Out of focus in his paintings and his worldview, Gerhard Richter has never committed to one artistic style. Having grown up in East Germany, which limited his ability to create as he pleased, Richter prizes the freedom to experiment over potential fame for a specific contribution to the art world. Early experiences with communism led him to mistrust ideologies in general; many of his works illustrate the futility he sees in violent revolutions. From abstraction to photorealism, Richter’s eclectic career imparts a freshness to his work. He defies expectations and pries open the limits of the art world with every new piece.
Born in 1932 into a Germany shattered by the poverty and shame that remained from the defeat in World War I, Gerhard Richter was brought up under Hitler’s totalitarian Nazi regime, the Third Reich. The child grew up in Dresden, pierced from birth with the shards of communism’s broken ideology, whose attempted repair saw more horrors than its inception. As a child, Richter experimented often with photography; for a time he worked as an assistant in a photographic laboratory. His formal education in visual art began at the Kunstakademie in Dresden, where he learned to imitate a realistic style of painting influenced by Max Beckmann, a well-known artist at that time.
Since he grew up in East Germany, Richter was shut off from Western twentieth century culture for almost the first three decades of his life. As a result, he was steeped in the Romantic painting tradition that mainly focused on landscapes. Also, because of the communist regime’s dedication to socialist realism, American and European art-the Pop and Fluxus movements, respectively-were virtually banned from East Germany. As late as the 1960s in East Germany, Expressionist paintings were only permitted on exhibition if they were accompanied by a Marxist text examining their conservative components.
It was not until 1959, during a visit to Kassel, West Germany, that Richter saw works of modern art that differed from what he had learned in Dresden. At the historical Documenta II exhibit in Kassel, Richter saw pieces by contemporary artists Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana. Fascinated by the drips that made up the American artist’s work and the canvas slashes that became the Italian’s signature, respectively, Richter realized for the first time that as realistic as his own paintings were, they were not at all real. Richter claims Pollock and Fontana as the real reason for his departure from the German Democratic Republic two years later. He said their work represented for him, “the bitter truth, liberation . . . here a completely different and new content was expressing itself.”
Two months before the Berlin Wall was erected, Richter moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf in West Germany, where he hoped to produce works as avant-garde as the ones he had seen a few years earlier. He wanted to separate himself from the socialist realism of the East, and be free to develop his own style. From 1961 to 1963, he studied art at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, working under the artist Karl Otto Gotz. It was there that he met Joseph Beuys, an artist whose works commemorating the Holocaust had an important influence on him.
Richter began to see art as something that had to be separated from art history; paintings, he thought, should focus on the image rather than the reference, the visual rather than the statement. Understanding what he saw as the “impossibility of fixing a single image of reality,” Richter wanted to find a new way of painting that would not be constricting. He began painting from photographs in 1961; his first photo painting, as they became to be called, was of Brigitte Bardot, an actress. The photo represented to Richter a “pure image,” something completely real and yet at the same time unattainable. These paintings resemble blurred photographs, for example, displaying a closeness to reality but also an inimitable distance in that the eye can never exactly focus on the image at hand.
Richter first exhibited his art publicly in 1963 at a Dusseldorf department store. The event resembled a Happening, an art form of the time where artists would stage a kind of scene-complete with visual art and human action-and viewers would walk around; through their own movement the viewers themselves would become participators.
Three years later, torn between his past education in realistic art and his new experiences with different mediums, Richter went through a crisis of direction. Agitated by the tension he felt between abstraction and figuration, he began to produce works that were combinations of the two. In this effort, he began to embrace Andy Warhol’s style. Warhol, an American Pop artist, used silkscreens to present the readymade image, usually a photo of a celebrity or political figure. Richter and Warhol were working during the same period, but Richter’s own images of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong in fact pre-date Warhol’s more famous work with the same image.
Because Richter wanted to make paintings that had no interpretable images, around 1966 he began his gray paintings. By using only the neutral color gray, Richter could focus on the application of the paint and the compositional structure of the work. He used specific techniques when applying the gray, such as horizontal strokes of thick paint, flat matte paint so as to render the surface patterns nearly invisible, and rollers that would also affect the paint’s appearance.
Around the same time, and throughout the mid 1970s, Richter worked on his color chart paintings. Similar to Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, the structure of these works depended on a pre-established system rather than the artist’s whim. Although Richter embraced the avant-garde attitude of art at the time, he felt strongly that it was impossible to deny the inescapable structures that surround everyone; to be true to this feeling, then, he decided to borrow different arrangements within to work. For the color charts, for example, all he had to do was choose a canvas size. Then he would pick colors according to their respective combinations of red, yellow and blue.
Unlike Kelly and Donald Judd, Richter was not interested in the purity that art could provide. Having already been disillusioned by the idealism proffered by communism-which he found was actually hollow-Richter became more skeptical than American artists of his generation. He painted in order to “deal with appearances (which are alien and must be given names and meanings).” In 1971, Richter became a professor at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, from which he had graduated eight years earlier. Around this time, critics from the far Left began to attack Richter for his so-called escapist work that did not directly address the politics of the era.
In 1976, Richter first gave the title Abstract Painting to one of his works. By presenting a painting without even a few words to name and explain it, he felt he was “letting a thing come, rather than creating it.” One year later, this affinity for abstraction would be dashed by the tragic death of German terrorists in the Stammheim prison. On October 18, 1977, several young radicals who had been imprisoned for their violent acts against the government, committed suicide (many have thought their deaths were in fact a murder by the prison guards, but this theory was never proven). Richter responded to this tragedy in his Baader-Meinhof series, in which he painted pictures of the dead. Having been long disillusioned by devotion to faulty ideologies (starting with his communist upbringing), Richter wanted to portray the dead without glory, to show the futility of their actions. “As I paint the dead,” he said about this work that was completed in 1988, “I am occupied like a gravedigger.” In other words, the task of painting in this case was limited to the mundane and the base.
In 1982, Richter married Isa Gentzken, a sculptor. In 1983, Richter moved to Cologne, where he has been living since. He and Isa divorced, and thirteen years later, in 1995, Richter married Sabine Moritz. That same year, Sabine gave birth to a son, and in 1996, to a daughter named Ella Maria. Richter has been teaching at the Kunstakamedie in Dusseldorf since 1971, except for a one-year guest professorship in 1978 at the College of Art in Halifax, Canada.
Throughout his career, Richter has shrunk from defining a specific goal in his art. It makes sense that his upbringing in one of the tumultuous playing fields for the Cold War would instill in him a strong sense of culture. His works arise, according to the artist, from the structures and ideas that surround him; “nothing comes in isolation,” he wrote. With his photo pictures that represented regular images, Richter tried to subvert the hierarchy of art and the everyday. “Have artists,” he asked, “ever made objects remotely as large and as good as a lay person’s garden?” Although pummeled throughout his life with images of horror and chaos, Richter adheres to no single way of averting the world’s evil. “I believe in nothing,” he said, and so he believes in everything, in every effort to bring an image forth into reality and to show a culture to itself.