How Gerhard Richter reinvented painting

On the German artist's birthday we look at how he changed both figurative and abstract painting
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Two Candles (1982) by Gerhard Richter
Two Candles (1982) by Gerhard Richter

Did you know Gerhard Richter once worked in a dark room? The great German painter, who celebrates his 84th birthday today, believes the stint of employment, as a young man in Dresden, East Germany, during the 1950s, caused him serious injury, not physically, but artistically.

“For a time I worked as a photographic laboratory assistant,” Morgan Falconer quotes the artist as saying in our brilliant post-war survey, Painting Beyond Pollock. “The masses of photographs that passed through the bath of the developer every day may have caused a lasting trauma.”

 

Gerhard Richter, Cologne, 1984. Photo by Benjamin Katz.
Gerhard Richter, Cologne, 1984. Photo by Benjamin Katz.

Yet the experience for the East-German born artist was key, as it spurred him on to develop and drive forward both figurative and abstract painting in a way few in the West could have achieved or even conceived.

Richter’s dark-room days coincided with his employment as a socialist realist mural painter, creating the kind of rousing, figurative historic public paintings which were supposed to encourage loyal socialists to the national cause. These pictures left him hollow too, since they were, both in his view and in the eyes of his fellow countrymen, dumb works of propaganda.

There appeared to be more exciting painting going on elsewhere. Visiting Documenta II in 1959, across the border in Kassel, West Germany, “he was struck by what he called the ‘sheer brazenness’ of work by Fontana and Pollock” and left to study in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1961.

 

Finger painting (1972) by Gerhard Richter
Finger painting (1972) by Gerhard Richter

 “Training in Communist East Germany, he was almost entirely separated from Western modes of painting (then predominantly abstract),” Falconer writes, “but when he arrived in the West, he suddenly encountered all those modes as an outside.”

This strange position, gave him strong insight into the failings of both styles of painting. Falconer quotes the US art critic and academic Rosalind Krauss, who wrote of the artist’s early works, “it’s as though he were a permanent snorkeler, experiencing everything on earth through gallons of undulating water.”

Richter understood the current trends and beliefs, but did not hold with them any more than he believed principles underpinning the rousing murals of the East.

 

Eighteen Colour Charts (1966) by Gerhard Richter
Eighteen Colour Charts (1966) by Gerhard Richter

The artist’s series of Colour Charts, or “gridded paintings echoing the charts produced by paint manufacturers,” Falconer writes, “are intended as a negation of the two central traditions in abstract painting: the lineage of spiritual abstraction that descends from the likes of Kandinsky and which sees colour as a rich symbol of nature, and that line of geometric, quasi-scientific work that runs through Josef Albers.”

The artist’s grey abstractions of the early 1960s and 1970s “relate to the tendencies of painters such as Reindhardt, Ryman and so many others, to reductive extremes, particularly to the charged poles of black and white. Once again, Richter’s response can easily by understand in terms of distance and disengagement: to the extremes of black and white his grey abstractions speak of negation, neutrality and a kind of silence.”

 

Cage 4 (2006) by Gerhard Richter
Cage 4 (2006) by Gerhard Richter

There are also his bright, chaotic looking, later squeegeed works, which, Falconer writes, “can be understood in terms of Richter’s rejection of painterly touch, a refusal of a tradition that he sees running from Cezanne to Johns and which uses discrete areas of brushwork to evoke the self.”

And yet, perhaps not a complete refusal, as the works remain beautiful and poetic in their own way. Falconer cites interviews with the artist, where Richter argues that his paintings are a perhaps hopeless, yet nevertheless worthwhile quest to revive the medium’s expressive resources. “It is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past,” Falconer quotes the artist as saying, “or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence.”

 

Ema (Nude on a staircase) (1966) by Gerhard Richhter
Ema (Nude on a staircase) (1966) by Gerhard Richhter

Richter also approaches a similar problem with his figurative, photo-realist works. Falconer places these among his chapters on Pop Art. Not because Richter shared any fascination with commercial culture – he didn’t. But rather because the artist understood the problems of image making in an overly mediated world.

Yet, having foreseen dead ends in both Eastern and Western painting perceived photography no longer as a threat to painting, but as a “as a route away from either style.”

The artist played around with the discrepancies between the human ability to perceive and understand, a term he dubbed ‘semblance’, and what the camera could simply record. “By using painting to examine photography, as he does, he believes that it might be possible to restore semblance to photographic images that have been voided of it.”

 

 Reader (1994) by Gerhard Richter
Reader (1994) by Gerhard Richter

Take the blurs in Ritcher’s photo-realist paintings. Following on from fellow critic Hal Foster’s lead, Falconer likens these patches to Warhol’s screen prints, which suggest a forgetting, an inherently human quality. Yet a blur is also frozen action, and it allows “Richter to fix the images, make them more resonantly present.”

In this way, during the 1980s, he was able to return to a kind of historic, nationally important style of painting, his old East German paymasters had strived for. In the painter’s October 18, 1977 series of paintings, he focussed on the lives and deaths of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, reproducing news images on canvas.

Falconer sees these images as kind of update of the grand, old, nationally important style of history painting, albeit one informed by latterday shortcomings.

 

Dead (1988) by Gerhard Richter. From October 18, 1977
Dead (1988) by Gerhard Richter. From October 18, 1977

“History now comes to us through the banal and familiar channel of photography and mass media,” Falconer writes. “Nevertheless, it is Richter’s intention to confront history through a fusion of painting and photography, and in so doing, create images that might serve as authentic and enduring public memorials.”

In so doing, “Ritcher transforms the banal into something that might stand as a contemporary memorial.” For greater insight into Gerhard Richter’s place in 20th century painting, buy Painting Beyond Pollock here.


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