Gettin’ Paid

The SFMOMA’s pricey new homage to Gerhard Richter.

Book cover
Cover of Richter 858  

If you possess a merely largish desk, Richter 858 may not be the book for you. However, should you have some 440 square inches to spare: Laissez les bon temps roulez. The $125 book, a classic fetish item, is beautiful enough that everyone might want it but priced beyond the reach of the great unfunded. To assure its status as an object of desire, the book comes sheathed not just in a box but also a brushed-aluminum case—like Madonna’s 1992 sex pix, only sexier. With admirable focus, Richter 858 (published in conjunction with the artist’s retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art) contains images only from Gerhard Richter’s eponymous series of eight new primary-color abstractions: full-page, panoramic fold-out loose plates and details, all reproduced with lustrous fidelity.

The collection goes on to include a couple of critical essays, a few passages by the painter himself, and a dozen commissioned poems. Tucked in the inside cover is a CD of playfully inscrutable music—presumably to contemplate the art by—courtesy of avant-guitarist Bill Frisell. The package is not so much an artist’s book as what you might call a complex art discourse—which is to say, a multifaceted array of items that are working together to mean something. That meaning may simply be “All hail Gerhard Richter”—though the book is a heavy weight to drop on a matter of general agreement.

The two essays, by Klaus Kertess and Dave Hickey, signify by their presence alone that the work under consideration is worth serious engagement. And yet the esteemed critics haven’t the room to do much else—all told, they occupy an eight-page passage. Compare this to Oct. 18, 1977—another Richter book, about half the size, based on a single series. It gives 100 pages to art-historical writing. But then, that book is about Richter; Richter 858, one starts to suspect, is about something else.

Measured by acreage, it has something to do with the marriage of pictures and verse: The poems fill a spacious 56-page spread, interspersed with various images from the series. The relationship makes a kind of sense: Among the classy arts, pictures and verse are the two that celebrate the solitary and the metaphysical. Ballet sweats in troupes; opera bellows en masse; drama converses; even symphonies require a bunch of bodies in the same room. If the modern world began amid the French Revolution, with the casting down of God and king and the rise of bourgeois individualism, poetry and painting are thenceforth the highest of the high arts. After all, the mental state of the French peasant, on the brink of modernity, was once posed as, “I am nothing and must be everything”—the very sentiment which defines the lone, heroic artist. And so the Revolution has been won by a German painter and 12 American poets.

But this fascination with triumphant-making risks being a kind of misdirection; the supremacy of the individual is hardly at stake these days, in these parts. Our middle-class anxiety is probably better summarized as, “I have nothing and must have everything”: one of those remarkable sensations which is at once ever-present and always suppressed. It’s the thought we’re not supposed to have. Certainly it haunts Richter 858, brought together by David Breskin, a music producer, novelist, and poet (one of his poems, not without its charms, is included). What goes unsaid in the contributors’ notes is that he’s a trustee of SFMOMA and a private collector (almost certainly the one behind the mystifyingly termed “fractional and promised gift” of the 858 series to the museum). What’s mentioned and what’s missing are busy gilding the ideal of art-making to conceal the business of art-owning.

The poets Mr. Breskin has drafted are a curious set of individuals, given the context. Richter has spent his career oscillating from extremes of photorealism to vast, scraped, and squeegeed canvases of chromatic blur. When he chooses one antipode, we trust he means it. So here we are, with these loaded abstractions. There are poets in the world who have, similarly, pursued abstraction in language. And yet, for the most part, these folks are nowhere to be found in the book. Although the poets included comprise the finest flower of American achievement—two Pulitzer Prize winners, five MacArthur and six Guggenheim Foundation fellows, and a former poet laureate of the United States—they’re mostly writers who made their bones doing everything abstraction doesn’t.

This seeming disjunction provides some of the collection’s most engaging moments: Robert Hass, the former aureate in question, treats his words like they might be Richter’s paints—eligible to be abraded and distorted—and comes up with some his most open, compelling work to date. Michael Palmer, with the closest ties to abstract experimentation, provides a haunting, minimalist suite called Scale; Jorie Graham, pursuing her singular jones for metaphysical arcs fractured by anxious interruption, manages along the way to mention a fact that goes otherwise unremarked.

The fact is, to put it crisply, money: “[when your work sells for] [millions of dollars], Graham writes in “Stroke,” “[you] [can]/ indulge yourself.” Sure, the language is from a New York Times Richter profile, bracketed until the phrases seems like packets in an amniotic data flow as much as overheard gallery murmur—and it’s hard to tell what stance Graham is taking toward this fact, exactly—but on the pages of a book retailing for $125, certain words can’t help but shine.

“Every time I hear the word ‘culture,’ I bring out my checkbook,” says the decadent Hollywood producer in the film Le Mepris. Whatever a given Richter painting, or a particular poem, might be about, Richter 858 is about checkbooks and culture—that is, it’s a book perfect for decadent modernism, where the art of consumption has replaced the art of production; it’s a book, finally, about collecting, that individualist art overseen by the twin muses “Dollars” and “Indulge.”