Gerhard Richter Life and Art Periods

"What I'm attempting in each picture is nothing other than this...to bring together in a living and viable way, the most different and the most contradictory elements in the greatest possible freedom."

GERHARD RICHTER SYNOPSIS

Gerhard Richter is a German painter who originally trained in a realist style and later developed an appreciation for the more progressive work of his American and European contemporaries. Richter increasingly employed his own painting as a means for exploring how images that appear to capture "truth" often prove, on extended viewing, far less objective, or unsure in meaning, than originally assumed. The other common themes in his work are the elements of chance, and the play between realism and abstraction. Working alongside but never fully embracing a quick succession of late twentieth century art movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, American/British Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, Richter has absorbed many of their ideas while remaining skeptical of all grand artistic and philosophical credos.

GERHARD RICHTER KEY IDEAS

Richter has maintained a lifelong fascination for the power of images and painting's long, uneasy relationship with photography: while either medium may claim to reflect or express reality truthfully, either ultimately suggests only a partial, or incomplete view of a subject.
Richter borrows much of his painted imagery from newspapers, or even his own family albums. Often he begins by mechanically projecting such an image onto the canvas, a technique for thinking about how images often seem to have a life of their own, like mysterious ghosts haunting our psyche. This act of visual compression, in which photography, projection, and painting merge to make a finished art work, suggests that all vision is a kind of conversion of the "real" into the "imaginary."
Richter would often blur his subjects and embrace chance effects in his own painting process in order to show the impossibility of any artist conveying the full truth of a subject in its original condition. Such means for suggesting that something essential to the model has been "lost in translation" often leads a viewer's attention to the oil pigment's dense, material nature, thereby demonstrating both its expressive strengths and shortcomings.
In Richter's completely abstract canvases, personal emotion and all traces of the painter's autobiography seem missing. The painting's many layers, strokes, and scrapes of color may thus appear as "beautiful" as anything found in nature that came into existence partly according to a predetermined structure (such as DNA), as well as by way of unpredictable occasions of pure chance and the action of outside forces.
comment to editor

GERHARD RICHTER BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, during the rise of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or the Nazi Third Reich. Notably, some of Richter's relatives were directly involved in the Nazi movement, namely his father, a schoolteacher, and an uncle. Richter's mother, the daughter of a concert pianist, encouraged her son's early talent for draftsmanship. In 1948, at the age of 16, Richter quit his formal education and took up an apprenticeship as a set painter for the theater. The wake of war proved traumatic for Richter: two of his uncles had been killed in action, and his father had lost his employment. This family turmoil, coupled with the artist's early artistic training under postwar communist-driven ideology, eventually led Richter to seek his creative inspiration in nature over any political or religious affairs or philosophies.

MORE

Early Training

Beginning in 1951, Richter studied at the Kunstakademie, Dresden, where he painted murals and political banners commissioned by state-owned businesses. During this time, the East German communist regime imposed a Social Realist style on all practicing artists; this policy effectively turned art to the service of political propaganda. In keeping with this development, the government banned exhibitions of American Pop art and Fluxus. These circumstances severely limited Richter's fledgling artistic style, as he was instructed to paint only landscapes in a manner heavily informed by pastoral romanticism.

Richter married Marianne Eufinger in 1957, and the couple celebrated the birth of a daughter, Betty, in 1966. Two years later, during a visit to West Germany in 1959, Richter discovered the work of contemporary artists Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana. Pollock's uninhibited splashes of color across canvas had a profound impact on Richter, provoking him to reflect on his own artistic ideology. Indeed, Richter began to question how a realist style did not seem to capture the energy, sense of truth, and spirit of artistic liberation that he observed in the abstract work of his American and European contemporaries. Supposedly "realistic", his work seemed to fail to reflect the underlying, tumultuous nature of reality itself.

Gerhard Richter Biography

In 1961, just prior to the government's official completion of the Berlin Wall, Richter moved to Dusseldorf. Once again enrolling at the local Kunstakademie, Richter intended to work in a more uninhibited, avant-garde manner; in the process of rethinking his approach to art making, he purposely destroyed many of his early paintings from the 1950s and the 1960s.

Mature Period

While continuing to paint in a realist manner, around 1961, Richter began using photographs, projecting and tracing images directly onto the canvas. Richter believed that he was, as an artist, "not painting a particular person, but a picture that has nothing in common with the model." Thus while he painted individuals from photographs, Richter's replica images were often blurred and bore nothing distinctively identifiable about the subject, an effect that forced the viewer to consider the fundamental components of the painting itself, such as composition, color scheme, and so forth, rather than leaving the viewer to identify with, or be distracted by, a picture's implied content or its emotional element of "humanity."

Eventually finding himself frustrated over whether to pursue abstraction or figuration, Richter decided to concentrate on the chance details that emerged from the painting process. Using the same method as employed in his representational paintings, Richter began blurring, scraping, and concealing various painted layers in his new canvases. In 1966, he created a series of grey paintings that featured compositional structure and paint application rather than realistic subject matter. Richter applied the paint in thick brushstrokes, or with rollers and an aggressive sweep of a squeegee (ironically, a tool commonly used for window cleaning and clarifying one's scope of vision). In this particular body of work, Richter minimized the visual impact of realist imagery in favor of a spontaneous, gestural illusion of space.

In 1971, Richter became a professor at the Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf. This marks the beginning of his "color chart" paintings, in which he systematically applied square hues of solid color to large canvases. During this time, Richter received wide criticism for his express refusal to be identified with a specific artistic movement, as well as for his work's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge various social and political issues pertaining to the WWII Nazi regime.

Late Period

Richter embraced the title, Abstract Painting, in 1976, as a generic one for all his subsequent canvases, a move that effectively forced viewers to interpret a given work without explanation provided by the artist. One year later, Richter returned to figurative work in his Baader-Meinhof series, which chronicled the controversial death of a group of young German terrorists in a Stammheim prison. Photographs served as references as Richter painted the dead and captured the horrific vanity of the terrorists' actions. The blurred imagery of Richter's paintings might be said to parallel the unsolved mystery surrounding the inmates' sudden demise.

In 1983, Richter moved to Cologne with his second wife, contemporary sculptor Isa Genzken. The couple later divorced, and in 1995 Richter married Sabine Moritz, who gave birth to a son and a daughter. Richter continues to live in Cologne, while he also maintains his professorship at the Kunstakamedie, Dusseldorf.

Gerhard Richter Photo

During the 1980s and '90s, Richter achieved international celebrity for his series of entirely abstract paintings that, on first glance, would seem to carry on a tradition of Abstract Expressionism; nevertheless, on close examination of their dense surfaces, these color-resplendent works suggest that they have been calculated to refer only to themselves or their processes of production (i.e. in lieu of expressing any personal psychology of the artist himself). Sharing a typically postmodern attitude of skepticism toward all grand ambitions, Richter seems in this body of work to revel in his own ability to pack pigments in dense layers across the canvas, and then disturb the entire, quasi-archeological field by raking it laterally, as though the artist was mechanically plowing "intersections" where his own control of his materials gives way, in this place and that, to purely chanced textures and random coagulations of color. These "abstract pictures," as Richter titles them, ultimately seem to constitute isolated moments of pure visual pleasure.

GERHARD RICHTER LEGACY

Richter came of age as a painter at what was, for an artist, a very challenging moment in history, indeed, when both modern art and global politics had arrived at historic "milestones" in their respective development. Richter found a viable means for reconciling his long grounding in Social Realist painting with more conceptually challenging, avant-garde developments afoot in Europe and the United States. At a time when the "death of painting" was increasingly proclaimed by a new generation more interested in art's conceptual potential than with mastering long traditions of material craftsmanship, Richter demonstrated that painting could still powerfully question all images for their truth potential, no matter whether they might originate in the news media, the cinema, the internet, the ubiquitous realm of commercial advertising, or even the family photo album. Richter has also reinvigorated the idea that desiring "beauty" in one's work is a perfectly acceptable ambition, particularly at a time when many of his generation presumed that any desire for aesthetic pleasure was something to be embarrassed about, or indeed applicable only to a distant, presumably less sophisticated people in history.

Original content written by Larissa Borteh
comment to editor

GERHARD RICHTER QUOTES

"Photography altered ways of seeing and thinking. Photographs were regarded as true, paintings as artificial. The painted picture was no longer credible; its representation froze into immobility, because it was not authentic but invented."

"I want to leave everything as it is. I therefore neither plan nor invent; I add nothing and omit nothing. At the same time, I know that I inevitably shall plan, invent, alter, make and manipulate. But I don't know that."

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter Influences

Interactive chart with Gerhard Richter's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

CLICK TO EXPAND

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW




We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann was a German artist, writer, and philosopher commonly associated with the Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century. He abhorred the label 'Expressionism', but juxtaposed scenes from reality by layering figures, colors, and shadows.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Max Beckmann
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Lucio Fontana
Lucio Fontana
Lucio Fontana was an Argentine painter and sculptor. He was the founder of Spatialism and was closely tied to Arte Povera. In 1935 he joined the association Abstraction-Création in Paris, and from 1936 to 1949 made expressionist sculptures in ceramic and bronze.

Modern Art Information Lucio Fontana
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Rauschenberg
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Andy Warhol
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys was a German multi- and mixed-media artist best known for incorporating ideas of humanism, social philosophy and politics into his art. Beuys practiced everything from installation and performance art to traditional painting and "social sculpture." He was continually motivated by the belief of universal human creativity.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joseph Beuys
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz is a twentieth century German painter and sculptor, and was an originator of the Neo-Expressionist group "Neue Wilden," which focused on subject-based painting and the importance of color. Much of Baselitz's work is noted for its provocative subject matter, often sexual or overtly dark in nature.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Georg Baselitz
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke was a German painter and photographer. In 1963 Polke founded the painting movement "Kapitalistischer Realismus" (Capitalistic Realism) with Gerhard Richter and Konrad FIscher. It is an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial short-hand of advertising.

Modern Art Information Sigmar Polke
Konrad Fischer-Lueg
Konrad Fischer-Lueg
Konrad Fischer-Lueg was a German artist and gallery owner. He created wallpaper pattern paintings, and worked closely with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Fischer-Lueg exhibited minimalist and conceptual art in his influential Dusseldorf gallery.

Modern Art Information Konrad Fischer-Lueg
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of "intermedia" artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin "to flow," Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fluxus
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dada
Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool
Christopher Wool is a New York-based painter and conceptual artist. His works, some of which employ the use of controlled drips and abstract forms, often contain indechipherable text that is designed to confront viewers with complex dilemmas.

Modern Art Information Christopher Wool
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly is an American color-field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Ellsworth Kelly
Blinky Palermo
Blinky Palermo
Blinky Palermo was a German abstract painter. He created spare monochromatic canvases and fabric paintings made from simple lengths of colored material cut, stitched and stretched over a frame. Later in his career, he would develop his work in situ for large-scale architectural installations.

Modern Art Information Blinky Palermo
Robert Storr
Robert Storr
Robert Storr is an American curator, academic, critic, and painter. He was named Dean of the Yale School of Art for a five-year period beginning July 2006 and was the director of the Venice Biennale in 2007. Storr was Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.

Modern Art Information Robert Storr
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Social Realism
Social Realism
Social Realism refers to a style of figurative art with social concerns - generally left-wing. Inspired in part by nineteenth-century Realism, it emerged in various forms in the twentieth century. Political radicalism prompted its emergence in 1930s America, while distaste for abstract art encouraged many in Europe to maintain the style into the 1950s.

Modern Art Information Social Realism
Mund(Mouth)(Brigitte Bardot's Lips)
Mund(Mouth)(Brigitte Bardot's Lips)

Title: Mund(Mouth)(Brigitte Bardot's Lips) (1963)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Mund is one of Richter's first paintings completed from a photograph. The painting is sexually suggestive, depicting Brigitte Bardot's open mouth adorned with red lipstick. Blurred flesh tones hint at Richter's painting process, beginning with a realist rendering and incorporating rollers, squeegees, and dry brush techniques to mask the surface. The work suggests the artist viewing reality from a detached perspective, as he resists any moment of clear focus on the overall image.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Farbschlieren (Colour Streaks)
Farbschlieren (Colour Streaks)

Title: Farbschlieren (Colour Streaks) (1968)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In this example of one of his early grey paintings, Richter allows structure and color to compose the "picture." The painting is void of figuration and recognizable imagery, revealing Richter's indifference toward any "model" as serving as his subject matter. Richter employs thick brushstrokes and monochromatic color, thus sweeping across the canvas in a fluid, entirely fused motion. This powerful gesture suggests a consideration of how abstract forms may well serve as a painter's subject just as effectively, for their visual or optical interest, as any photographic or "realistic" scene derived from nature, or the "everyday world" around us.


Oil on canvas

1024 Farben(1024 Colours)
1024 Farben(1024 Colours)

Title: 1024 Farben(1024 Colours) (1973)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Richter employs a systematic approach to the canvas in his color-chart-based painting 1024 Farben (1024 Colours). Superficially reminiscent of the neo-Dadaist, 1950s "Hard Edge" abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly, Richter chooses here to systematically paint squares of colors based on the predetermined structure of the color wheel. The only intervention of the artist in an otherwise mechanical process seems to be his control of the scale of the canvas itself, the artist's having arranged the color combinations via reference to an apparently logical, predetermined schema.


Enamel on canvas - Daros Collection, Zurich, Switzerland

Abstraktes Bild(Abstract Painting)
Abstraktes Bild(Abstract Painting)

Title: Abstraktes Bild(Abstract Painting) (1976)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In 1976, Richter first employed the term "Abstract Painting" as a formal title for many of his works, such as this example. Cool tones of purple and blue create a hazy, shallow atmospheric perspective. The composition is structured with geometric shapes and lines that might at first appear as fractured icebergs emerging from the painted surface, only to settle down, as it were, into pure abstraction. Richter did not want to offer a definitive explanation for his abstract work, stating only that he was "letting a thing come, rather than creating it." Standing in relation to such work, a viewer begins to question whether what he/she perceives is fact or fiction, real or artificial, as though slowly being trained in a new school of visual philosophy.


Oil on canvas

Clouds
Clouds

Title: Clouds (1982)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Clouds is an example of how Richter frequently alternates between realist and abstract styles in various series of work, as well as on a single canvas. In this instance, even the title bears an ambiguous relation to the entire composition. In the lower region of the canvas, for instance, Richter suggests that the viewer is having a perceptual experience of looking through a window; nevertheless, the bold tracks, scrapes, smudges, and layer of paint above playfully cancel that optical illusion. Thus Richter is frequently fascinated by how a viewer's desire to extract "meaning" from a given work of art often proves utterly futile. He suggests that we might instead relish a simple experience of visual pleasure, or the discovery of "beauty" by way of studying abstract forms for their own sake.


Oil on canvas (two panels) - Museum of Modern Art

Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1)
Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1)

Title: Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1) (1988)

Artwork Description & Analysis: For most of his career, Richter avoided political motifs in his work. A notable exception is the series October 18, 1977, in which he depicts radical Baader-Meinhof terrorists who inexplicably died in jail (it remains unclear to this day whether these young radicals committed suicide or were murdered by the police). In Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1), Richter has used a photographic reference to create a blurred, monochromatic painting of a dead inmate. The morbid scene might be said to exemplify the vanity behind the terrorists' actions; at the same time, the persistent obscurity of the image replicates the eternal mystery behind the inmates' deaths, as well as the impossibility of securely capturing truth in any one canvas.


Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art

Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture)
Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture)

Title: Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture) (1994)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In a series of completely abstract works of the early 1990s, Richter challenges the eye of the viewer to detect anything in the field of vision other than the pure elements of his art: color, gesture, the layering of pasty materials, and the artist's impersonal raking of these concoctions in various ways that allow chance combinations to emerge from the surface. Richter suggests only a shallow space akin to that of a mirror. The viewer is finally coaxed to set aside all searches for "content" that might originate from outside these narrow parameters and find satisfaction in the object's beauty in and of itself, as though one were relishing a fine textile. One thus appreciates the numerous colors and transitions that occur in this painting, many having been created outside the complete control of the artist much as nature often creates wondrous optical pleasures partly by design, and partly by accident.


Oil on canvas - Tate, London and National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Moritz (2000)
Moritz (2000)

Title: Moritz (2000) (2000)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Ostensibly a painting of his young son, Moritz exemplifies Richter's affinity for striking a tense balance between abstraction and figuration. This painting is a hybrid, seemingly fluctuating between two contrasting, unfinished areas, one section realistically rendered (in part harking back to Richter's Social Realist education), the other fading off into ethereal "white noise." Moritz is reminiscent of Andy Warhol's combination of appropriated imagery and painted silkscreen techniques; a hazy glow seemingly emanates from the young boy, thus providing a powerful contrast to the material reality of the painted surface.


Oil on canvas - De Pont Museum voor hedendaagse kunst, Tilburg, The Netherlands

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.