I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Timeless and Inoffensive Gerhard Richter

by Timothy Misir
Feb. 6, 2014

“In the Studio” sees the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota in conversation with Gerhard Richter in his studio as they plan and prepare for Panorama, his 2011 retrospective at the Tate Modern.

“Why did you start painting?” Serota asks. “I had an interest,” he answers, matter-of-factly.

At 81 years old, this interest of Richter has now lasted now well over half a century.

Born in Dresden 1932 and raised in East Germany, he began formal training at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1951, but says he did not have much access to arts and culture coming from the Western world.

He speaks about his twice-yearly visits to West Berlin, where he would visit the cinema, theater and exhibitions, one of which would have a lasting impact on his artistic career — Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man,” which was exhibited at the Academy for Creative Arts in 1955, which showed him “the power of photography … what it could do.” He finally left for the West in 1961, just before the Wall went up, to pursue art at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.

Now, he is one of the few artists consistently sitting in the top quartile of the annual ArtReview Power 100 rankings, placing 15th in 2013. He is the most expensive living artist working today, though gallerists and art market types prefer the description “most important living painter of our time.” This is true as far as the market is concerned, since his work is seen as an asset class of its own. His more abstract works are much coveted on the art market and command the highest prices at auction even though they are not that short in supply.

Though no fault of his, the current art market obsession with Richters sits ironically with the fact that Richter was part of the Capitalist Realism movement, named after the artists featured in their self-organized exhibition in Dusseldorf in 1963, Demonstration for Capitalism Realism, a western Europe take on Pop Art, which critiqued Germany’s growing media-obsessed consumer culture.1

Large paintings sell well, and Richter’s work is perfectly suited to the current market. In October 2012, Abstraktes Bild 809-1 (1994), owned by Eric Clapton, was sold for $33.5 million at auction by Sotheby’s.2 In May 2013, he beat his own record with Domplatz Mainland, his 1968 cityscape painted as an unsteady photograph fetched $37.1 million.3 The Economist points out that according to artnet, $76.9 million of Richters was sold in 2010 alone.

According to Felix Salmon, this is precisely because his works are “perfectly calibrated to middlebrow taste, and [have] never been remotely controversial” and that they are “modern yet timeless, incredibly easy to live in, and utterly inoffensive.”4

Richter is clearly a master of technique, but chooses to present painting as process and the result is artwork that is very easily received, especially his nonfigurative works, like his squeegeed canvases and work with color grids, which he has explored on and off since 1966.

4900 Colors (2007) is made up of 196 plates of 25 spray painted enamel 9.7 x 9.7 centimeter squares, that can be arranged in 11 different configurations. Similarly, the cathedral window that he designed for the south transept of the Cologne cathedral, completed the same year, uses 11,500 glass squares in 72 colors. While in his workshop, we see his strip paintings hanging on the wall — his first foray into digital imaging.

The colors in those works are all randomly distributed — playing with chance is another characteristic of his output. His large-scale abstract works, the focus of the 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting, are made with only a squeegee, and he is seen dragging them, often up to two metres long, across three metre-wide canvases. He repeats up to 30 times, spreading kilos of unevenly distributed paint over its surface. As the process repeats the colors blend with each other, and he only stops when “nothing disturbs [him], and [he has] no idea what to do.” The process is calculated but the outcome is not. Just as how he makes his overpainted photographs — pressing photographs into palettes of mixed paints.5

“Painting should be accomplishing more,” he says in an interview with Benjamin Buchloch in 1986.6 Indeed, Richter’s artistic output has seen him explore both the limits of painting and abstraction.

It’s hard to describe a typical Richter as he doesn’t stick to a particular style or medium. His oeuvre spans figurative to abstract works, and on the surface, they don’t always sit together easily. Often, they dealt with the realities of post-war Germany and its history, what came to be known as New European Painting. “Paintings show what cannot be seen,” he says.

His most recognizable pieces might be his photo-paintings like Reader (1994) or the candle paintings (Kerze, 1982) — one of the 27 in the series was used as cover art for Sonic Youth’s 1988 landmark LP, Daydream Nation.

For him, obscurity reveals something else. His photo-painting works are often based on photographs and cut outs from newspapers and magazines, but unlike works of photorealism, they are not meant to be focused on detail. In fact, detail is intentionally left obscured, made hazy and dreamlike with his trademark blur, or even a wipe, which his early sketches were often given.

“It doesn’t tell much. It shows more the impossibly to say something,” he says about September (2005), his painting of 9/11, a description that befits his other works, whether from the figurative or abstract ends of the spectrum.

1 http://www.popartinbelgium.be/index.php?action=cfp_alist&paper=rieger

2 http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/painting-owned-by-eric-clapton-sells-for-record-33-5m-1.1287922

3 http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/gerhard-richter-cityscape-earns-record-setting-37m-at-auction-1.1400256

4 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/03/04/the-commodification-of-gerhard-richter/

5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj68szfMpUM

6 ‘Interview with Gerhard Richter’ by Benjamin Buchloch, trans. Stephen Duffy, in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, Roald Nasgaard & I. Michael Danoff (1988), pp.19-29.

Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at tim.misir@gmail.com.