German artist Gerhard Richter (born 1932) is considered one of the most significant and challenging artists of the last quarter-century. His diverse paintings cover a range of artistic genres, from Realism and Naturalism to Impressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Post-Abstract Expressionism. Richter of ten painted from photographs, either clipped from newspapers and various other sources or shot by the artist himself, and worked mainly in groups of paintings numbered sequentially.
In Richter's portrayals, one always senses a sense of faith coupled with cruelty. For instance, nature to Richter is at once sublime but indifferent to the human condition, and popular culture transforms people who would otherwise think as individuals into submissive followers. His works furthermore contain a darkness and reveal a mistrust of any sort of dogma. However, faith and beauty remain underlying elements. Indeed, Richter sees art as the highest form of hope. "I constantly despair at my own incapacity, at the impossibility of ever accomplishing anything, of painting a valid, true picture or of even knowing what such a thing ought to look like," Richter once wrote, as quoted in the New York Times. "But then I always have the hope that, if I persevere, it might one day happen."
Born in Dresden, Germany, on February 9, 1932, and raised in the outlying villages of Reichenau and Waltersdorf, Richter grew during a tumultuous and horrific period in world history, coming of age just after World War II. Undoubtedly, Richter's early experiences—including the teachings and beliefs of his parents and living his first 13 years under the Nazis—impacted his development both artistically and intellectually, leading him to later depict subjects as varied as a Nazi uncle, fighter planes, religion, landscapes, gangs of young German terrorists, and his own wife and child.
By comparison, Richter's parents seemed ill-matched for one another. His father, a conventional-minded schoolteacher, embraced Nazism and fought for the regime on the Eastern and Western fronts. He died, as did Richter's uncles, during the war. Richter also had a mentally disabled aunt who perished in a Nazi euthanasia program. Richter's mother, in contrast, was raised in a cultured and at one time wealthy family. The daughter of a talented pianist and bookseller, she exposed Richter to literature, philosophy, and music, and encouraged his interest in painting and drawing.
Following the collapse of the Third Reich, Richter lived for another 16 years under the oppressive hand of East Germany. But he would later recall that by the age of 17, "my fundamental aversion to all beliefs and ideologies was fully developed," as quoted by Jay Tolson for U.S. News and World Report. Richter left grammar school at 15 years of age, taking a series of temporary jobs like assisting a local photographer, decorating banners for the East German communist regime, and painting sets for a theater located in the small town of Zittau.
School of Socialist Realism
Intent on studying art more formally, Richter, in 1952, after failing to gain acceptance on the first try, won admittance into the Hochscule für Bildende Kunste in Dresden. At the art academy, where he trained until 1957, Richter gained a thorough knowledge of the masters and studied extensively with Heinz Lothmar, a former Surrealist and supporter of communism who headed the mural painting department. Ironically, this department allowed students the greatest degree of freedom of self-expression, due largely to the fact that the strict enforcers of the state-sanctioned Socialist Realist aesthetic considered the painting of murals as merely "decorative."
Upon graduation, Richter obtained work painting murals. His first official commission, a mural of bathers for the German Hygeine Museum, was executed in the approved bombastic style. Soon thereafter, Richter was attracting recognition as well as a steady income, allowing him the opportunity to travel outside East Germany.
Confronted by Western Art
On one excursion to the West in 1959, Richter received permission to visit Documenta 2 in Kassel, West Germany, discovering for the first time Abstract painting. Today, the Documenta exhibition takes place every five years and has evolved into a major site for experiencing contemporary art on the worldwide circuit. But at the event's inception in 1955, the exhibition held an immense political and cultural significance for art in Germany. By surveying international modern and contemporary art, the sponsors of Documenta hoped to fill the void in German cultural history that had occurred during the 12-year period of domination by the Nazis, who had stigmatized modern art as degenerate. Consequently Germany, through Documenta, intended to reaccept into the culture what it had in the past sought to destroy.
Attending Documenta was a turning point in Richter's career, and he began to feel an internal pressure to engage in the dialogues of modern art. Many of the artists represented at the event were completely unknown to Richter at the time. Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock, among others, impressed him most of all. Thus, in 1961, shortly before the erection of the Berlin Wall, Richter fled Dresden for West Berlin.
A Second Education
Upon the advice of a friend who had already made the move to West Germany, Richter promptly enrolled in art school in Düsseldorf at the Staatliche Kunstakademie. In many ways, Richter, before graduating in 1964, unlearned everything he had been taught at the conservative school in Dresden. At Düsseldorf, he studied with Art Informel or gesture painter Karl Otto Gotz and also worked for a brief period in an aggressive style influenced by Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, and Fontana. The same year Richter entered the school, Joseph Beuys, who would become the most famous artist of the post-war era, was named professor of monumental sculpture. Richter kept his distance from Beuys throughout his years as a student. But the two became faculty colleagues when the Richter himself was appointed professor at the academy in 1971.
At school, Richter also met German trendsetters Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo (also refugees from the East), as well as Konrad Lueg (who later changed his name to Konrad Fischer). Along with Lueg and Polke, Richter developed an interest in the burgeoning Pop Art scene. They particularly enjoyed the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lechtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg. Another area of intrigue for Richter and his friends was the group Fluxus, an international art movement influenced by Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, which held "events" that could either resemble to chaotic Pop Art "happenings" or remain quite simple and subdued.
In 1963, Lueg and Richter traveled to Paris, introducing themselves to art dealer/gallery owner Iileana Sonnabend as German Pop artists because they did not view the movement as strictly an American or British domain. Returning home unsuccessful yet undeterred, they mounted one year later two exhibitions/demonstrations of their own work. These events provided the first occasions for Richter to show his photo-based paintings. One of his earliest works is the modest 1962 painting "Table." A depiction of an ordinary, institutional-style metal table, the canvas is split horizontally with a dark gray floor beneath a lighter gray wall. On the painting's surface is an aggressive brush of gray paint in looping arcs, forcing the viewer to look through the scribbles to see the room.
Richter continued for the next several years to concentrate on the blurred but precise photographic style that became his trademark. Unlike other artists who employ photographs only as a reference aid, Richter uses photographs—either found or taken by the painter himself—as if they were reality. And although he cares about what the images are of, he often chooses a subject that he has no independent experience of, such as, for example, a clipping from a newspaper. In transferring the subjects, Richter first traces meticulously onto canvas the details of the photographic image, then introduces any number of distortions. In effect, when looking at a photorealist painting by Richter, one is simultaneously seeing but not seeing.
Uncovering a new way of looking at the relationship between photographs and painting was an exciting moment for Richter. "I was surprised by photography, which we all use so massively everyday," he told Michael Kimmelman in an interview for the New York Times Magazine. "Suddenly, I saw it in a new way, as a picture that offered me a new view, free of all the conventional criteria I had always associated with art. It had no style, no comparison, not judgment. It freed me from personal experience. For the first time, there was nothing to it: it was pure picture. That's why I wanted to have it, to show it—not to use it as a means of painting, but use painting as a means to photography."
Beyond Photo-based Paintings
In the mid-1960s, Richter turned to painting his series "Color Charts," similar to the paint charts found in stores but larger and with the colors situated in no certain order. They were actually, according to Richter, picked at random. For Richter, the group appeared to serve as a renouncement of the clichâs of Abstract art. The paintings contained elements of Pop Art and Minimalism, though they were neither. Furthermore, they were not classifiable as simply Conceptual.
From the color chart pieces, Richter in the late-1960s turned to art inspired by the works of Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, Robert Ryman, and Dan Flavin, as well as the techniques of Conceptualism. His paintings of this period are minimal landscapes and seascapes, exemplified in the monochromatic series "Gray Pictures." In the early-1970s, Richter moved to an impressive photo-based series of figurative works entitled "48 Portraits" (also known as "Achtundvierzeig Portaits").
Richter also exhibited for the first time "Atlas," an ongoing massive inventory of every source used in his paintings. It includes thousands of new photos, snapshots, postcards, and drawings. Richter next focused on the series "Abstract Paintings," featuring an array of incongruous stylistic gestures. These paintings signified yet another departure for Richter from his figurative work, naturalistic paintings, and non-figurative charts.
Throughout his career, however, Richter repeatedly took a different course that what others expected or desired, received critical opinion as suspect, and refused to let post-modernists label him as any sort of specified artist. "My works are not just rhetorical, except in the sense that all art is rhetorical," Richter said to Kimmelman. "I believe in beauty."
In the 1980s, Richter, after beginning a series of "Candle Paintings," returned to photorealism with what is considered one of the most significant series in this domain with "October 18, 1977," also known as the Baader-Meinhof paintings. The group consists of 15 modestly sized, mostly black pictures of individual figures, crowd scenes, jail cells, and buildings. With this series, Richter succeeded in making the larger issues surrounding the subject matter more important that the subject matter itself. One does not have to know the story of the Red Army Faction—led by street hustler Andreas Baader and radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof, and responsible for a string of robberies, shootings, and bombings of American Army bases—to understand the meaning of the paintings. "They set a new standard for me," expressed Richter, quoted by Village Voice contributor Jerry Saltz.
Forty Years of Painting
Since the late-1960s, Richter's work has been the subject of numerous monographs, exhibitions, and retrospectives, and is represented in permanent collections throughout Germany and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The first major retrospective in the United States opened in February of 2002 at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting" featured a vast collection of paintings covering the artist's prolific, 40-year career.
Richter married three times and divorced twice, first in 1957 to Marienne (Ema) Eufinger, with whom he had a daughter named Betty; then to artist Isa Genzken in 1982; and finally in 1995 to Sabine Moritz, with whom he had a son named Moritz and a daughter named Ella. He lives and works—in a studio in front of his home—in a suburb outside Cologne, Germany.
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