Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden where he had his initial artistic training at Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste from 1951 until 1956. After his diploma, Richter specialised in mural painting and began working as an independent artist. Though Richter had several official commissions until 1961, he became increasingly dissatisfied with his artistic situation. Through books and a couple of trips to West Germany - he saw the 1959 documenta – Richter had been in touch with international art. In 1961 he and his wife Ema managed to flee via West Berlin to Düsseldorf, where he began new studies with informal painter Karl Otto Götz.
As of 1962, after early experiments in abstract painting, he became increasingly fascinated by photographic reproductions which were so prevalent in the western mass media. Richter began scanning illustrated magazines for suitable subject matter for his paintings. His grey photo paintings of the 1960s with their blurred motifs appear as complex and disparate as the stream of images in the mass media. There is no unified thread of content, no unified subject matter to bind these images together, except that they were all done after photos, which they manifest clearly. Their fuzzy nature has often been taken to simulate the blurred imagery of amateur photography. For Richter it is more than simply an formal element. It rather represents the limits of comprehension, the consequence of an incomplete experience of reality.
Gerhard Richter’s body of work has been conceived out of the competition between photography and painting for superiority in the best representation and interpretation of reality. The death of painting has been foretold repeatedly since the invention of photography, but it has persisted in defiance of numerous premature obituaries. In the 1960s, Richter was concerned with how painting could be possible at all, faced with this competitive situation and a deluge of media images. He took on the challenge by clinging to traditional oil painting on canvas, but imbuing it with the properties of its rival medium, photography. Painting, according to Richter, could only maintain its status if you adapted it to the changed conditions of the media age. Richter dismissed the apparent contradiction about painting trying to emulate photography in an interview in 1972 with Ralf Schön: “I’m not trying to emulate a photograph, I want to produce one. By defying those who consider a photograph as a sheet of exposed (light sensitive) paper I’m making photographs by other means, not pictures that have similar qualities to a photograph.” Hence painting has survived in Richter’s oeuvre liberated from the traditions of the genre and redefined as photography.
This also applies to Richter’s later work, which no longer relies on the blueprint of the photographic image. He did his first curtain paintings in 1965, and a year later started his colour panels. Both groups still had antecedents in photography, but without directly copying from concrete motifs. Throughout the ensuing years Richter rapidly conceived an entire spectrum of new motifs and means of expression which expanded his painting by numerous, and often ostensibly contradictory options. In 1966 there were grey aerial city views and mountain scapes, executed in thick heavy brushstrokes, two years later softly blurred romantic sea and cloudscapes appeared. Richter applied the three primary colours red-yellow-blue in tracks of washed-out paint, or he mixed the colours into an expanse of an indeterminate shade of grey. Richter articulated his artistic stance of the time in 1966, in a private note: ”I’m not pursuing any objectives, no system, no direction. I have no programme, no style, no cause.” The critics at the time went for his seeming style of a lack of style. The terminology stuck for a long time, precluding other perceptions of his work. Indeed the artist appeared to adapt to any style, quoting, fast rejecting it again, only to revert to it maybe a couple of years later. However, Richter’s artistic approach has remained the same since 1962. In all his smudges, his colour expanse panels, the grey paintings, he’s been trying to create photographs as defined by him, by painterly means. The same criteria he had defined for his early photo paintings are maintained throughout: Objectivity, authenticity, illusionism, and the eschewal of composition.
Since 1976 so-called “Abstract Paintings” with heterogeneous and complex shapes and colours have been the focus of his work. This group has now evolved over three decades into considerable maturity. What began with varied colour expanses and open spatial colour arrangements has become increasingly dense and woven into complex structures. Using a squeegee has introduced a decisive element of chance to the creative process, in which Richter intervenes, controlling, steering. The work on these abstract canvases is interspersed by breaks yielding smaller groups of realistic landscapes, still lives with flowers, or portraits. One of these breaks produced his grandiose 15-part series 18 October 1977, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Richter has never got seduced by the trappings of international acclaim and the popularity of his work, and he has remained sceptical about his own works. In the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting he conceded to an exceptional intimacy from the camera. The film shows how working in the studio is not just a painterly, but also an intellectual process. Richter repeatedly talks about the limitations of his own painterly options as his abstract canvases evolve, and how failure looms at any stage. “It gets increasingly hard with every step, and I become less free, until I get a result that leaves you with nothing to do anymore, when I’m coming to the conclusion nothing is wrong anymore.,” he says at one stage during the film, “that’s when I stop, it’s alright then.”
Dietmar Elger is head of the Gerhard Richter Archive, Dresden and the author of several books on modern and contemporary art. He has also written a comprehensive biography of Richter “Gerhard Richter, Maler” (Gerhard Richter, A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2009).