Summary of Gerhard Richter
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-20th-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.
- 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.
Progression of Art
Mund(Mouth)(Brigitte Bardot's Lips)
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 (Color Streaks)
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 Colors)
Richter employs a systematic approach to the canvas in his color-chart-based painting 1024 Farben (1024 Colors). 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)
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 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) - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Erschossener 1 (Man Shot Down 1)
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, New York
Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture)
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 - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
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
Biography of Gerhard Richter
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.
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.
In 1961, just prior to the government's official completion of the Berlin Wall, Richter moved to Düsseldorf. 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.
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, Düsseldorf. 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.
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, Düsseldorf.
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.
The Legacy of Gerhard Richter
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.