Hans Richter (1888-1976)
Dada: Art and Anti-Art
Maya Stendhal Gallery
545 West 20th Street, Chelsea Through Sept. 16
Hans Richter might have been a great avant-garde filmmaker, but the late abstract paintings and reliefs that dominate this partial yet dauntingly large survey of his work feel like well-made acts of desperation. Dating mostly from the last three decades of his long life, they suggest that Richter the object-maker didn’t have much to say but couldn’t stop saying it. His commitment to painting began when he saw Manet’s work in Berlin in 1904. Within a few years he was working in a German Expressionist style. By 19 16 he had landed in Switzerland and hooked up with the Zurich Dadaists, and was soon making portraits in a dark studio to disorient his sense of shape and color. The trick worked. Two bright, nearly abstract off-kilter works in the sprawling Dada exhibition currently at the Museum of Modern Art have a jangling, period-piece beauty.
But Richter found himself as an artist when he began experimenting with film. In Berlin in the 1920’s he made several short, gorgeous contributions to the canon of avant-garde cinema. His “Rhythm 21 ” (1921), an elegant, geometric animated short that was among the earliest abstract films – as well as Op Art before the fact – is in the Stendhal show. Even better is the delirious “Ghosts Before Breakfast” (1927), an inventive, briskly syncopated exemplar of Surrealist elegance, insinuation and layering, dominated by a skittering trio of bowler hats. (It can also be seen at MoMA, drafted into Dada.)
Dada aside, Richter was very much a formalist, or a structuralist, aided by a sophisticated sense of visual humor first glimpsed, at Stendhal, in a series of small, quickly drawn caricatures of friends from his Zurich years. He played every cinematic option, including jumpcutting, slow motion, still images, blurred focus, zooms, negative and reversed sequences, lighting effects. (After immigrating to the United States in 1941, he worked for 14 years as director of the aptly named Institute of Film Techniques at City College.) At Stendhal, a few appealing abstract paintings from the late 1950’s navigate an intriguing route between Mondrian and Abstract Expressionism with calligraphic lines and a palette of black, white, red and green. But just about everything else is some kind of pastiche. Sublimated into objects, without film’s fluid, mercurial possibilities, Richter’s formalist intelligence pushed forward on automatic pilot.