Gerhard Richter. October 18, 1977. Oil on canvas, fifteen panels, installation variable, 1988. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, gift of Philip Johnson, and acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (all by exchange); Enid A. Haupt Fund; Nina and Gordon Bunshaft Bequest Fund; and gift of Emily Rauh Pulitzer. © 2019 Gerhard Richter. Photo: John Wronn
  • MoMA, Floor 5, 516

On October 18, 1977, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells in a Stuttgart prison. The three were members of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical left-wing organization that had waged a campaign of violence against the West German government since the late 1960s. Along with Baader, RAF was led by Ulrike Meinhof, who had reportedly hanged herself while incarcerated a year earlier. Although the deaths were officially deemed suicides, there was widespread suspicion that the prisoners had been murdered by the federal police.

More than a decade later, Richter focused his attention on this subject to make the fifteen paintings on view. “The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after,” he reflected, “stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since.” Using photographs from press and government archives, Richter painted these images blurred and diffuse, in a palette that trades the crisp whites and blacks of the source material for a richer range of grays. Some pictures appear once, others two or three times—a repetition that underscores the persistence of these images within our collective cultural memory. The composition and finish vary slightly in each iteration.

Richter lived through World War II, spending his formative years in Soviet-influenced East Germany. By the time he defected to the West in 1961, he was deeply skeptical of all dogma. In this cycle of paintings, the artist seems to withhold judgment, instead inviting reflection and remembrance.

Artist

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