Modern Germany, for reasons that could fill a hundred dissertations, has bequeathed the art world several generations of bombastic, figurative expressionists, from Max Beckmann (18841950) to Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) to Neo Rauch (b. 1960). Extending this tradition is Mr. Rauch's contemporary, Daniel Richter (b. 1962, no relation to Gerhard Richter), whose raw, impetuous paintings are currently on view in his second solo show at David Zwirner.
To the traditions of alienation and disquiet, Mr. Richter has added his own, distinct persona: punk rocker, yowling and strutting with incendiary, omnidirectional defiance. In his five large canvases, plangent colors have been splattered, dribbled, and rubbed onto the surfaces, delineating anonymous figures in strikingly lurid or barren environments. All seems to be aflame, melting or suffused by a chilling glow. In "The Movement" (200708), a phalanx of figures, clad in dark, hooded outfits that might be wet suits, advance threateningly toward the viewer beneath an acrid, crimson sky. Blazing pools of red and yellow plasma or perhaps of the debris left from blasts of their weapons? erupt from their bodies. "The Popcorn" (200708) depicts two circles of figures, both surrounding scantily dressed blondes. Each group is dominated by an aggressor with a giant, bulbous head, grabbing the woman's arm menacingly. A large empty box, its cardboard flaps open, drops from above, while a leafless tree shoots a shiver of white, writhing lines across the background.
Heroes, of a sort, also appear in these paintings. In "Die Idealisten" (200708; the title translates as "The Idealists"), three figures dressed in superhero tights furiously play air guitar, as a skeletal building behind them burns and debris tumbles from the sky. Sheer spectacle holds sway in this 12-foot-tall canvas. As with professional wrestling or action comics, dangers are hyperbolic, and consequences irrelevant. Mr. Richter's point may be that there's a moral victory in rocking on even as the world crumbles, and indeed his images are saved from mere bombast by his touching faith in the redemptive, sidelong strut of a riffing guitarist.
This virtue, to be sure, is diluted by the gush of implications in a work such as "Reflect" (2008), in which an armed sentry and a rock-and-rolling guitarist oversee the same large audience. (In these worlds, automatic weapons and guitars are equally empowering, and interchangeable.) The anonymous crowd, illuminated by an unseen, off-canvas blast of light, could be music fans, alien beings, or prisoners of war triggering a plethora of possibilities rather than a coherent point of view.
The most poignant of the large paintings, unsurprisingly, has the least overheated imagery. "Introspection" (200708) depicts several guitarists/soldiers departing into the valley before an immense, snow-laden mountain. The details of the scene speak for themselves, in elemental fashion; the fiery, dark reds of humans, silhouetted by the facets of snow and rock rising high above their and our point of view, acquire a kind of exotic majesty.
A room with nearly 20 drawings includes some unexpectedly well-mannered studies for the paintings. These untitled sketches, all dated 2008 and executed in oil on paper, have the appealing spontaneity of images tested and worked through. Several studies of isolated figures before mountains have the spacious effect of the large "Introspection." In others, the intensity of drawing doesn't quite live up to the portent of the imagery. The generality of detail and gesture for the guitarist (now wielding a rifle) in a sketch for "Reflect" seems based on conceptual shortcuts rather than on visual experience.
This unevenness of drawing suggests the downside of art inspired, in part, by idioms of cartoons and videos. While "Popcorn" and "Introspection" have a certain monumentality of rhythm, Mr. Richter's fierce, straining images never quite attain the gravity of the paintings of his elder compatriot, Beckmann. In this sense, Mr. Richter's art reflects a different, unintentional dissipation not the depiction of blighted environments, but the diminishing in our time of a language of form.
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