In all Gerhard Richter's paintings," says Jeremy Strick, "the choice of image is very striking. Few more so than 'Woman Descending the Staircase.' It's incredibly theatrical, over-the-top, elegant."
Since Mr. Strick became curator of 20th-century art at The Art Institute of Chicago late last year, a main concern has been to install the contemporary collection in new galleries. And one of these is exclusive to German painter Richter: 11 of his works, mostly recent acquisitions, including the one pictured here.
Strick already considers "Woman Descending" to be "an icon of the collection."
The "woman" is opera star Maria Callas. But this is not a portrait. It was painted, with some "heightened theatricality," from a photograph of the charismatic soprano.
Richter has made many paintings of photographs selected for the purpose. Strick points out that "it was particularly important to him that the photographs have a banal quality." Richter is just as likely to paint an unknown "Secretary" walking from right to left, or two women and a dog in a family snapshot, as he is a famous diva.
"Much of Richter's work," Strick explains, "has been this dialogue with photography, which he thinks is crucial to our time. But it's not simply an accepting dialogue, where he takes all the claims of photography at face value. His painting relies upon a sense of photography containing the real. But at the same time, he draws attention to its artificial aspect."
Richter was born in 1932, in what became Communist East Germany. He "was trained as a good 'Socialist Realist,' " but "found the artistic environment stifling." He came to West Germany - Dusseldorf - just before the Berlin Wall went up.
There he became "part of an international wave of artists - pan-European and American - who, in the early 1960s, were inventing Pop Art." Richter started using found photographic images.
His Socialist Realist beginnings made him aware that "the tradition of figurative painting carrying a social message was exhausted." It was "deeply problematic" that any painting "could carry meaning." But in ordinary photographs he felt there was a residue of belief far greater than in, say, a painting depicting a historical event," Strick says.
The prevailing trend of abstract painting in the West was no less problematic. "Richter admired American Abstract Expressionism. But there was a certain feeling as well, in Dusseldorf, that some of the European efforts in abstraction were a kind of 'official' art - not unlike the official art of Eastern Germany."
Figuration was forbidden territory to the abstract painters - and an attraction to a newcomer like Richter. But if he painted figuratively, it could not be Socialist Realist figuration.
He resorted to a kind of irony.
Strick argues that "irony is deeply embedded in 'Woman Descending' - as it is in a great deal of Richter's work. It's partly, though, about the irony of our own feelings and expectations toward the work. This painting is about maintaining a vision of beauty and elegance, and at the same time we are frustrated in our ability to grasp that. Richter reveals the artifice even as he glamorizes it. He confronts us with the beliefs and the desires that we bring to images."
In part, the "artifice" Strick describes is the result of Richter's remarkable technique. "He would find these images and project them onto a canvas. He would paint from the projection. And he found that the process was rather akin to that of making an abstract painting. He wasn't involved with the image as a whole. You see his technique in 'Woman Descending the Staircase' - a kind of blurring. All the brushstrokes go in one direction, and there's an absolute equality between one part and any other."
This "equal treatment" contrasts tellingly with traditional figurative painting, in which painters devote different kinds of attention to different parts, "to, say, a face and a dress and the background."
An inevitable connection is drawn between this Richter and a much earlier painting, notorious in the history of Modern Art: Marcel Duchamp's 1912 "Nude Descending a Staircase."
THAT painting, Strick says, "was perceived, when first seen, as highly ironic. Certain conventions had always been associated with the nude. For a nude to descend a staircase was absolutely banal. It called into question the whole heroic, erotic, mythological tradition of the nude. And just as the figure in Duchamp's painting was broken apart by his using the techniques of Analytic Cubism, so, by choice of subject, he broke apart a many-centuries-long tradition.
"And in a sense, what Richter's painting does is put it back together! The figure is not broken apart. Everything one could hope for in the most idealized image is there.
"People thought Duchamp's painting tremendously ugly. But no image could be more conspicuously beautiful than this gray-toned Richter painting of Maria Callas, with its blue and purple silvery colors entirely appropriate to the subject.
"But it's beautiful in quotation marks. You see the quotation marks around the image, around Maria Callas. The image is so over-the-top, so painfully beautiful that it critiques the very notion of perfection that the painting and its subject embody."