmed when Herzog & de Meuron’s design for the museum was announced as the winner in 2016. The unassuming, low brick building was compared to a barn, a depot and a covered market, and the design came under fire for its projected carbon footprint.

“Construction in Germany is quite slow,” Biesenbach said. “We are building with a certain time delay, and values change. I think sustainability is a value that drastically changed.” He said the design had been amended to reduce the building’s environmental impact: The windows will be smaller, and solar panels on the roof will generate about 10% of the museum’s power.

He said he wanted the new museum to have an inclusive ethos, in line with recent changes he has made at the Neue Nationalgalerie. Admission there is free on Thursday evenings, a policy that Biesenbach said had drawn thousands of extra visitors, and last summer the museum hosted a “sundowner bar” on its terrace with music and drinks.

“All of a sudden, we were not the ivory tower,” Biesenbach said. “We were a house for everyone.”

He added that, in an effort to attract return visitors to the Richter exhibition over its three-year run, he planned to organize a series of supplementary events, which could include a collaboration between Richter and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

“In every museum, you want a place that you recognize and come back to, a place where you can have a moment of epiphany, a moment of contemplation,” Biesenbach said. He added that he hoped the Richter show would do that. “It’s complex enough.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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