In the 1960s and years beyond, Germany struggled with the horror of its recent history while also anxiously but steadily achieving renewal and prosperity, prompting German artists to depict war-ravaged landscapes and capture the complicated and evolving mood of their country.
Some of the powerful and penetrating works are on view at the new, expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“German Art After 1960,” an inaugural show, contains paintings and sculptures from the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, organized into galleries devoted to individual leading artists. Visitors to the immense museum shouldn’t let it go ignored among the numerous attractions there.
Gerhard Richter, widely regarded as one of the world’s finest painters, is represented in all stages of his career. Paintings on view range from his blurred pictures to the realist “Seascape” (1998) to abstract works created with a squeegee.
Richter has continued to alternate between representation and abstraction, perhaps questioning which mode better conveys truth. Both exist in “Cityscape Madrid” (1968), a black-and-white aerial view of the city in which he mixes precise rendering with looser brushwork that creates abstract patches suggesting erased elements in a bombed-out landscape. (Richter compared the scene to his native Dresden.)
A contrast of a different kind exists in “Reader” (1994), in which Richter taps into art history. The image, of a woman reading a magazine, is modern, but Richter’s lighting and composition suggest Vermeer and classical depictions of the Biblical annunciation.
Anselm Kiefer is known for his supersized, heavily encrusted paintings containing materials such as emulsion, shellac and straw. They address Germany’s Nazi past and feature blackened landscapes and dark interiors where historical events might have occurred.
Kiefer’s “Marguerite” (1981) and “Sulasmith” (1983) are imposing works inspired by the Holocaust-related writing of Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan. “Melancholia” (1990-91) is a lead, glass, steel and ash sculpture of a German war plane, inspired by a 16th-century Durer engraving of a fallen angel. Flight is a frequent theme, along with fire and rebirth, in Kiefer’s work.
Sigmar Polke combined the concepts of magic and rationality and used unusual, otherworldly materials, like meteor dust, in addition to traditional paint. The engaging “Untitled” (2003) features illusion and sorcery.
The exhibit also devotes a deserved gallery to Bernd and Hilla Becher, who photographed industrial buildings, often presenting them in grid form. Their images of water towers, cooling towers, gas tanks and other structures have made a case for the need to preserve such architecture.
Combined, the displayed works by these and other artists, including Georg Baselitz and Thomas Struth, form an impressive picture of Germany’s contributions to postwar and contemporary art.
IF YOU GO
German Art After 1960: The Fisher Collection
Where: Sixth floor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (until 9 p.m. Thursdays), through Labor Day
Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org