A broadly philosophical painter, more than a strictly conceptual one, a radical thinker and often a traditional maker, among the great artists of the second half of the twentieth century, and a frontline explorer of the twenty-first, Richter is an image-struck poet of alertness and restraint, of doubt and daring.
Robert Storr, curator at the MoMA, 2002
Born in Dresden in eastern Germany in 1932, Gerhard Richter – an artist of many and sometimes apparently contradictory facets – has always shown complete freedom in his thinking and production, abolishing the traditional boundaries between figurative and abstract painting, classical and modern styles, and between the techniques of photography, painting and sculpture. Known for a certain desire to provoke, this independence, which often leads him to swim against the aesthetic and political ideological tide, probably stems from the historical vicissitudes he experienced in his early youth, from the rise of Nazism to the establishment of the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic.
After receiving a solid classical training at the Fine Arts Academy in Dresden, where the only acknowledgement of modernity took the form of socialist realism, he moved to West Germany in March 1961, just a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. His decision to leave was triggered, he later said, by his visit to the Documenta II exhibition in Kassel in summer 1959, which revealed to him the wide range of art currents in the West immediately after the war, which were largely dominated by a variety of trends of abstract art. Jackson Pollock’s action painting, the informal art of the German Ernst Wilhelm Nay, the slashed canvases of Lucio Fontana, and the materialism of Jean Fautrier struck him as being powerfully irreverent: “Those paintings made me realize that there was something wrong with the way I thought”.
His first informal paintings (“fairly childish”) took a purely visual approach. Once he had settled in West Germany’s art capital, Düsseldorf, he enrolled at the Fine Arts Academy where he met his future fellow-travellers, and it was there that he latched onto the existential questioning that underlies abstract form.
“I understood that these gashes and blots were not jokes but the expression of a bitter truth and liberation…here a completely different and new content was expressing itself” (1986).
Employing pictorial and textile materials in a gestural approach, Gerhard Richter embarked on a process of liberating himself in a series of informal works charged with high emotion that he would later burn. He then set out in a radically opposed direction.
Table of 1962 is the first work admitted by the artist in his corpus. It marked a decisive turning point and contained the germs of the future developments in his art.
“The photo for Table came, I think, from an Italian design magazine called Domus. I painted it, but was dissatisfied with the result and pasted parts of it over with newspaper. One can still see by the imprint where the newspaper was stuck to the freshly painted canvas. I was dissatisfied because there was too much paint on the canvas and became less happy with it, so I overpainted it. Then suddenly it acquired a quality which appealed to me and I felt it should be left that way, without knowing why.” (1991)
Stimulated by the boldness of American Pop Art, Gerhard Richter began to transpose photographs he found in the press into paintings. This was the principle of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades but, whereas the Frenchman used it to proclaim the end of painting, Richter was attempting to reinvent it by freeing it of its conventions, such as the choice of subject, colour and composition. In fact, the direct use of everyday images, which he refers to as “pure”, allowed him to adopt a manner as unartistic and impersonal as possible.
In parallel to the figuration in his overpainted photographs, which would occur in many manifestations throughout his career, the unpreconceived informal element in Table would be extensively developed: two-thirds of his production is abstract paintings even though he refuses abstraction purely for the purpose of creating visual harmony.
hese two modes of representation, which he would employ together on several occasions, would be used in equal parts in an artistic development characterized by frequent changes of direction that continually disconcerted the critics.
“I perceive an unchangeable basic attitude, a constant concern that runs through all my works like a style. That’s why it’s quite easy to identify my pictures, however different they are externally; they’re often easier to recognize […] as ‘Richters’ than pictures by any other painter. And that’s why it’s really wrong to talk about frequent changes of style in my work. You wear different suits on different occasions: that has nothing to do with style.” (1991)
Klaus Honef, the curator in 1969 of Gerhard Richter’s first retrospective exhibition in a public institution, spoke of a “stylistic principle” balanced with conceptual unity that consists in using paint in every manner possible as a method for “getting a grip on” reality.
“I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy of what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.” (1970)
“Every time we describe an event, add up a column of figures, or take a photograph of a tree, we create a model: without models we know nothing about reality and would be like animals. Abstract paintings are like fictive models because the visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we nevertheless conclude exists. We give negative names to this reality: the un-known, the in-conceivable, the infinite, and for thousands of years we have depicted it in terms of absolute images like heaven and hell. […] Even representational paintings have this transcendental aspect: since every object, being part of the world whose last and first causes are finally unfathomable, embodies that world, the image of such an object in a painting evokes the general mystery more compellingly the less ‘function’ the representation has.” (1982)
In this quest for the perception of the world as a whole, each work had to – in the most detached manner possible, avoiding all personal involvement – attempt to get close to the multi-faceted reality, whether visible or invisible, through the image represented or through the painting as a material object.
“A painting is defined by its absence of clarity, logic and sense. It shows that reality is unlimited, it disconcerts us by depriving us of having an opinion and preventing us from naming things. It shows them to us in their multiple, infinite dimension, which gives rise to neither an opinion nor a point of view.” (Notes 1964–65)
“See everything, understand nothing” (1986)
Corresponding with the principle of uncertainty defined by the Nobel prize-winner, Werner Heisenberg, his twin work Stroke (1979–80) offers a vision, on a gigantic scale, of his philosophical conception of reality, in which it is not possible to believe in the existence of a single truth: the stroke painted by the brush becomes perceptible as the observer moves away from the canvas; when it is viewed up close, it becomes blurred and its overall sense is lost.
“I can make no statement about reality clearer than my own relationship to reality; and this has a great deal to do with imprecision, uncertainty, transience, incompleteness, or whatever.” (1972)
Blurring, which he borrowed from photography and even sometimes used in his abstract painting, is probably also linked with his expressed desire to avoid projecting any subjectivity into his art. Though that may seem an easier goal to achieve in abstract works, Gerhard Richter was later to acknowledge that his painting contained an emotional dimension in direct connection with the events of his personal life and moods: “…the ‘abstract paintings’ reveal my reality…” (Notes 1981).
Overall consideration of his work shows that the periods of artistic crisis he suffered corresponded to the exhaustion of the possibilities inherent in one manner before he experimented with another, and that they are punctuated by the emergence of “unadorned demonstration objects” that duplicated reality, such as the Glass Panels (1967) and Grey Mirrors (1977, 2002), and the mirrors coloured blood-red (1991) that followed the figurative series 18 October 1977, the date of the deaths in prison of three members of the West German terrorist organization, the Red Army Faction. The repercussions of this work affected the artist, as did his sentimental and artistic crises. He expressed his despondency and moroseness in series of grey or brown monochrome surfaces, like the Grey Streaks (1968) when he was stuck in a rut, and the Inpaintings (1972) followed by the Grey Paintings (1973–76) at the time of his difficulties with his first wife, Ema Eufinger. He took these works – which were inspired by the destructive act of applying a layer of grey paint (a procedure inaugurated with Table, and one he would often resort to) over a painting he was disappointed with – to their artistic limits but they continued to give him satisfaction.
“To me, grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent to indifference, non-commitment, absence of opinion, absence of form. I cannot conceive of a less eloquent colour.” (1975)
“They have emotion and sadness and one can feel moved by them.” (1985)
“The grey paintings were the expression of a sort of resignation […] when you are demoralized.” (2008)
is often circumspect about his work – “Most of the time, completion of a painting is followed by disillusionment” – and is even capable of changing his opinion if he sees that his work is appreciated. Following compliments paid about the two works entitled Stroke from Rudi Fuchs, the director of the Folkwang Museum in Essen – “It’s your greatest work, an assured success!”, Gerhard Richter confided, “Since that day, I have not liked these paintings so much. I began to find them too superficial, too ambitious.”
Although he wanted his art to achieve recognition and success in the marketplace so that he could enjoy an affluent and assured lifestyle, he avoided the public scene as much as possible and long imposed modest prices on his gallerists.
“Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible – giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible. Creating the incomprehensible has absolutely nothing to do with turning out any old bunkum, because bunkum is always comprehensible.” (Notes 1981)
This idea is perhaps what induced Gerhard Richter to return to abstract painting after spending several years on grey, illusionist overpainted photographs, of which he feared he had exhausted the potential.
Taking a sudden and radical change of direction, in 1966 he created his first “colour charts”, which feature squares or rectangles of dazzling flat tints arranged arbitrarily and spontaneously. Their genesis, however, placed them in continuity with his photo-realist paintings: as is revealed by his Atlas, a huge collection of artist’s documents, they are enlarged representations of a paint colour charts, a source that gives them an affinity with Pop Art. Taking up the concept again in 1971, he took it to the extreme: by mixing the three primary colours, he succeeded in obtaining 1024 hues, which he then distributed across the surface of the canvas at random with the aim of creating works stripped of all content and personal involvement. But the role of chance has to be put into perspective: “An architect once asked me what was so good about the colour charts, what was supposed to be the art in them. I tried to explain to him that it had cost me a great deal of work to develop the right proportions and to give it the right look. There are other ways of realizing this idea. I could have painted these biscuits here in different colours and thrown them across the room, and then I would have 1024 colours in a chance form.” (1993)
Following his usual principle of returning to the same themes at times sometimes quite remote from one another, he returned to his colour charts in 2002 in the creation of a stained glass window for Cologne cathedral, and again in 2007 to create a coloured grid in a simplified form.
Having painted without any model in his grey streak works during the years 1967–68, during 1970–71 he came close to the same manner he had used in his colour charts to produce the series Details.
“The detail paintings are very small details, of about 1.2 square centimetres, of palettes or from paintings that, through enlargement, take on an abstract appearance or uncertain ‘beauty’ as images. […] Despite my reservations, what I like about these detail paintings is that they are so radically Not-Painting, as only a reproduction could be, insofar as it does not recall an actual image (my reservation is that they are so likeable, decorative and interesting that their real merit and contrary nature will be overlooked.” (1980)
What is important, however, is that the content is unidentifiable. Around the same period, he repeated this proclivity overtly in certain versions of figurative paintings, such as Annunciation After Titian (344-3, 1973), Tourist (370-1, 1975) and the large format series of paintings in shades of grey, followed by the series of vague polychrome paintings Red-Blue-Yellow (1972), and then again grey monochromes (1973–76), all of which were a continuation of his exploration of the potential of abstraction.
His abstract art underwent a decisive development upon getting to know Isa Genzken, whom he would marry in 1982. With his sadness behind him, Gerhard Richter launched into a completely different type of abstraction that he would never give up and would ceaselessly renew in the use of colour and form.
This new direction began with a large canvas of fields of colour interspersed with geometric bands, creating a dynamic and deceptive appearance. He called it Construction (1976) as he considered it to be overly premeditated and he compared it to Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare… (aka Grand Verre) of 1915–23: “This tendency to cultivate mystery and the dust in the Grand Verre have always annoyed me greatly. And Construction has the same effect on me!”
He then worked on paintings of smaller dimensions.
“After these strictly monochrome or colourless works, it was difficult for me to follow in that direction. […] So I then began working completely differently, arbitrarily placing any colour and any form in any old fashion on relatively small canvases and deliberately leaving long periods between one and the next, which contributed to making these paintings, if that is what you can call them, increasingly diverse. They are frightful sketches, the complete opposite of the purity of the grey paintings. They are polychrome, sentimental, suggestive, anachronistic, arbitrary and imbued with several significations, like the so-called psychological profiles, but they are uninterpretable, by which I mean they are stripped of sense and logic – assuming that sense and logic exist. And that is another fascinating point, if not the most important, but it is still a mystery to me. However it may be, I find it captivating, as though I had opened a door.” (1977)
Disconcerted by his initial results, he decided to use them as a base material, and photographed them for use as models for a series of 24 large paintings. Described as Abstract Paintings or Soft Abstracts (1977–80), these works stem from a simple copy (which allowed him to evade all questions of composition) and give the rough, heavy pictorial matter in the sketches an increasingly unrepresentative character as he blurred the surfaces with a brush. But he was not satisfied with the results: “[They] are rather mannered, affected. Number 421 is particularly inept, smooth and insipid.”
The link, which from that time became evident, with the overpainted photographs of landscapes was to remain permanent: he explored the use of figurative forms, such as tubes and columns, and abstract lines, he created the illusion of three-dimensional space and occasionally gave titles taken from reality to abstract works once the painting had been completed, considering that viewers would inevitably search within them for familiar forms. In the mid-1980s, the difference between the two genres was further reduced when he reproduced the outline of landscapes in certain abstract paintings (the 551 series, 1984) or would apply purely abstract elements onto a landscape (e.g., Venice, 606-3, 1986).
“There is no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting for me. The concept of ‘realism’ has no meaning for me.” (2000)
“When I paint, I try to destroy any resemblance with any objective reference. But if a resemblance makes itself present a posteriori, it is welcome to stay.” (1999)
“What gives life to these paintings is the attempt to recognize something in them. At all times, they offer resemblances with real phenomena which they then counter with a form of denial.” (1999)
“Everything is rooted in the world, everything is connected in one way or another to the world and experience.” (2000)
He began to employ a palette of vibrant colours which he applied in contrasting or similar tones, working the matter in different fashions, either rapidly or meticulously, sometimes using a brush, at others an airbrush. After a long creative process (several months might pass between applications of paint), brushstrokes, flat tints, spatters and smears of colour combined vividly in an artistic language similar to abstract expressionism, though different in intention as Gerhard Richter’s goal was always non-subjectivity.
The year 1981 marked another turning-point. Having probably gained in confidence, he turned away from the use of sketches to create his abstract paintings directly on the canvas in larger and larger formats. His fondness for monumentality dates from his studies in Dresden, where he had chosen to follow also the mural class.
During the fifteen years that followed, Richter developed his abstract art to achieve a sort of “classicism”. His quotes below are indicative of this evolution.
“Allow to happen rather than create. Exclude all assertion, all construction, all fabrication, all invention, all ideology so as to reach the truth, something intense and more alive, something that goes beyond my understanding.” (1985)
“Invent nothing – no idea, composition, object, form – and receive everything. Composition, object, form, idea, image.” (Notes 1986)
“I don’t have a specific picture in my mind’s eye. I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. […] I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.” (1990)
“Making paintings means a multitude of Yes/No decisions with a Yes to end it all” (Notes 1990)
His creative process thus consists in searching for a delicate balance through a continual switching back and forth between calculation and spontaneity associated with haphazardness (as in his earlier colour charts), but also between construction and destruction, the latter made possible by his use of a scraper. Initially, Gerhard Richter generally mixed two or three colours to create a blurred ground that gave the illusion of space, then he painted several thick layers with a brush, palette knife or scraper to give a variety of effects: taches, saturated flat tints, smearing, and so on. He always began by giving his painting “the greatest diversity of colours and greatest complexity possible”, which he then reworked over a number of sessions interspersed with pauses that might last several weeks to allow him to come back to his work with a fresh eye.
The instrument that became key to creating a chance effect in his practice, one that was able to smudge the paint or furrow the colour, was the scraper. It was capable of either giving structure or being destructive with a simple dynamic movement; it could make the coloured ground disappear or make the matter more dense, as occurred in the works executed following Richter’s first separation from Isa Genzken in 1984–85, which have more abrupt contrasts, forms that are more compact and rugged, and darker colours.
At the start of the 1990s, Gerhard Richter began to use a palette knife to scratch and scrape the paint systematically after its application.
“For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again. In this process, I don’t actually reveal what was beneath. […] If I apply, if I destroy and if I build up layers, it’s only to refine the process of elaborating the painting.” (Notes 1992)
He later admitted that this way of working coincided with the aggressiveness and suffering he felt generated by the difficulties that led to his divorce with Isa Genzken in 1993.
But around 1995, the period when he rediscovered happiness with marriage to Sabine Moritz, another radical change occurred. He no longer waited for the deeper layers of paint to dry before using a metal scraper or piece of wood: the result was that the thick impasto created by passing one of these tools over a still fresh ground became blurred, forming an iridescent surface and allowing the taches of colour to disappear into the fluidity of a structure with multiple nuances. The use of transparency and its effects were heightened in 1996 when he began to use the smooth surface provided by Alucobond as a support rather than canvas.
In 2012 the artist’s retrospective at the Musée national d’Art moderne de Paris revealed a new type of painting in the series Strip, one created without the use of paint. In the abstract painting 724-4 of 1990, he remained faithful to the principle of the painting-model but dissected it into 4096 sections with the help of a computer, which he then multiplied and recombined, as was his custom. He then created the new work by digitally printing on paper horizontal bands of up to 10 metres in length, which were then stuck on aluminium and covered with Perspex.
In 2013 he returned to his practice of mixing techniques (colour photographs covered with enamels) with the series Flow. In this he spread colours on a glass surface that were allowed to evolve at random, onto which he then pressed a sheet of glass while the enamels were still wet to create the work. The result was then mounted on Alu Dibond.
“My paintings must be cleverer than I am. I have to be unable to follow quite all the way; they have to be something I no longer completely understand. All the time I can understand them theoretically, it’s boring.” (1990)
With his extraordinary ability to overturn convention and to constantly renew his art, Gerhard Richter has continued magisterially to enrich the history of abstraction for over fifty years.
Gerhard Richter, Musée national d’Art Moderne de Paris, 1977
Gerhard Richter, Textes, 1995
Gerhard Richter, Museum Frieder Burda de Baden-Baden, 2008
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter, 2008 (traduction française de 2010)
Gerhard Richter, panorama : une rétrospective, Musée national d’Art Moderne de Paris, 2012