Priciest Painting

The Wrong Gerhard Richter Painting Broke the Living Artist Record

Gerhard Richter’s ‘Abstract Painting (809-4)’ could be mistaken for splashy décor, says Blake Gopnik.

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters-Landov

The German artist Gerhard Richter may be the most important painter of our era. But the picture that also made him our most expensive living artist, thanks to an auction in London on Friday, may not have much to do with his greatness.

Richter’s Abstract Painting (809-4) sold at Christie’s auction house for $34.2 million, breaking the $28.6 million “living-artist” record set in 2010 for one of Jasper Johns’s great Flag paintings. The record for the Johns made some kind of sense—if such prices ever do, for a mess of color on canvas. Johns’s Flags came at the height of his talent and changed everything that came after: they helped usher in pop and conceptual art and continue to read as cutting edge. The giant Richter smear that sold on Friday came 30 years after the photo-based paintings that made him matter as an artist, and it could be mistaken for splashy décor. As the Sotheby’s sales pitch for Abstract Painting (809-4) put it, the piece is “monumentally scaled, breathtakingly enveloping, and visually resonating in primaries of red, yellow, blue, and green … delivering an arresting display of seemingly endless variegation and layered painterly process.” All true, but also all ideas that belong more to the 1950s and ’60s, when abstraction still had a great deal to say, than to the 1990s, let alone 2012, when more might be expected of a painting than visual punch. “We would not be mistaken for taking Richter’s abstractions as retroactively analogous with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, or Yves Klein,” says the Sotheby’s catalogue. Precisely.

The issue with Richter may be that the photographic paintings that matter most in his career also can be rough to deal with. His greatest work is called Oct. 18, 1977, and consists of 15 blurred gray-and-black pictures of the Baader Meinhof gang, including paintings of several members after their deaths in jail. Over-the-sofa pictures these aren’t, but they’ve triggered reams of deep thought from some of the best minds around. It is possible, just, to go almost as deep with Richter’s abstractions, if you put in the work. But it’s also very easy to skim their surfaces.

Robert Storr, dean of the art school at Yale, is one of today’s greatest Richter experts, and he has more time for the abstractions than I do. When I reached him by phone in New Haven, he insisted that Richter’s figuration and abstraction have been in exquisite tension over the entire course of his career and can’t live without each other. But he also said that if people are attracted to Richter’s abstractions as just another version of the appealing abstract art they are already like, rather than as “a resistance to all that,” they aren’t understanding what the artist is up to. The best readings of Richter’s nonfigurative works bill them as a kind of anti-abstraction—as a squeegeeing-out of normal composition and pleasures—that pushes back against the values touted in Sotheby’s catalogue.

Cheyenne Westphal, who was in charge of Friday’s auction for Sotheby’s, accurately described Richter’s record-setting picture to me as “dazzling” and “a visual feast.” She also agreed that his abstractions are always an easier sell than his landmark early pieces. She mentioned a classic Richter from 1965, titled Tante Marianne, which shows a grayed-out image of the artist’s aunt, who was sterilized and then killed by the Nazis because she was mentally ill. Tante Marianne is “an incredibly important and beautiful” painting, said Westphal, that’s been discussed in detail by scholars—and yet went for only $4 million in 2006. This kind of chewy, significant work has a “limited market,” said Westphal, and thus fetches limited prices. Just last Thursday, also in London, Christie’s auction house sold off a Richter painting of five open doors, made in 1967 and fully 8 feet across, for only $3.5 million. It is unlike almost anything else the artist has made—a distinction that is also a turnoff for bidders who want a picture their friends recognize.

Westphal explained that, in the last five years or so, a new crowd of collectors has jumped into the Richter market specifically hunting for punchy abstractions, and so driving up prices. I believe their aim is to get “major” works by someone recognized as one of art history’s greats, while avoiding the difficult paintings that built that reputation. It may be a while before we all recognize their mistake: the price tags for Richter’s abstractions—which those collectors themselves help attach—can seem to stand for the art’s excellence. But eventually, dollar signs will be forgotten, and Richter’s many abstractions will live mostly in storage, while his rare early works grab museum space.