Gerhard Richter (* 1932 in Dresden) fled to the West in 1961 and studied in Düsseldorf. After guest professorships at several different institutions, he became a professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1971. Besides having been represented at important exhibitions, from the documentas V to X to the 1972 Venice Biennial, he is also the recipient of many prominent awards. To celebrate his seventieth birthday in 2002, MoMA in New York devoted a retrospective to his work. Richter lives in Cologne.
Between Coincidence and Calculation
“There is no theory for a work of art. Paintings that can be interpreted and have a meaning are bad paintings. A painting is confusing, illogical, nonsensical. It displays innumerable aspects, it deprives us of our sense of security, because it takes away the point of view and the name of a thing. It shows us that thing in all of its multifacetedness and infiniteness which does not allow a point of view, a perspective to emerge.” (Gerhard Richter)
When Gerhard Richter fled Dresden for the West, in order to escape East Germany’s “socialist realism,” he had already made a name for himself as a painter. In Düsseldorf he spent another three years studying at the Kunstakademie under Karl Otto Götz. He sympathized with the absurdity of the Fluxus movement, discovered Pop Art and its pleasure in superficiality, and formed friendships with Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer-Lueg, and Blinky Palermo, with whom he collaborated in the years following. Very soon, they had a taste of success—including international acknowledgement.
Defying the trends, Richter adhered to the traditional medium of painting, striving to free painting from its art historical foundations, as well as to renew it. “Above all, his paintings are supposed to display their painterly qualities, instead of making references to art history,” according to the artist’s home page; moreover, “the main focus is visual presence, not the meaning of the painting.”
Polke, Fischer-Lueg, and Richter founded the Capitalist Realists group. At their very first exhibition, in 1963, Richter presented his figurative “gray photo-paintings,” which would later make him famous. He found his motifs by accident, while flipping through magazines, or in family photos and everyday objects. He would paint them, enlarge them, change the framing, and blur them. Abstraction removed the painting from the realm of the anecdotal, “the overload of unimportant information,” as he called it. Sense and meaning recede, opening up a window on what is essential. Whether a toilet paper roll or a murder victim—the artist’s hand made everyday things worthy of painting.
Besides motifs painted in soft gray, Richter also creates colorful figurative works. He has produced entire series of individual motifs, such as waterscapes, clouds, and mountains. Parallel to that, he has tested other forms of expression. In 1965 he began developing a group of works known as color panels, for which he used pure color tones, applying them to the canvas as if they were color shade cards from a hardware store. Here, he avoided composition in general and allowed coincidence to determine the order of colors.
Richter has been producing abstract paintings since 1976; their hues fluctuate between brilliant and reserved, so that the colors appear to explode. They form the most extensive complex in his oeuvre. He describes his process as follows: “When I paint an abstract, I do not know what it is going to look like beforehand, nor do I know where I want to go when I’m painting.”
Richter has long been considered one of the most influential painters of our time. His fascinating body of work is full of discontinuity and oscillates between coincidence and calculation. He persistently rejects any sort of interpretation of his work and continues to furnish material for controversial discussions.
May 16, 2011 Monika Wolz