Standing in front of Gerhard Richter’s “Betty,” I catch a glimpse, a fragile emanation, of intimacy, which is promptly snuffed out. The intimacy is there, and very real, but it’s simultaneously denied and extinguished, like a fading Polaroid, or a beautiful song on a radio frequency falling out of range.
“Betty,” of course, is not a photograph or a song. It’s a painting, hanging in the St. Louis Art Museum, that Richter, 87, made in 1988. Showing the artist’s 11-year-old daughter, Betty, turning away from us, it is arguably the most famous image by the most acclaimed artist alive.
But for all “Betty’s” fame, the work’s status as a unique piece with the authentic aura of a painting feels vulnerable. That’s partly because it looks like a photograph (and, indeed, it was based on a photograph taken 10 years earlier). It may also be because, even today, it is known to most people as a photographic reproduction. (I saw it for the first time last year, after 25 years of seeing it in reproduction.)
Richter seems to have anticipated all that. As if to emphasize its insubstantial, slightly inauthentic status, he made the painting slightly blurry. By dragging a dry brush across the still-wet paint, he made firm outlines appear feathered and approximate, almost pixelated.
In other works, Richter nudges this blur in the direction of abstraction, which he achieves by dragging a giant squeegee across wet, layered paint, producing gorgeous yet almost arbitrary effects — the visual equivalent of radio static.
Born in Dresden, Germany, in 1932, Richter was a teenager when the Allies firebombed the city. His father and uncle fought for the Nazis (the same regime that sterilized and then starved to death his mentally ill aunt, who is memorialized in another blurry painting by Richter, this one based on a black-and-white photograph).
After the war, Richter studied in communist East Germany. There, art was an arm of the propaganda machine, indentured to state ideology. When the artistmoved to Düsseldorf, in West Germany, in 1961 — the heyday of pop art, Andy Warhol and the fantasy of frictionless consumerism — visual culture was in thrall to yet another ideology: capitalism.
Richter questioned all of it. He knew that nothing — certainly not art — could escape politics. But could it not also express feeling? Intimacy? Beauty?
Richter has never been sure. Long experience taught him that when ideology is cranked up, social existence goes haywire, and art’s ability to engage individual inner life is the first thing to fall into eclipse. So his images are tentative. They’re skeptical. They can seem like dried autumn leaves, wispy and brittle. But — as in “Betty” — they can also be intensely, almost unaccountably moving.
“Betty,” twisting away, evokes for me an impossible yearning: a desire to turn away from the din, the debacle, of political life and to dissolve instead — to bleed, to blur — into an intimate, apolitical present.