Ai Weiwei’s Cell, Sherman Giantess Boost Venice Biennale

Ai Weiwei has a showstopper in this year’s Venice Biennale.

His remarkable work is entitled “S.A.C.R.E.D.” and installed in the church of Sant’Antonin.

At the time of the last Biennale, Ai Weiwei was imprisoned in China. Two years later, he presents miniature, mesmerizingly detailed tableaux of his life at that time.

The extremely lifelike statues, about one-sixth real size, are hidden inside large iron tanks in the nave of the church. You peer inside through a slit and see the artist in his cell, or being interrogated, or seated on the lavatory flanked by two guards, or having a shower.

The effect is extraordinarily powerful. No one today demonstrates the global nature of art and its power as effectively as Ai Weiwei. He is Chinese, his artistic language is Western (a mixture of minimalism and hyper-realism), and his subject is universal: freedom and captivity.

At every Biennale, there is an enormous rambling exhibition in the old buildings of the Arsenale. It always has a vague, ponderous title — this year it’s “The Encyclopedic Palace” — and it invariably contains a vast number of disparate works of art.

This Biennale is slightly different, however.

For the first time in my experience, the Arsenale blockbuster makes some sense. So congratulations to the curator, Massimiliano Gioni.

The fundamental idea of the Biennale is to be an international art extravaganza. Each year, more individual nations take part. Ten countries are participating for the first time in this, the 55th edition.

Global Concept

Never before do I recall there being a truly global concept for the Arsenale show.

“The Encyclopedic Palace” starts with the work of Marino Auriti, a self-taught Italian-American artist who dreamed of a museum that would contain all the world’s knowledge. He registered the idea with the U.S. patent office, and in his garage made a model of a 136-story building to house the institution. Architecturally, this looks somewhere between the Empire State Building and the Tower of Babel.

This strange structure stands at the entrance to the Arsenale. It gives a hint of what you are about to see. Much more than usual, there is room in this display for what the art world calls “outsider art,” not just from Auriti himself.

One of the outstanding moments is provided by Arthur Bispo do Rosario, a Brazilian who said he had a visitation from God, and subsequently spent five decades in a Rio psychiatric hospital. He made surreal assemblages and embroidered textiles quite like, and somewhat better than, the works of Tracey Emin.

Curiosity Cabinet

The whole show seems like a quirky, updated cabinet of curiosities.

There are insider artists, as well, such as the Turner Prize-winning Mark Leckey, who contributes a witty piece called “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things.” The American art star Cindy Sherman is the curator of a subsection of images of people. Among them is a Charles Ray statue of a giant blonde in a blue dress, standing about eight feet (2.4 meters) tall.

Featured are such well-known artists as Paul McCarthy (who exhibits a giant rag-doll figure with its cloth internal organs flopping out). Side by side with McCarthy is an array of works by Norbert Ghisoland (1878-1939), a Belgian studio photographer whose poignant portraits of his clients have been described as involuntary anthropology.

The outsiders mingle easily with the insiders, the Westerners with Easterners, the past with the present.

And, as there ought to be, there are more standouts, among them another piece of art archaeology: “Movie Drome,” a collage of moving images on a curved screen by an experimental American filmmaker of the 1960s named Stan VanDerBeek (1927-84). This is a vision of the future, rediscovered from the past.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Vatican Recycles, Venice Sinks as Biennale Goes Green

A dark tank of water sits in the Chilean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Every few minutes, from its depths, a scale model of the Biennale gardens, complete with miniature national pavilions, rises up. Then, after a pause, it sinks like some art world Atlantis.

This is part of a striking work by Alfredo Jaar, and also a good metaphor for the Biennale itself, which appears at two yearly intervals only to vanish in between.

Every time, it’s bigger and more packed with ancillary events. This time 88 countries are participating, 10 for the first time, including — another first — the Holy See.

The Vatican exhibition, “In the Beginning,” starts off with a trio of images by Tano Festa derived from Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

Apart from demonstrating that the papacy has a longer record than most of commissioning contemporary art, this is appropriate because Michelangelo Buonarroti was in many ways the world’s first artist superstar, hugely celebrated in his own lifetime.

The art game as we know it has its origins in the Renaissance, though Michelangelo might be surprised if he saw some of the stuff on show at the Biennale.

The global reach of the art world, and the homogenization of cultural references, is demonstrated by Miao Xiaochun, one of the outstanding artists in the Chinese Pavilion. He is showing spectacular digital animations, one of which is based on Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.”

Bahamas Ice

If a Chinese artist can take Michelangelo as a starting point, it’s not so surprising to find that Tavares Strachan from the Bahamas (one of the countries taking part for the first time in 2013) has produced a series of intriguing works on the theme of the North Pole.

The frozen wastes of the Arctic might not seem high on the agenda for an artist from the Caribbean. Still, environmental concerns, like other cultural and intellectual trends, are global. One of the more piquant sights of the Biennale is a photograph of Strachan planting his own flag in the northern ice.

The worldwide worries about the environment may explain why trees are a leitmotif in this Biennale.

For the Republic of Kosovo, Petrit Halilaj has created a sort of primitive cave made of mud and tree roots, smelling of earth, which you can enter and peer out of. There are birches diced and reassembled outside the Finnish exhibition, and an upside-down tree twirls from the roof of the Latvian section.

Belgian Wood

The Belgian Berlinde De Bruyckere has created one of the strongest works of 2013 in “Cripplewood,” a fallen forest giant filling much of the space, its truncated and severed branches swathed in bandages.

It pulls together the image of a crutch such as a beggar might have used in a painting by Brueghel, with a sense that nature itself is wounded.

The ailing economy is another worry, of course.

From the roof of the Russian Pavilion gold rains down, and on its walls the artist Vadim Zakharov has inscribed an indictment: “The time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality, and Greed, Cynicism, Robbery, Speculation, Wastefulness, Gluttony, Seduction, Envy and Stupidity.”

Most of those sins were on display at the lavish parties in Venice this week. Nonetheless, this feels like a chastened, recession Biennale.

Perhaps that’s why the Austrian Pavilion features 1930s slump-era escapism, in the form of a pastiche Disney-style cartoon about singing birds and animals. The work is produced with elan and polish by Mathias Paledna. It’s the perfect antidote to everything.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

How Catty Russian Empress Bagged Art Returning to England

Great old master paintings in danger of leaving Britain, questions asked in parliament, vastly wealthy Russians, greedy politicians — it all sounds extremely contemporary.

Those were the ingredients of the first great art export controversy in 1779. Many of the pictures in question have just returned to Houghton Hall, the English country house from which they were sold 234 years ago.

There’s another twist: this was the collection put together by Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Britain’s first prime minister was effectively the inventor of the office and held it for an impressive 21 years, later living at 10 Downing Street. He was, it may come as no surprise to read, an Etonian.

Walpole came to power in the aftermath of one of the first great market collapses in the history of capitalism, the South Sea Bubble. He avoided foreign wars and kept taxes low, helping his popularity, though it later ebbed after he increased duty on tobacco and gin.

He was only a middle-income Norfolk squire in origin, yet found enough money to rebuild his house on a grand scale (which involved moving an entire village), and to fill it with a spectacular array of art.

Quite how he managed this on his ministerial salary isn’t clear. It’s true that he originated the axiom “every man has his price.” But he said it about his opponents, not himself. One consequence was that Walpole ended up heavily in debt.

Keen Collector

Move on half a century, and his grandson the 3rd Earl of Orford was obliged to sell the best of the pictures. The deal was done by James Christie, founder of the auction house, and the buyer was one of the keenest art collectors in the late 18th-century world: Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

Eventually she bought 204 pictures for a fairly modest 40,555 pounds (a little less than the total of Robert Walpole’s debts at his death). Of these, 70, by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck, have been brought back to the rooms in which they originally hung.

The Houghton sale was far from the last time that a British country house was emptied of great works in this way. In fact it’s still happening today. It just shows how much art accumulated in the stately homes of England to begin with. The sale of the Walpole collection was the first such drama.

It caused consternation. Josiah Wedgewood, the potter (who had created an imperial dinner service for Catherine), was filled with gloom. Clearly, he thought, this showed Britain had begun to decline. “Russia is sacking our palaces and museums,” he said.

National Gallery

The great radical political John Wilkes stood up in the House of Commons and suggested the collection should be bought for the nation to form the basis of a national gallery (to be housed at the British Museum). As it happened, it was almost half a century before the National Gallery of London was founded in 1824. Still, the idea had been born.

There was controversy about the sale right to the end. A rumor spread that the ship carrying the Houghton pictures to St Petersburg had sunk with all its cargo. Catherine’s art adviser heard another whisper that at the last minute the deal had not gone through, but she put him right.

“The Walpole pictures are no longer available,” she said, “for the simple reason that your humble servant has already got her claws into them, and would no more let them go than a cat would a mouse”.

Spoken like a true collector.

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Saatchi’s Picks, Turner Prize Show U.K. Art Goes Global

Duke Ellington once said that, in the future, no one would be able to retain his or her identity. He meant culturally not personally.

Duke’s prediction is plainly coming true in the globalized world of the 21st century. Take the Turner Prize as a litmus test of what’s happening in art.

Of the four names on this year’s shortlist, one — Laure Prouvost — is a French artist based in London. That’s hardly unusual, now that London has a larger French population than many cities in France.

Yet in a further twist of cross-cultural convolution, one of the works for which she is nominated is an installation on Kurt Schwitters: a German Dadaist who bizarrely ended up in the Lake District in northwestern England.

Her installation, called “Wantee,” is set amid chairs and teacups. Visitors watch a film describing a fictitious relationship between Schwitters and Prouvost’s grandfather.

Also on the list are Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, a London-based painter of Ghanaian descent; and Tino Sehgal, an Anglo-German artist who was born in London, yet lives and works in Berlin.

That’s just the artist’s biographies. If you consider some of their work, even relatively recent labels such as “installation” don’t quite cover it.

Group Encounters

Sehgal, for example, is an orchestrator of social encounters. He was nominated partly for “These Associations” inside Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall last year. This consisted of a team of volunteers milling around, mingling with visitors, and periodically buttonholing one to launch into a narration of quirky personal history.

To ask “Is it art?” is to pose too limited a question. You might as well inquire, “Is it dance, theater or group encounter?”

By contrast, Yiadom-Boakye’s work is amazingly — perhaps even reassuringly — traditional. It takes the form of oil paintings of imaginary people (a staple genre in art for at least 500 years).

So does it still make sense to talk about “British art?” In some cases, yes. The sharp, linear humor of David Shrigley — the fourth nominee — seems remotely connected, if not with Turner, at least with Hogarth.

Saatchi Discoveries

Charles Saatchi was instrumental, some two decades ago, in discovering what now looks (almost nostalgically) like the last major event in the history of British art, the so-called Young British Artists of the 1990s: Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and their contemporaries.

Saatchi is still indefatigably talent-spotting (Yiadom-Boakye has shown at his gallery in Chelsea).

“New Order: British Art Today” at the Saatchi Gallery consists of work by 17 artists who are mainly in their 20s. The participants were born in a variety of places including Spain, Poland, Israel, and — in the case of an engaging artist calling himself “Dominic from Luton” — Luton.

These artists work in a variety of media. This being a Saatchi exhibition, however, there’s plenty of paint on canvas (which, personally, I welcome).

You might dispute whether much of it is particularly new, or, for that matter, British. Yet, as usual with Saatchi shows, there are one or two potential stars, such as Charlie Billingham, who paints pictures based on Georgian prints that somehow look contemporary.

In terms of media and approach, however, there’s not a huge difference between “New Order” and a show of new Russian art in the galleries below, titled “Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union.”

That’s the new artistic world order. Art comes from just about everywhere, and is made in every conceivable way. In spirit, however, individual works are surprisingly similar. The Venice Biennale, which opens in late May, will probably offer further confirmation of that.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Sheds Get Sexy as Artist Whiteread Obsesses at Gagosian

Rachel Whiteread hasn’t moved on in two decades. For “Detached,” her exhibition of sculpture at the Gagosian Gallery in London, she is doing exactly the same thing as when she first came to fame with “House” in 1993. She is still making casts of the internal space of structures.

“House” was a molding in concrete of the inside of an ordinary 19th-century dwelling. The centerpiece of the new show is made up of three casts of the interiors of garden sheds. This isn’t so much a sign of lack of inspiration as a return to form.

It might sound like a criticism to say that an artist has not developed. That’s not necessarily so. Some artists innovate dynamically throughout their careers; you might call that the Picasso model. Others carry on doing the same thing, and — so long as they carry on doing it well — that’s no disgrace.

The point of Whiteread’s work is that she is simultaneously a minimalist and a realist. The three concrete casts of sheds are placed in the middle of the main gallery at Gagosian very much as if they were big abstract sculptures by, say, Richard Serra or Donald Judd.

They have much the same chunky presence as works by those two artists. Whiteread’s work is not abstract. Go up close, and you find a meticulous record of the surface of ordinary things: wood grain, door fittings, the covering of the roof.

Beautiful Sheds

One of the traditional functions of art is to represent ordinary objects in a way that makes them seem beautiful and/or interesting. Suddenly sheds aren’t just boringly mundane.

Whiteread was one of the younger artists of the 1990s for whom the late Lucian Freud had most time. When you think about it, you can see why. He too spent a great deal of time reproducing such things as floorboards, doors and window frames. For that matter, Velasquez devoted a lot of effort to depicting a water pitcher, Caravaggio a peeling wall.

Whiteread isn’t a painter but that quite unusual thing, a still-life sculptor. The challenge for an artist who makes pictures is to collapse the three dimensions of the world onto a flat surface. For a sculptor, the fundamental problem is to make an object that will be different enough from all the other 3D stuff in the world to seem interesting and maybe beautiful.

Whiteread’s basic strategy has often been to make a cast of negative space: the inside of a house, a room, or as in this exhibition, sheds. It’s a technique with limitations, yet it leaves room for much artistic choice in material and subject. Turning an object inside out automatically makes it strange.

In another series of works in the next gallery, she uses a different strategy: she makes objects semi-transparent. These are casts of 18th- and 19th-century doors and windows made in pastel resin, tinted rose and turquoise. The interior of the wooden doors becomes visible. Because of the resin’s color, the windows with their frames become one solid, sculptural shape.

Whiteread’s basic idea doesn’t allow much development. When she tries something radically new, it often doesn’t work (as is the case with the flattened works on paper in this show). The variations on what she has done before look impressive.

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Naked Keeler’s Painting on Show, 50 Years After Profumo: Review

There is something extremely British about marking the beginning of an era with a political sex scandal.

These are of course a national specialty, going back at least to the late Georgian days of the Prince Regent, with his mistress in Brighton and epically unfaithful royal bride.

There was something unusual about the Profumo affair, which made headlines half a century ago. No other such brouhaha has ever been seen as a watershed: the beginning of the end of political deference.

True, the Brits had little enough of that in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it must have been a short-lived phenomenon. Still, the argument runs, when John Profumo, the U.K.’s secretary of state for war, stood up in the House of Commons and lied about his relationship with the model Christine Keeler, something began to change.

Before, the public had tended automatically to believe politicians, afterward not so much.

The other thing that began then, at least according to historical myth, was sex. The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that “sexual Intercourse began in 1963.”

Admittedly, his two pivotal items were the end of the ban on publishing D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” because of its alleged obscenity, and the Beatles’ first LP.

Larkin might just as well have added the great scandal of the year. The Beatles had much more cultural importance, the Chatterley verdict transformed what might be described in literature. Of the three, the Profumo case had by far the most drama and — importantly — visual impact.

Cold War

This imbroglio had everything: a cabinet minister, a reputed Russian spy who also had an affair with Keeler (giving a John Le Carre touch to the tale), a fashionable doctor and Keeler herself: a beautiful young woman with connections to seedy gangland criminals. It sounds like the cast of a Cold War era film (and indeed has been the basis for several movies and plays).

In addition, the murky business threw up one enormously memorable image: Lewis Morley’s celebrated shot of Christine Keeler, naked, sitting astride a modernist chair.

This photograph, on show in a display about the Profumo affair at the National Portrait Gallery, sums up 1960s London: sensuous, enigmatic, and stylishly contemporary. In a way, the chair was just as important as the nude.

It was, it turns out, not quite a design classic, but a commercial “knock off” of a design by the celebrated Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen. Genuine or not, it was the chair that made the photograph so cool.

Immortal Click

The allure of the image, in turn, makes the whole archaic shenanigans memorable. What we cannot visualize, we cannot easily bring to mind. This is one reason why Henry VIII, for example, is such a famous king: he was rendered unforgettable by Holbein’s pictures. Similarly, Keeler was made immortal by the click of Lewis Morley’s shutter.

There was one other artistic consequence of the photograph. It became the centerpiece of a lost painting by a beautiful, doomed artist named Pauline Boty.

A member of the same generation of artists at the Royal College of Art as David Hockney and Allen Jones, Boty (1938 – 1966) was enormously talented and beautiful (she was known as the “Wimbledon Bardot”). She was 28 years old when she died of cancer.

Her Profumo painting, “Scandal ’63” has not been seen since then. It was however recorded together with the artist herself in photographs by Michael Ward. These, which are included in the display at the National Portrait Gallery, are in their way as evocative of 1960s London as the Profumo affair itself, and more poignant.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Kate Moss Inspires Gary Hume, Caulfield Heads to the Bar

Gary Hume once told me that he was a caveman — stuck in his cavern, attempting to paint the world outside. It was a neat way of saying that the problems of painting haven’t really changed much in 40,000 years.

Just as in the days of Lascaux, it’s still a matter of making a flat image, with pigments, of a wide and complicated world. The trick is to find a way that feels fresh.

“How to paint a door” (2013) by Gary Hume. This new painting of doors functions as the actual entry to the exhibition. Source: Gary Hume/Tate/Samuel Drake/Tate via Bloomberg

Hume does that, and so too did the late Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), an artist from an earlier generation whose work, it turns out, has a good deal in common with Hume’s.

They’re currently being shown side by side in twin exhibitions at Tate Britain (through Sept 1). It’s an exercise in compare-and-contrast from which both emerge looking good.

Hume is weathering the difficult mid-career years well; Caulfield looks more and more like a truly great painter.

The new wrinkle in Hume’s work could be summarized in two words: gloss paint. What he does with this household item is visually brilliant. His starting point was a series of paintings of hospital swing doors. The point about those is that they’re simultaneously abstract, geometrical and 100 percent realistic.

In other words, here is an answer to an age-old conundrum – – one that, in fact, goes back to the Stone Age: How do you pack a 3D subject into two dimensions? The works at the entrance to the show carry the joke one step further: They’re paintings of doors that you can walk through.

Kate Moss

After the doors, Hume continued to work the changes, finding other subjects that could be reduced to flat, reflective shapes — among them plants, birds, and Kate Moss.

Some work better than others. Yet Hume has consistently found ways to convey a lot with a little. “Yellow Window” (2002) consists of nine inky rectangles on a corn-colored background. The black paint makes a mirror surface; at the same time, it is darkness, depth, mystery.

Caulfield, during his lifetime, sometimes suffered from what might be called a filing problem: People didn’t know where to put him. As a young man, he belonged to a generation labeled the British Pop Artists.

Yet Caulfield belonged to no movement. Like most major artists, when it came down to it, he was sui generis.

Caulfield’s art is virtually unpopulated. There are hardly any figures in this exhibition. One exception is an early “Portrait of Juan Gris” (1963). His world resembles that of the early cubists, such as Gris. It consists of still-life subjects and interiors, especially restaurants and bars –places the artist loved, and where he spent a great deal of time.

Comical Fashion

He found his source material in out-of-date magazines and cooking spreads. The resulting pictures conjure up a nostalgic yet comical world of the once fashionable.

Yet Caulfield’s painting, like cubism, is a complex and witty game of appearance and reality. Much of the picture is composed of flat areas of color and black lines. Against these, he often sets just one or two items in brilliantly naturalistic photo-realism.

“Happy Hour” (1996), for example, is a bar interior with bottles, a table and a lampshade, all created with colored silhouettes — plus a single, utterly naturalistic wine glass, reflecting the whole scene on its shiny surface.

Caulfield’s work is often funny and full of feeling. That bar is a place of warmth and shelter, yet it’s shadowed with mortality; to one side, prominently, hangs an “exit” sign.

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Invisible Art Show is Filled With Jokes in London: Review

As you might expect, there’s not a lot to look at in the new exhibition, “Invisible: Art of the Unseen 1957-2012,” at the Hayward Gallery in London.

It abounds in empty galleries, blank canvases and unoccupied sculptural plinths. A sensual pleasure for the eye this is not.

There are, however, quite a few thought-provoking jokes and conceits to be savored.

Naturally, being in the presence of invisible art provides only vanishingly small benefits to the spectator.

Therefore, why not make an invisible visit? That is, don’t go to the actual exhibition, but instead contemplate the ideas contained in the galleries from an armchair at home.

It’s the contention of Ralph Rugoff, the Hayward’s director, that invisible art constitutes “a low-profile tradition” dating back over seven decades.

You can indeed discern a stylistic development in non- visible work similar to that which is familiar in painting, sculpture, installation and more conventionally perceptible forms of visual art.

Andy Warhol created an invisible sculpture at a New York night club in the mid-1980s. It consisted of a label reading, “Andy Warhol, USA/Invisible Sculpture/Mixed Media 1985.”

He stood next to this for a short while then went away.

In 1992, Tom Friedman went one better by creating an invisible sculpture, with added unseen lurking menace. This is again an empty pedestal, with above it a spherical ritual space cursed by a professional witch.

It’s not clear whether this piece ought to carry the occult equivalent of a health-and-safety warning (“Caution: Malign Magical Spell Hazard”). Both the Warhol and the Friedman are in the exhibition, though obviously not on view.

Some pieces in the exhibition are less visible than others. Claes Oldenburg’s “Proposed Underground Memorial and Tomb for President John F. Kennedy” (1965) would actually have been observable if it had been constructed, albeit only partially and with difficulty.

It was to have consisted of a hollow bronze casting the size of the Statue of Liberty, buried upside down with an opening “about the size of a golf ball” in the ground above. Through this, spectators could have peered at the interior while kneeling or lying on their stomachs.

In comparison, the Taiwanese-born performance artist Tehching Hsieh has achieved such levels of negative achievement that he makes mere invisibility look un-avant-garde.

His penultimate work, the last of five one-year performances, “No Art Piece” (1985-86) took the form of the artist not seeing, making, talking or reading about or otherwise having anything to do with art for 12 months.

He followed this with “Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 (Thirteen Year Plan),” in which he made art but in secret without exhibiting it in public or revealing what it was.

The invisible tradition goes back to the French artist, Yves Klein, who in 1958 exhibited an entirely empty gallery in Paris, which he claimed to be crammed with an immaterial “blue sensibility.”

Klein subsequently sold collectors “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” in exchange for gold, some of which he threw in the River Seine (and some not).

Now, there’s a sharply pointed metaphor for a lot of things. It’s not only the art world that deals in imperceptible value. Just now the European economy, for example, is full of it. The irony is that Klein’s certificates transferring ownership of intangible zones might prove to have been a better investment than Greek government bonds.

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Gerhard Richter’s Dark Past, Zen Clouds Intrigue at Tate: Review

Painting, according to some, has long been as defunct and deceased as Monty Python’s parrot.

That doesn’t stop this allegedly ex-art form carrying on regardless. The big new exhibition “Gerhard Richter: Panorama” at Tate Modern in London presents a life time’s tally of powerful and beautiful works all executed in the traditional manner. Their subject is the death of painting and the disappearance of meaning. That’s what makes them so modern.

Richter, born in Dresden in 1932, has been producing paintings for more than half a century in, essentially, two modes. His pictures are either based on photographs or they are abstract. Both are idioms with a long history.

The camera has been affecting painting for centuries, perhaps since before photography itself was invented. It seems virtually certain, for example, that Vermeer used a prephotographic technique in the mid-17th century, looking at his subjects through a camera obscura.

Richter is highly conscious of Vermeer as a predecessor; he made the connection clear with “Reader” (1994), which echoes the Dutch master’s pictures of women reading. Vermeer’s works are filled with a sense of transcendent calm. The light is spiritual. In contrast, Richter’s photo-based art is concerned with how much significance the camera lens misses. Among his early works are several based on family snapshots such as “Aunt Marianne” (1965), a teenage girl with a baby on her lap.

There are dark secrets lurking here. The baby casting a sour look at the camera is the infant artist with his Aunt Marianne, who suffered from mental problems and was killed in an extermination program; smiling “Uncle Rudi” (also 1965) wears a Nazi uniform. Richter accentuates the smudge and blur, the arbitrariness of what the lens happens to see. Those out-of- focus blotches have a bleak beauty of their own.

Sometimes, his fascination with chance shapes blends into a Zen-like contemplation of nature. It’s difficult not to react to his almost photo-realist triptych of “Clouds” (1970) as if to an altarpiece. They float in front of you like a revelation. Except that it’s clear there is no more deep import in these wisps of vapor than in a Rorschach blot. Obviously, there’s another demise involved — announced in the 19th century like that of painting — the death of God.

Landscape painting, in the hands of Turner or the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, acquired an almost religious force. Their seas and transcendental mountains suggest a divine presence. Friedrich is another predecessor Richter acknowledges. But to Richter, nature is alien, if not hostile.

If some of Richter’s work is meticulously naturalistic, another large part is blankly abstract. He seems fascinated by the way paint can produce visual power in the absence of meaning or even conscious intention. A good deal of his abstract painting is about randomness.

When making “4096 Colors” (1974), he took the primary colors, mixed 1,024 shades from them, and put those down four times each in neat little squares. The result pops with energy even if the system that produced them was mechanical (Damien Hirst’s spot paintings owe a lot to Richter).

Since the early 1980s many of his abstracts have been worked over with a squeegee, which he uses to smear, drag and erase what he has done. Still, they shimmer with light like a Monet.

The twist is that this beauty has been made by messing around with pigments. What you see is all there is. The emptiness at the heart of Richter’s world can seem melancholy, though paradoxically his work demonstrates that — at least for painting — there is life after death.

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Turner, Claude Vie in London Show of Luminous Landscapes

There’s a surprising vogue in London for exhibitions designed to make Britons look bad.

Hard on the heels of “Picasso and Modern British Art” at Tate Britain — documenting how Pablo thought of everything first and did it better — comes “Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude” at the National Gallery (until June 5).

Predictably, the plucky British challenger comes off worse. Though the contest isn’t catastrophic for J.M.W. Turner, it’s a victory on points for the Franco-Italian master. The exhibition demonstrates that Turner (1775-1851) spent a lot of time and energy emulating Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682). The trouble is, it also suggests that he overdid the hero worship.

There’s a fashion for these comparisons between artists of different eras. Turner and Claude are not nearly such a hopeless mismatch as Twombly and Poussin — shown together last year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery — a combination that might have been the answer to the question, “Which two painters in history had the least in common?” At this show, you go away feeling that Turner was at his best when he wasn’t trying to channel Claude.

He was far from alone, however, in this painterly passion. The British have long been potty about Claude. He was born in what is now eastern France, and based throughout his professional life in Rome. His art was a blend of northern European naturalism with Italian classicism. It combined the warm south, ancient architecture and the natural world — all ingredients of which the British were (and are) extremely fond.

Georgian aristocrats landscaped their estates to look as much as possible like Claude’s idealized version of central Italy. It’s estimated that by 1820 about half the paintings the artist produced were in British collections. A lot of them still are. One of the pleasures of the exhibition is the opportunity it gives to enjoy marvelous Claudes from Holkham Hall in Norfolk and Anglesey Abbey outside Cambridge.

It’s easy to see why Turner admired this predecessor (he called him “aerial Claude”), and just what he got from him. Claude painted not just dawn and dusk, but dozens of different kinds of sunrise and sunset: apricot evening clouds, lemon- yellow skies with blue-green shadows in the woods below plus milky morning light, serene afternoons, the full blaze of the rising Mediterranean sun. All observed with amazing, delicate accuracy.

Turner, too, was a supreme painter of light and atmosphere. You can see that most clearly in this exhibition when he isn’t imitating Claude too closely: in the wonderful watercolor “Sunrise” (1825) — entirely in shades of lemon yellow with the paler disc of the sun in the center — or the fine “Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Night” (1835), a cool northern vista of ships on the Tyne.

The pictures by Claude are a combination of brilliant observation of the fresh-air world outside the studio and Baroque theatricality: the framing trees and classical temples, the nymphs, shepherds and grazing flocks scattered in the foreground. That worked for him, but when Turner follows the formula the results look — next to the originals — stagey and over-bright.

Claude still strikes a chord. David Hockney devotes a room of his current Royal Academy exhibition to variations on a theme by the 17th-century master. Personally, I could spend all day looking at Claude’s endlessly varied landscape moods. So after this appetizer, how about giving us a proper Claude show?

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