Gerhard Richter (born February 9, 1932) is a German visual artist. Richter has simultaneously produced abstract and photorealistic painted works, as well as photographs and glass pieces, thus undermining the concept of the artist’s obligation to maintain a single cohesive style.
Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden, Saxony, and grew up in Reichenau, Lower Silesia, and in Waltersdorf (Zittauer Gebirge) in the Upper Lusatian countryside. He left school after tenth grade and apprenticed as an advertising and stage-set painter, before studying at the Dresden Art Academy. In 1948 he terminated the higher professional school in Zittau, and, between 1949 and 1951, was trained there in writing as well as in stage and advertising painting. In 1950 his application for membership in the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (Dresden University of Visual Arts, founded in 1764) was rejected. He finally began his study at the Dresden Academy of Arts in 1951. His teachers were Karl von Appen, Ulrich Lohmar and Will Grohmann. In these early days of his career he prepared a wall painting (“Communion with Picasso”, 1955) for the refectory of this Academy of Arts as part of his B.A. A further mural followed within the Hygiene-Museum (German Hygiene Museum) with the title („Lebensfreude“, which means “Joy of life”) for his diploma.
Both paintings had been painted over for ideological reasons after Richter escaped from East to West Germany (two months before the building of the Berlin wall); after unification of both German states, the wall painting Joy of life (1956) was uncovered in two places in the stairway of the German Hygiene Museum, and after the millennium these two uncovered windows with a look at the Joy of Life had been newly recovered. From 1957 to 1961 Richter worked as a master trainee in the academy and took orders for the former state of the GDR. During this time he worked intensively at murals (Arbeiterkampf, which means Worker fight), on paintings in oil (f.e. portraits of the well known East-German actress Angelica Domroese and of Richter’s first wife Ema), on various self portraits and furthermore on a panorama of Dresden with the neutral name Stadtbild (Townscape, 1956).
When he arrived in West Germany, Richter began to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Karl Otto Götz together with Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg and Gotthard Graubner. With Polke and Lueg he introduced the term Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalistic Realism) as an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial shorthand of advertising. This title also referred to the realist style of art known as Socialist Realism, then the official art doctrine of the Soviet Union, but it also commented upon the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism. Later, Lueg founded the gallery Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf.
Richter taught as a visiting professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, in Hamburg, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and returned in 1971 to Düsseldorf Art Academy as a professor for over 15 years.
In 1983, Richter resettled from Düsseldorf to Cologne, where he still lives and works today.
Nearly all of Richter’s work demonstrates both illusionistic space that seems natural and the physical activity and material of painting—as mutual interferences. For Richter, reality is the combination of new attempts to understand—to represent; in his case, to paint—the world surrounding us.
Richter created various painting pictures from black-and-white photographs during the 1960s and early 1970s, basing them on a variety of sources: from newspapers and books, sometimes incorporating their captions, as in Helga Matura (1966); private snapshots; aerial views of towns and mountains, for example Cityscape Madrid (1968) and Alps (1968); seascapes (1969–70); and a large multi-partite work made for the German Pavilion in the 1972 Venice Biennale, Forty-eight Portraits (1971–2), for which he chose mainly the faces of composers such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, and of writers such as H. G. Wells and Franz Kafka.
Many of these paintings are made in a multi-step process of representations. He starts with a photograph, which he has found or taken himself, and projects it onto his canvas, where he traces it for exact form. Taking his color palette from the photograph, he paints to replicate the look of the original picture. His hallmark “blur”—sometimes a softening by the light touch of a soft brush, sometimes a hard smear by an aggressive pull with his squeegee—has two effects: 1. It offers the image a photographic appearance; and 2. Paradoxically, it testifies the painter’s actions, both skilled and coarse, and the plastic nature of the paint itself.
In some paintings blurs and smudges are severe enough to disrupt the image; it becomes hard to understand or believe. The subject is nullified. In these paintings, images and symbols (such as landscapes, portraits, and news photos) are rendered fragile illusions, fleeting conceptions in our constant reshaping of the world.
Richter has stated that the use of photographic imagery as a starting point for his early paintings resulted from an attempt to escape the complicated process of deciding what to paint, along with the critical and theoretical implications accompanying such decisions within the context of a modernist discourse. To achieve this, Richter began amassing photos from magazines, books, etc., many of which became the subject matter of his early photography-based paintings. Thus the Atlas was born: Atlas is an ongoing, encyclopedic work composed of approximately 4,000 photographs, reproductions or cut-out details of photographs and illustrations, grouped together on approximately 600 separate panels. When Atlas was first exhibited in 1972 at the Museum for Hedendaagse Kunst in Utrecht under the title “Atlas der Fotos und Skizzen,” it included 315 parts. The work has continued to expand, and was exhibited later in full form at the Lenbachhaus in Munich in 1989, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 1990, and at Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1995.
From around 1964 Richter made a number of portraits of dealers, collectors, artists and others connected with his immediate professional circle. From 1966, as well as photographs given to him by others, Richter began using photographs he had taken as the basis for portraits. In 1975, on the occasion of a show in Düsseldorf, Gilbert and George commissioned Richter to make a portrait of them.
Richter began making prints in 1965 and has completed more than one hundred to date; he was most active before 1974, completing projects only sporadically since that time. He has explored a variety of photographic printmaking processes — screenprint, photolithography, and collotype — in search of inexpensive mediums that would lend a “non-art” appearance to his work.
In 1982 and 1983, Richter made a series of paintings of Candles and Skulls that relate to a longstanding tradition of still life memento-mori painting. The Candle paintings coincided with his first large-scale abstract paintings, and represent the complete antithesis to those vast, colorful and playfully meaningless works.
In a 1988 series of fifteen ambiguous photo paintings entitled Baader-Meinhof (October 18, 1977) he depicted four members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a German left-wing terrorist organization. These paintings were created from black-and-white newspaper and police photos.
Since 1989, Richter has worked on creating new images by dragging photographs over wet paint. The photographs, not all taken by Richter himself, are mostly snapshots of daily life: family vacations, pictures of friends, mountains, buildings and streetscapes.
In May 2002, Richter photographed 216 details of his abstract painting no. 648-2, from 1987. Working on a long table over a period of several weeks, Richter combined these 10 x 15 cm details with 165 texts on the Iraq war, published in the German FAZ newspaper on March 20 and 21. This work was published in 2004 as a book entitled War Cut.
In 1969 Richter produced the first of a group of grey monochromes that consist exclusively of the textures resulting from different methods of paint application. As early as 1966 he had made paintings based on colour charts, using the rectangles of colour as found objects in an apparently limitless variety of hue; these culminated in 1973–4 in a series of large-format pictures such as 256 Colours.
In 1976, Richter first gave the title Abstract Painting to one of his works. By presenting a painting without even a few words to name and explain it, he felt he was “letting a thing come, rather than creating it.” In his abstract pictures, Richter builds up cumulative layers of nonrepresentational painting. The paintings evolve in stages, based on his responses to the picture’s progress: the incidental details and patterns that emerge. Throughout his process, Richter uses the same techniques he uses in his representational paintings, blurring and scraping to veil and expose prior layers. From the mid 1980s, Richter began to use a home-made squeegee to rub and scrape the paint that he had applied in large bands across his canvases. In the 1990s the artist began to run his squeegee up and down the canvas in an ordered fashion to produce vertical columns that take on the look of a wall of planks.
Richter’s abstract work is remarkable for the illusion of space that develops, ironically, out of his incidental process: an accumulation of spontaneous, reactive gestures of adding, moving, and subtracting paint. Despite unnatural palettes, spaceless sheets of color, and obvious trails of the artist’s tools, the abstract pictures often act like windows through which we see the landscape outside. As in his representational paintings, there is an equalization of illusion and paint. In those paintings, he reduces worldly images to mere incidents of Art. Similarly, in his abstract pictures, Richter exalts spontaneous, intuitive mark-making to a level of spatial logic and believability.
Firenze continues a cycle of 99 works conceived in the autumn of 1999 and executed in the same year and thereafter. The series of overpainted photographs, or übermalte Photographien, consists of small paintings bearing images of the city of Florence, created by the artist as a tribute to the music of Steve Reich and the work of Contempoartensemble, a Florence-based group of musicians.
In 2006, Richter conceived six paintings as a coherent group under the title Cage, named after the American avant-garde composer John Cage.
Richter painted three series of Color Chart paintings between 1966 and 1974, each series growing more ambitious in their attempt to create through their purely arbitrary arrangement of colors. The artist began his investigations into the complex permutations of color charts in 1966, with a small painting entitled 10 Colors. The charts provided anonymous and impersonal source material, a way for Richter to disassociate color from any traditional, descriptive, symbolic or expressive end. When he began to make these paintings, Richter had his friend Blinky Palermo randomly call out colors, which Richter then adopted for his work. Chance thus plays its role in the creation of his first series.
Returning to color charts in the 1970s, Richter changed his focus from the readymade to the conceptual system, developing mathematical procedures for mixing colours and chance operations for their placement. The range of the colors he employed was determined by a mathematical system for mixing the primary colors in graduated amounts. Each color was then randomly ordered to create the resultant composition and form of the painting. Richter’s second series of Color Charts was begun in 1971 and consisted of only five paintings. In the final series of Color Charts which preoccupied Richter throughout 1973 and 1974, additional elements to this permutational system of color production were added in the form of mixes of a light grey, a dark gray and later, a green.
Richter’s 4900 Colours from 2007 consisted of bright monochrome squares that have been randomly arranged in a grid pattern to create stunning fields of kaleidoscopic color. It was produced at the same time he developed his design for the south transept window of Cologne Cathedral. 4900 Colours consists of 196 panels in twenty-five colors that can be reassembled in eleven variations—from a single expansive surface to multiple small-format fields. Richter developed Version II — forty-nine paintings, each of which measures ninety-seven by ninety-seven centimeters — especially for the Serpentine Gallery.
Richter began to use glass in his work in 1967, when he made 4 Panes of Glass. In 1981, for a two-person show with Georg Baselitz in Düsseldorf, Richter produced the first of the monumental transparent mirrors that appear intermittently thereafter in his oeuvre. He presented an ensemble of paintings and colored mirrors in a special pavilion designed in collaboration with architect Paul Robbrecht at Documenta 9 in Kassel in 1992. In 2002, for the Dia Art Foundation, Richter created a glass sculpture in which seven parallel panes of glass refract light and the world beyond, offering altered visions of the exhibition space; Spiegel I (Mirror I) and Spiegel II (Mirror II), a two-part mirror piece from 1989 that measures seven feet tall and eighteen feet long, which alters the boundaries of the environment and again changes one’s visual experience of the gallery; and Kugel (Sphere), 1992, a stainless steel sphere that acts as a mirror, reflecting the space.
In August 2007, Richter’s stained glass in the Cologne Cathedral was unveiled. It is an 113 square metre abstract collage of 11,500 pixel-like squares in 72 colors, randomly arranged by computer (with some symmetry), reminiscent of his 1974 painting “4096 colours”.
Throughout the body of Richter’s work one can often observe waves of minimalism appearing only to disappear again. It has been noted that perhaps it may be necessary to view Richter as a conceptual artist wherein his individual pieces point towards a very painterly approach, while possibly this may not be his intent. If one views the progressions in the individual series as single works, a very different concept erupts. While many critics agree that this analysis may be necessary, let us take it one step further: assuming that Richter’s small series is analogous to his entire body of work, one sees the same images of realism to blur. For example Eight Grey 2002. It may be considered, thus, that he is interested in the progression, and not in the individual images nor the qualities of paint nor any other medium he uses. In this a new idea of minimalism is born; a minimalism where the material means nothing, however, its use is technically masterful. As was said by Jan Van Eyck in the inscription on the frame of Man in the Red Turban “Als Ich Kann” which are the first words of the proverb “As I can, but not as I would.”
Richter first began exhibiting in Düsseldorf in 1963. Richter had his first gallery solo show in 1964 at Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf. Soon after, he had exhibitions in Munich and Berlin and by the early 1970s exhibited frequently throughout Europe and the United States. In 1966, Bruno Bischofberger was the first to show the Richter’s works outside Germany. Richter’s first retrospective took place at the Kunsthalle Bremen in 1976 and covered works from 1962 to 1974. A traveling retrospective at Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle in 1986 was followed in 1991 by a retrospective at the Tate Gallery, London.
Richter became known to a U.S. audience in 1990, when the St. Louis Art Museum circulated Baader-Meinhof (October 18, 1977), a show that that was later seen at the Lannan Foundation in Marina del Rey, California. Richter’s first North American retrospective was in 1998 at the Art Gallery of Ontario and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In 2002, a 40-year retrospective of Richter’s work was held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. He has participated in several international art shows, including the Venice Biennale (1972, 1980, 1984, 1997 and 2007), as well as Documenta V (1972), VII (1982), VIII (1987), IX (1992), and X (1997).
The Gerhard Richter Archive was established in cooperation with the artist in 2005 as an institute of the State Art Collections in Dresden, Germany (www.gerhard-richter-archiv.de).
Although Richter gained popularity and critical praise throughout his career, his fame burgeoned during his 2005 retrospective exhibition, which declared his place among the most important artists of the 20th century. Today, many call Gerhard Richter the best living painter. In part, this comes from his ability to explore the medium at a time when many were heralding its death. Richter has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Praemium Imperiale, Tokyo, (1997); Wolf Prize, Jerusalem (1994–1995); the Oskar Kokoschka Prize, Vienna (1985); and Arnold Bode Prize, Kassel, Germany (1981). He was made an honorary citizen of Cologne in April 2007.