You have the psychological or subjective moment of the father problem. This affects all of society. . . . The absence of the father is a typical German problem. That is the reason for such agitation, why it has such a disquieting effect.—Gerhard Richter (MoMA catalogue, 2002)
After my mother’s death, i cleaned out my parents’ house in Maryland, sold it, sold their things too, put whatever was not sold into storage centers, here and there, a little bit everywhere.
My father’s artwork was stored in the house and I treated it the same way, sent it to a part-time dealer in California, and asked him to put it on eBay. I thought it would be enough to intrigue the public with some details. My father was German, a painter. He came to America in 1937. He was an immigrant, fleeing an autocracy.
A friend intervened: was I mad? Selling it online was like throwing it away. I retrieved my horde. I began to take stock. I showed some paintings to a few more friends. Each had a hand in sorting through the snips and bits of the past, turning them into something that could be shown, a collection with a history, with an inventory, with something that took it out of bulk and confusion, into the light of things that had a sense and were freighted with quality and purpose.
Finally, to interest people in my father’s work, I had an attractive pamphlet made. A nude was reproduced on the cover of the little book and it spoke for the man’s graphic talent, for the way Max Beckmann must have influenced him, spoke to his youth, to his reckless devotion to the emotion of a chalk stroke and the tension a line could bring to paper—the way a stroke of lightning brings tension to the sky. Inside the pamphlet other works impressed with the way he worked his charcoal and his brushes to capture the sway of light and the dance of the dark. In one painting dated 1928 the sunshine reflects off the water, bounces off it like a high note in a cadenza, and then off a shipside, a dock, calling attention to the shadow shapes and patches of brilliance which never leave the Schleswig-Holstein landscape alone. In another watercolor, a field of poppies is examined from below, the heads of the poppies floating over the paper like balloons, like hallucinations, like red clouds, full of hope and promise.
His brush was his guide. Wherever he found himself, he used it to pull back the light as though it were dust that he could brush away to uncover something even lighter—in the twenties—or something even darker—afterwards. There [End Page 67] was an opulence to the early work, a swollen expectation in the trees and the church steeples. But as time went on you could see it grow tighter, darker, turning inward. By 1932 the structure of each work stood out painfully, as though to resist the coming storm. A landscape with a bridge and the date 1933 was dark and twisted, village streets had tightened, roofs pitched forward toward the coming folly. Turn the paintings upside down, and one discovered a composition so sure, they worked just as well. Maybe they worked better. Maybe the artist was turned upside down too while the storm left nothing behind, terrifying his mother, expelling his brother (whose wife was Jewish), leaving my father to wander, a solitary man.
A time passed. I took steps. I live in Paris and met an art critic from Le Monde. He looked at scans and assured me, over and over again. Yes, the work had “something.” I had complete records made, and began to worry about protecting it all, about conservation and storage. A few pieces even disappeared. Had they been stolen? This added to the aura of my secret collection. I went to Kiel, north of Hamburg, in Schleswig-Holstein, where I knew my father had been to school. At the Faculty of Fine Arts, they told me there had been no studio courses in the twenties: but the...