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Gerhard Richter (German, born 1932)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter. He studied painting from 1951 to 1956 at the Kunstakademie in Dresden and continued living there until he moved to West Germany in 1961 to resume his studies at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf until 1963. There he was taught by the painter Karl Otto Götz (b 1914), a leading German representative of Art Informel; he was especially close to two fellow students, Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg (b. 1939), the latter of whom was to change his surname to Fischer and become an influential dealer in contemporary art. In the early 1960s Richter was exposed to both American and British Pop art, which was just becoming known in Europe, and to the Fluxus movement. In response to these trends, he and Lueg organized a Demonstration in Support of Capitalist Realism as a one-day event in a department store, Berges, in Düsseldorf on 11 October 1963, displaying furniture on pedestals as works of art and placing themselves in the room also as exhibits.

In spite of this event, which had elements of both conceptual art and performance art, Richter consistently regarded himself simply as a painter. He set into motion a systematic exploration of his chosen medium in 1962, when he began to paint enlarged copies of black-and-white photographs using only a range of greys, as in Cow (1964; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.) or Kitchen Chair (1965; Recklinghausen, Städt. Ksthalle). Unlike the Photorealists, whose work emerged in the late 1960s, Richter used photographs as a starting-point rather than as a model to be copied as closely as possible as an end in itself.

The evident reliance on a ready-made source gave Richter’s paintings an apparent objectivity that he felt was lacking in abstract art of the period. The indistinctness of the images that emerged in the course of their transformation into thick layers of oil paint, moreover, helped free them of traditional associations and meaning, so that they could be apprehended as pure painting. To these ends Richter took as his source material images that appeared casually chosen, inconsequential in subject and lacking in artistic pretension, for example holiday snapshots, as in Family at the Seaside (1964; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.), or newspaper photographs. Setting aside traditional concerns with subject-matter and composition, Richter concentrated exclusively on the process of applying paint to the surface not only as a means of conveying information but also as an expressive force.

Richter continued painting pictures from black-and-white photographs during the 1960s and early 1970s, basing them on a variety of sources: from newspapers and books, sometimes incorporating their captions, as in Helga Matura (1966; Toronto, A.G. Ont.); private snapshots; aerial views of towns and mountains, for example Cityscape Madrid (1968; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.) and Alps (1968; Frankfurt am Main, Mus. Mod. Kst); seascapes (1969–70); and a large multi-partite work, Forty-eight Portraits (1971–2; Cologne, Mus. Ludwig), for which he chose mainly the faces of composers such as Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, and of writers such as H. G. Wells and Franz Kafka.

In 1969 Richter produced the first of a group of grey monochromes that consist exclusively of the textures resulting from different methods of paint application. As early as 1966 he had made paintings based on colour charts, using the rectangles of colour as found objects in an apparently limitless variety of hue; these culminated in 1973–4 in a series of large-format pictures such as 256 Colours (enamel paint on canvas, 2.22×4.14 m, 1974, repainted 1984; Bonn, Städt. Kstmus.), in which painting was reduced to its elemental physical existence. Although these paintings, like those based on photographs, were still dependent on an existing artefact, all that was left in them was the naked physical presence of colour as the essential material of all painting.

All vestiges of subject-matter seem to have been abandoned by Richter in the paintings that he began to produce in 1976, such as Abstract Painting (1977; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.), in which he used often shrill colours and broad gestures. He remained faithful, however, to the paradoxical nature of his art, since even these supposedly wholly invented paintings retained a second-hand look, as if the brushstrokes had been copied from photographic enlargements. Concurrently he also painted conventional-looking landscapes that were self-evidently photographic in origin, for example Meadow (1987; see 1988 exh. cat., no. 5).

The extreme variety of Richter’s work left him open to criticism, but his rejection of an artificially maintained consistency of style was a conscious conceptual act that allowed him to investigate freely the basic principles of painting. Oblivious to usual strictures of linear development, he left open the possibility of adopting whatever idiom best suited his purpose, as in a series of pictures, 18. Oktober 1977 (see 1989 exh. cat.), produced in 1988 from black-and-white photographs recording the death of members of the Red Army Faction while imprisoned in West Germany. Given their highly political connotations, these pictures introduced a further provocation to Richter’s observations about painting as an objective activity.

Lucius Grisebach
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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