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The Denver Art Museum goes big with Daniel Richter

Christoph Heinrich, the Denver Art Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, must be a workaholic. In recent months, he's unveiled two new dedicated spaces: a paper-works gallery in the museum's Hamilton Building and a new-media space called the Fuse Box. Then he took on the ambitious reinstallation of the...
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Christoph Heinrich, the Denver Art Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, must be a workaholic. In recent months, he's unveiled two new dedicated spaces: a paper-works gallery in the museum's Hamilton Building and a new-media space called the Fuse Box. Then he took on the ambitious reinstallation of the permanent collection, called Focus: The Figure, on levels three and four. And now he's brought in Daniel Richter: A Major Survey, which features more than fifty mostly large paintings.

Heinrich sees Richter as one of the most important painters working in Germany today and believes his name should be said in the same breath as that of Neo Rauch and Jonathan Meese. In terms of subject matter, the connection to Rauch is clear, but from a stylistic standpoint, there's no relationship between the two. But Richter is extremely close both in subject and style to Meese; in fact, the two men are good friends. The key connection between all the top painters in Germany right now, however, is that they are heirs to the century-old northern romantic tradition.

Richter noted on a recent tour of the show that he had been profoundly influenced by the second-tier French impressionists — or would that be post-impressionists? — Pierre Bonnard and Èdouard Vuillard, but that influence is extremely hard to see. More apparent is Richter's tie to early-twentieth-century expressionists like Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Not to mention modernists such as Asger Jorn, whom Richter sees as a source of inspiration. Jorn was a founder of the CoBrA group of northern European artists who attempted to reclaim the abstract banner from America in the mid-twentieth century. Though they failed at that, Jorn and his colleagues did leave behind a body of abstractions that provide a link back to the northern romantic tradition and up to work like Richter's.

The Jornian aesthetic is obvious in the first painting, "Love," from 1995, which is the only piece installed in the lobby of the Anschutz Gallery. In it, Richter takes exception to the old notion that an artist can ruin a piece by doing too much. Here, and throughout the show, he has tried to cram as much visual material into his pictures as he possibly can. And he also applies paint in many different ways. Did I mention color? His paintings explode with it.

"Love" is devoid of narrative content; in its place are painterly flourishes. In talking with Richter, it's apparent that he thinks a lot about what he does, and it struck me that he is mostly concerned with being a painter, tried and true, which is a breath of fresh air in our increasingly spectacle-prone contemporary art world. It's easy to see why Heinrich took notice of him in his old job at the Hamburg Kunsthalle, where a slightly different version of this show was first presented. His talent and, even more so, his heroic ambition, are evident on the walls of the Anschutz.

The exhibit isn't chronological, which is too bad, because I think something could be garnered by having the artist's development laid out explicitly. But Richter wanted it this way, saying, "I'm not dead yet" and explaining that this selection isn't a retrospective.

Richter reached his apex with a painting called "Fool on a Hill," from 1999, which he considers his last abstract. The piece is hanging on a wall facing the entrance so you can see it while looking at "Love." It is dazzling, with Richter having laid on one color next to another and on top of one other in sometimes jarring juxtapositions of cool versus warm tones. But he has unified the riot of colors and forms with black lines applied on top of the whole thing. There is a weird detail that introduces a new element into this painting when compared to "Love" and to several others here. Across the bottom of "Fool on a Hill" is a big swath of blank canvas that looks as though it's been left unfinished. According to Richter, the empty white area, which is defined by a border of black and gray blobs, is meant to suggest the edge of a cliff, with the dizzying array of abstract elements being the view from it. With this simple device, Richter introduced representational imagery into his abstractions, if just barely.

Beginning the same year, Richter ran with the idea of including the figure in his paintings. But the change from abstraction to representation is more than a simple stylistic shift, because when an artist includes recognizable images, the painting becomes a parable, something abstracts don't even try to do. "It's like the shift from Ornette Coleman to the Beatles," he explains. After throwing in heads and other things, Richter created what he feels is his first truly representational painting, "Phienox," from 2000. It is to the left of "Fool on a Hill" and therefore encourages us to compare them. Heinrich believes "Phienox" is Richter's "Mona Lisa." In this painting, Richter retains his passion for painting, and it's every bit as much about paint as are his abstracts. But he's added several layers of narrative content, which is now his standard approach.

"Phienox" was inspired by a photo of the Berlin Wall coming down — the most important event in German history since the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. The wall's destruction was also what led to Germany's reclaiming its position as a world cultural powerhouse, with new German painting being a good example of this. So the topic of "Phienox" itself is charged with meaning independent of the way it is painted. Richter points out that the figure at the center of the bottom of the picture is a stand-in for Christ. In actuality, the image derives from one of a man being picked up and carried over the wall by an enthusiastic crowd. But Richter has exaggerated the cruciform pose that he struck at that moment and has carried out the figure in a luminous yellow that really stands out against the mostly dark paints used for the rest of the piece.

The figures in "Phienox" and in many of the paintings that follow it are rendered grotesquely. Their faces are exceptionally strange, as if they are wearing horrible masks, looking like little more than skulls with their eye sockets glowing in a sinister way. This aspect of the painting, as well as the Christ character and the crowded composition, evokes the work of turn-of-the century Belgian artist James Ensor. Ensor was a radical artist for his day — and even now — and his work, in particular his masterpiece, "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels," looks as though it was done by a madman. Richter's "Phienox" shares this characteristic. Heinrich stressed the relationship to Ensor and the other northern European artists from a century or so ago as he reveled in the multifarious appeal of "Phienox." And it's true: From many angles, the painting is as northern European as it's possible to imagine, but the effect of American art can also be seen in it, which is doubtless rooted in the news photo on which it is based.

There are several other paintings that also reveal this touch of Americanism, including "Dog Planet," depicting a lineup of policemen with their guard dogs, and "Taunus," showing an arrest in a park. They recall Life magazine shots of the civil rights movement of the '60s. Another American touch is found in those paintings that seem to refer to comic-book superheroes, rock music and other aspects of pop culture.

I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about Daniel Richter: A Major Survey, because the work is hardly conventionally beautiful, and some of it is really ugly. But I can say that the more I looked at Richter's efforts in this exhibit and further studied them in the excellent catalogue that accompanies it, I found his paintings to be more and more interesting. The show also proves that Heinrich's strong suit is the way he's able to plug Denver audiences into what's going on right now in the vanguard of European art.

Daniel Richter: A Major Survey

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