Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter was born in 1932, in Dresden. He grew up in Reichenau (now Bogatynia) and Waltersdorf, Upper Lusatia. In 1948, Richter finished commercial college in Zittau and worked as assistant stage painter manufacturing banners. He then painted posters. In 1951, Richter started studying mural painting at the Art Academy in Dresden. There, he did first paintings, including non-genre paintings, portraits, landscapes, still lives (Stilleben mit Schädel, Lauch und Krug (Still Life with Skull, Leek, and Jug), 1955???), and drawings. Yet he primarily focused on mural paintings in prescribed social-realist manner (Lebensfreude (Joy of Life),1956, Deutsches Hygienmuseum). Richter had already traveled in West Germany and Western Europe, for example, to the Documenta II and to Paris. In 1961, he fled to West Germany via Berlin. Only few of the paintings he left behind were preserved. Richter continued his studies at the Art Academy Düsseldorf, where he first worked with Ferdinand Macketanz and then with K. O. Götz. At the Academy, he came to know fellow students Sigmar Polke, Blinky Palermo, and Konrad Lueg and was introduced to influential exhibitions showing the art of Informel, Tachism, but also Fluxus, the Nouveau Réalistes, and ZERO. After finishing his studies and working as an art teacher and as a guest lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Richter was appointed Professor of Painting at the Art Academy Düsseldorf in 1973. He kept the chair until 1993.

Richter himself claimed to have destroyed the early works – done in the context of Tachism – in the courtyard of the Art Academy. His photo album which he began in 1961 and his Atlas, begun in 1969, document a new system underlying his painting. The Atlas contains Richter’s chronological archive of sources and his personal collection of sketches, color studies, landscapes, portraits, still lives, historical themes, and collages. It grew into a huge collection of photographs and materials (Ausst.-Kat. München, 1997). From 1962 on, Richter kept up a chronological catalogue of his works that were done using photographs as a basis. The first entry lists the work Tisch (Table) from the same year. Often, Richter’s grey photo pictures show objects of everyday life, furniture, or decorative objects, but also portraits, group photographs, still lives, landscapes, or pictures of the sea (Faltbarer Trockner (Folding Dryer),1962; Rokokotisch (Rokoko Table), 1964), referring back to photography as medium. At first, Richter still focused on the picture carrier which he »wounded« with incisions and sewed up again, as in the photo-based pictureParty (1962), all done in an attempt to find different paths that would lead to the picture. He then started to concentrate on the picture itself, using photo material from the mass media and a family album. However, he did not want to use, as he put it, the photograph »as a means for a painting, but rather employ the painting as a means for the photograph« (Richter 1972). Through the painting, the photograph would thus be re-made. Initially, Richter had partly copied the photo material collected. Later, diffuse »Vermalungen« emerged that take up the entire picture. Some are done in several versions that direct the gaze towards the motif but also towards the emergence and the potential of painting. If the pictures show an undeniable connection to the photo they are based on, the photo is also counteracted. It is entirely changed as to its dimensions, its colors and details – and the picture is thus neither photorealist nor illusionist. A further step is taken with the greyVorhang pictures (for example, Vorhang IV (Curtain IV), 1965), pictures that were no longer based on specific photographs. With their drapery, done in painterly fashion, and the vertical alternation of light and dark folds, they move closer to Op Art, foregrounding questions of perception.

In the early 1960s, Richter’s pictures were often shown in the context of collaborative artistic Actions and exhibitions, organized together with Polke, Lueg, and Kuttner. These Actions and exhibitions took place in shops or in empty stores (Demonstrative Ausstellung (Demonstrative Exhibition), Düsseldorf 1963), carrying Performance-like traits and demonstrating the search for a new artistic orientation during the time of Fluxus and Happenings. Richter’s work from the first part of the 1960s is characterized by a debate with the art of the time and with the political positioning of art in West Germany (Leben mit Pop (Life with Pop), Möbelhaus Berges, Düsseldorf 1963). It finds its motto in the label »Capitalist Realism,« chosen by the artists themselves, and a self-positioning as »German Pop Artists.«

In 1966, Richter did his first Farbtafeln (Color Panels) – his largest group of works consisting of 26 pictures that take up a different aspect of painting. The color groups, arranged in six blocks or nine and more color squares, show evenly monochrome color fields. Like Richter’s copying and »Vermalungen,« they are characterized by his fundamental, systematic dealings with painting and color. They again refer back to specific material used as a basis: at first, standard lacquer sample cards which Richter copied in enlarged format and beyond any art theoretical concepts of color and composition. In the 1970s, Richter then extended the number of arbitrarily arranged color fields in arithmetic progression from four to sixteen to 4096 colors (for example, 256 Farben / 256 Colors, 1974). Most importantly, the system was detached from the basis of the card samples. It was now grounded in a mathematical model according to which the three primary colors and, after 1973/74, also grey and green, were used in a fixed mixing ratio. Thus, an enormous spectrum of possible variation emerged. Richter now also changed the painting process of his »artificially naturalistic« pictures by deliberately including an assistant in his work.

Zwei Skulpturen für einen Raum von Palermo / Two Sculptures for a Room of Palermo, developed together with Blinky Palermo in 1971 and consisting of plaster casts of Palermo’s and Richter’s heads, remained singular sculptural works vis à vis Richter’s general œuvre. Richter then shifted towards different types of pictures. He continued creating paintings that were photo-based, drawing on pornographic photos, city views, mountain landscapes, cloud formations, some of the pictures also containing disruptive furrows. In the 1970s, Richter also did brush-stroke and color streak pictures (Vermalung grau oder Rot-Blau-Gelb / Vermalung Grey orRed-Blue-Yellow, both 1972) that continued the principles of the color panes with specific color variants and were based on enlarged photographs. Yet with the texture of the picture, they now thematized painting itself. With the five-part cycle 18. Oktober 1977, done in 1988, Richter focused on the Baader-Meinhof group (West German terrorist group of the 1970s and 1980s). Like his Onkel Rudi / Uncle Rudi, 1965), or the Portraits (1971/72) exhibited at the Documenta 5, the cycle is part of the last works of the grey photo-»Vermalungen

Since the end of the 1970s, Richter’s work has oscillated between multi-colored Vermalungen and abstraction, between portraits and landscapes, the Spiegel(Mirror) objects and the group of Abstrakte Bilder (Abstract Pictures). The latter foreground the painterly process, the visual effect of planes, streaks, and layers, also by means of painterly collage techniques (Abstraktes Bild, 1976; Abstraktes Bild, 1999). Richter’s investigative and experimental involvement has concentrated on the gaze upon reality as much as on the photographic capturing of reality: the mirrored and painterly staged reality.

Since the 1960s, Richter’s works have been shown in many exhibitions. After the early exhibitions that were initiated by the artist himself, the Galerie Schmela presented Richter’s first solo exhibition. With the group of works 48 Portraits Richter participated in the Venice Biennale in 1972. In 1984, his works were shown at the exhibition »Von hier aus – Zwei Monate neue deutsche Kunst« (»Starting from Here – Two Months of New German Art«) in Düsseldorf. In 1997, he participated in the Documenta with his Atlas. In 1993/94, his work was honored with a retrospective traveling from Paris to Bonn, Stockholm, and Madrid. In 2002, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, he was honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2004, the Gerhard Richter Rooms opened in the Albertinum, Dresden, where 41 of his works are permanently displayed. In 2005, Richter’s work was shown at comprehensive solo exhibitions at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, and at the Lenbachhaus, Munich.


Gerhard Richter has lived and worked in Cologne, since 1983.

Selected Literature

Friedel, H.; Storr, R.: Gerhard Richter. Rot-Gelb-Blau, München 2007

Gerhard Richter, Malerei: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art, hg. v. R. Storr, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002

Gerhard Richter – Landschaften: Ausst.-Kat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, hg. v. D. Elger, Ostfildern-Ruit 1998

Hemken, K.-U.: Gerhard Richter, 18. Oktober 1977, Frankfurt/M. 1998

Gerhard Richter, Atlas der Fotos, Collagen und Skizzen: Ausst.-Kat. Städtischen Galerie im Lenbachhaus, hg. v. H. Friedel, U. Wilmes, Köln 1997

Harten, J. (Hg.): Gerhard Richter. Bilder 1962 — 1985. Mit dem Werkverzeichnis von Dietmar Elger 1962 — 1985, Köln 1986

Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger

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