I went to the Panorama Exhibition in November 2011 held at the Tate Modern. Whilst Richter’s actual work is breathtaking, trying to make sense of its raison d’être, particularly when reading through some of the high flown oratory of some of the art world’s cognescenti, is difficult. In doing so I am concentrating on the grey paintings, photograph paintings and abstracts, in an attempt to satisfy my own curiosity and understanding of this remarkable artist, and to try to unravel the ambivalence of his work.
In 1932 Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden in what was then East Germany. Inevitably therefore Richter grew up at a time of great conflagration. Indeed although the family moved from Dresden in 1935 before the Second World War some of his family remained. Five years after the destructive air raids of 1945 Richter returned to the devastated City, which had been almost completely obliterated by the bombardment. Richter became a member of the Hitler Youth. “I was impressed by the idea of soldiers of militarism, maybe Hitler, that was impressive” nonetheless he goes on to say that he was not sporty and didn’t like fighting games; he knew he was better than they were. One can identify with the “boyish” thoughts of the adolescent Richter. Richter’s father was imprisoned by the Americans and was released in 1946, but his teaching post, as an ex-Nazi, was no longer available to him.
In 1948 Richter left home and read Friedrich Nietzsche, one of his mother’s favourite philosophers. She had been influential on her son and was well read. By the age of 16 or 17 had rejected the idea of a God despite his Christian upbringing.
I feel that this brief glimpse into Richter’s early life gives us clues as to how and why he may have arrived at his style of painting, which he himself would say is “style-less”. “I like everything that has no style, definition, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings”
In 1955 the first Documenta exhibition introduced Richter to avant garde pre-war artistic movements, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, and to some contemporary post-war artists. Surrealism and Dadaism had very limited exposure. The second Documenta exhibition of 1959 focused on American Abstract Expressionists, Colour Field painters including Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman who became one of Richter’s favourite artists and may have been influenced by the overall field painting style.
Despite the impact of the Documenta exhibition it was two years later in 1961 before he and his wife, seized an opportunity that presented itself of moving to West Germany.
At that time interest in John Cage, the composer, sparked the reappearance of Marcel Duchamp on the art scene who subsequently travelled to Europe including Germany and influenced the younger generation of artists interested in Pop Nouveaux Realism. The Dadaist early nihilistic, anti-art legacy had allegedly influenced Duchamp not to paint since the 1920s. It was 1965 in Krefeld when Duchamp’s exhibited in Germany, his work having been excluded from both of the previous Documenta Exhibitions.
Richter knew nothing of Duchamp and Dada when he arrived in West Germany but it was an exciting environment that he had discovered, and he felt he had to start from scratch with his art, if he was to find a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, between tradition and the avant-garde. Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase influenced Richter’s painting of Ema.
Marcel Duchamp Gerhard Richter, Ema
Nude Descending Staircase © Bridgeman Library
© Bridgeman Library
At the Düsseldorf Academy he made work with cardboard and impasto paint, and was influenced by Fontana’s canvases. He painted “like crazy” and has some success but eventually he felt nothing was worthwhile and burned everything in the courtyard. “…and then I began. It was wonderful to make something then destroy it, I was doing something and I felt free”.
He went on to say that ‘Informel’ art had influenced most of his work …”the ‘Informel’ is the opposite of the constructional quality of classicism – the ace of kings, of clearly formed hierarchies” Therefore although this may not have been psychologically a sympathetic approach, nonetheless he took what Abstract Expressionism revealed to him about all-over paint quality and gestural marks producing incidents or accidents, so that no particular area of the painting appeared more important than any other.
Richter’s first ‘photograph picture’ came about whilst painting an ‘Informel’ picture in gloss influenced by Winfried Gaul. By chance he had a picture of Brigitte Bardot and he painted it into the picture in shades of grey. He was fed up with painting at that particular time and felt “painting from a photograph was the most moronic… thing anyone could do”
The Party, painted in 1963 is a painting taken from a photograph, painted mainly in grey but it has the influence possibly of Fontana’s slashed canvas, which in this case has been stitched with red and overpainted in a macabre way. It is presumably meant to be satirical. The image was taken from Richter’s “Atlas” which houses his own photographs as well as many images from the media. This for me shows the influence of Dada and the nihilist thoughts of Nietzsche. It seems to pre-cursor the idea of death (and with it destruction), which is prevalent in Richter’s work, indeed is integral to his painting method. The Coffin Bearers was painted at about the same time and shows the respectful as well as the gauche at a funeral service, the accidental moment.
The Table, although not the first of its type, represents the future facture of Richter’s working method, from the overpainted photographs right through to his “unpainted” abstracts. It is similar to the transfer prints he had seen of Rauschenberg’s several years before. The table although appearing to be representational is wiped out by a grey expressionist swirl of destructive paint, obliterating part of the image below. The simulacrum of a table remains, the painting is valid and homogenous, and the technique thereby established. Thus begins the destruction of reality which brings about a picture with a different reality. It also simultaneously evinces the idea of a “third way” somewhere between classicism and the avant garde, and for me has reverberations of the destruction of Dresden the loss of religious belief and the confrontation and eventual abnegation of memories of Richter’s early life, associated with the Third Reich, which as a youth had made him feel slightly ambivalent and it is no surprise that Richter rejected all ideologies after that.
Sigmar Polke had become a friend at this time and we can also see some of the influence of his style in Richter’s later work, particularly from Lovers II painted in 1965 by Polke, where he uses similar overpainting that Richter would later adopt.
Growing out of the then extinct Dadaist movement, German Pop art developed and Richter and his friend Polke saw Lichtenstein’s paintings in a gallery in Paris and were inspired by the anti-painterliness of his style. Richter and Polke, aware of contributions to the movement by painters such as Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton, in the US and the UK, developed their own individual ways forward.
Eventually photo-realism appeared with artists like Malcolm Morley. However, Richter distanced himself from this idiom because he wanted to explore the reality of the photograph itself rather than reproducing it, so one might say that he interprets it. Richter used the projector to project photographs. “By tracing with the aid of a projector you can by-pass this elaborate process of apprehension. You no longer apprehend to see and make (without design) what you have not apprehended. When you do not know what you are making you do not know either what to alter or distort.”
The process adopted by Richter is almost autonomous and by eliminating subject matter there is no need to enhance or change things. The object is seen as an abstract fusion of shades of grey. This enabled him to impersonalize the images in the words of John Cage to embrace randomness, to represent everything without saying anything, thereby becoming dis-engaged giving freedom from self. The fact that he brings about a different perception suggests that he did not dis-engage himself entirely, and I am thinking of the Jacqueline Kennedy photograph. Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing” recalls the quote: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it”. Richter himself quotes this saying as it epitomizes what he was trying to achieve with his photograph paintings, but it may be that he used this as a deflection. The word “nothing” conjures J-P Sartre’s Being and Nothingness a treatise which elucidates the dilemma confronting man about his own mortality as well as the decay of things over time reducing them to nothing. We may get an idea of ‘nothingness’ but it is self evident that we cannot apprehend it - it becomes a tautology. To that extent the atheist may need to fill the void with something ‘other’, and I wonder if Richter’s work explores, maybe subconsciously, a transcendental approach in an attempt to overcome this insoluble predicament. Sartre says ‘man is condemned to be free.’ And in a sense condemned to nothingness. Although there is no mention as far as I am aware of Richter reading Sartre, it is unlikely that he would not have known his ideas.
It is interesting here to mention what Roland Barthes, the philosopher, has to say about photography. He says life is stopped with the click of the shutter. Suggesting that in that moment something is rendered in the past and becomes a recollection (when printed) implying ultimate death, It is true that images freeze a moment which can be recalled at a later time as a souvenir of the person or place in time. The theme of death is redolent in Richter’s work.
Barthes refers to two states within the photo, studium (overall scope of picture) and punctum (the unique detail that captures the imagination). This is something that Richter does with his paintings and confirms that he is not endeavouring to paint a photograph but using painting as a means to photography. Therefore by blurring the scope of the picture and exaggerating the unique detail, with minimal artistic intervention he re-makes the photo. This for me was enlightening.
The use of grey paint made things neutral in the full sense of the word, it also made things remote and associates with the idea of loss. Richter used it almost as a veil, particularly in the paintings of his wife with her baby, but whether this is used as a deflection device or not is questionable, as at least one painting is left as it is.
One cannot help drawing the comparison between Richter’s grey ‘period’ and Odilon Redon’s “noirs”, though the chronology may not be as significant as the latter. Redon was about 56 by the time he first used colour and this coincided with the sale of the house he was forced to share with his aunt as a child whilst suffering from epilepsy, the place from where his nightmare images appear to originate.
Of Richter’s curtain paintings, doors and glass mirrors of the mid to late 60s, Richter is supposed to have said: “Perhaps the doors, curtains, surface pictures and panes of glass are metaphors of despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us to apprehend things but at the same time restricts or partly precludes our apprehension of reality. He later disliked these paintings which were not done from photographs but were his own image.
Psychologically, I would like to suggest, that these doors, which are usually ajar in Richter’s paintings, indicate pathways into the unknown leading to possible adventure or catastrophe and they ambiguously suggest revelation or concealment, a constant theme in Richter’s work.
Despite Richter’s avowed wish to remove Expressionism or Symbolism and other aesthetic modes, he admits that even with a straightforward copy “something new creeps in, whether I want it to or not, something that even I don’t really grasp” This may seem a contradiction but it is an acknowledgement that the projected self cannot be eliminated from a painting evidence of the ‘handiwork’ is inevitable. Indeed everyone’s handwriting can reveal change of mood and mental states when analysed by a specialist, so this is no surprise.
Richter picked up on the media’s, and therefore the public’s, fascination with horror and his paintings which are taken from the press, inevitably echo that fascination, but he attempts to eliminate and often softens the elements of horror, through blurring (half-closed eyes), eliminating the anaesthetizing effect caused by over-exposure, so we see things in a new light.
The artist, Sol Lewitt once said: “ 3. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements. 2. Irrational judgements lead to new experience. L. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” From this definition it would be easy to mark Richter as a conceptual artist, but he is more than that. Trying to pin him and his work down is like trying to capture one of his gestures whilst in the act of painting.
As early as 1965 Richter says “All that interests me is the grey areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had a way of abandoning other object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts.
Gerhard Richter, Untitled © Bridgeman Library
The idea of erasure, scraping down and repainting in work was already being practised by Alberto Giacommetti and Willem de Kooning. Richter’s paradigm is to produce a cumulative effect by adding to the surface. His abstracts have as many as 30 or more “iterations” when the painting is radically altered by adding new pigment with the use of squeegees, putty knives and other tools, until the work is finished. Reaching that point is what is difficult. Those serendipitous interventions which appear as if by magic are elements that the painter has to learn to see and value when they occur, and this is part of the process which Richter presumably uses when deciding the next step. Apparently, Richter doesn’t examine areas of the painting in relation to one another but makes a thoughtful analysis of the whole picture, which the following statement seems to contradict.
“Any thoughts on my part about the construction of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything – by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.”
He wants to achieve what he considers to be right without reasoned thought, without personal input, but almost intuitively. He says the painting “always gets harder and harder the more advanced a picture gets. It all starts out easy and unspecific but gradually the context starts to take shape and this has a coherence that is the utter opposite of randomness”
I don’t quite grasp this as I feel Richter’s paintings are: either random or are controlled. He admits to having no stylistic input apart from choice of colour, movement of gesture and tools and he says “any thoughts of construction are false” So for me this is where it becomes difficult to comprehend his proposition that any unity achieved in the painting is the antithesis of randomness. The language Richter uses makes it difficult to appraise his work with any certainty. Though I suppose there is no reason why this should be an either or question.
He says he tries “in each picture to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom” This statement reflects one made at the time when he destroyed his work whilst at the Dusseldorf Academy after which he said he felt liberated. It also links with the idea of liberation after the destructive force of Hitler’s menacing regime and from Richter’s memories of it.
When you look at the various iterations it is difficult to see how the point of completion is arrived at, as much of the early work is completely obliterated and has seemingly no bearing on the finished picture. Nonetheless, I can see it is a journey of discovery, the outcome of which is unpredictable so Richter can only decide it is finished when as he says, “there is nothing more I can do”. That is the way of all paintings, the artist decides when it is finished when he can do no more and he is satisfied with the result. The artist may have scraped it back changed the colours, glazed, altered the forms, whatever, but in Richter’s case the over-working is different in that each change is as dynamic as a “motor-drive” sequence in photography where each iteration is made frame by frame.
So by destroying his work he is also liberating it, whilst at the same time freeing himself, a concept which is difficult to tease out after contemplating the work and reading what Richter himself and others have said of his oeuvre.
After 1977 however there is a change in Richter’s work colour becomes more important and the grey paintings, disappear, it is also the year he met his second wife Isa Genzken. Even later he paints intimate paintings of his third wife nursing her baby (1995) and son Moritz (2000), flowers, his daughter Betty, landscapes and Jerusalem. They are almost sentimental, but it would be more apt to say they project feeling, which is somehow not quite the same. Nietzsche said that Truth had become a metaphor, and I think what Richter does is to remove the metaphor in order to try to reveal the truth The culmination of this period is the exquisite painting Reading, (1994) a profile of Sabine, his third wife reading. The earlier ambiguity and confusion is somehow purged.
An interview with Gerhard Richter by Robert Storr in April 2001 is revealing. It seems likely that all along Richter may have been a frustrated Traditionalist. When asked “...How would you like to be understood?” Richter replies: “I don’t know how I would like to be understood. Maybe as the keeper of tradition [laughter] rather than any other misunderstandings.” He had admired Tititan but most of all Vermeer and felt he could never replicate the perfection of their technique in the present day, though he did attempt a copy of Titian’s Annunciation. He also painted in 1999 a self portrait standing alongside his friend the art critic Buchloh outside a Dresden chapel. It seems Richter wants to rebut much of his earlier posturing which he used to protect himself from criticism thus enabling him to paint, he also seems to embrace religion in that he calls himself a “sympathiser”. If that is true the Dresden Chapel picture becomes even more poignant, it is laying to rest the memories associated with the place; a return to his roots; and the doors of the Chapel could be read as ajar.
So what are we to make of his work? What we are left with is a beauty that confronts us in a compelling way. It speaks to us in a polemical dialect which is familiar but remains hidden, just as the paint beneath the alluring textured surface remains hidden interred in the object which ultimately transcends itself despite, or because of, the inclusions that are buried.
“We score the blank surface of reality with the longitudes and parallels of concepts, but the concepts and ideas are ours, and they have not the slightest basis in fact” Arthur Danto (Philosopher)
The quotations by Gerhard Richter and others are taken from Gerhard Richter, Forty years of Painting by Robert Storr first published in 2002, and from Gerhard Richter Large Abstracts Ulrich Wilms.
I drew this picture in pastel after being influenced by Richter's Exhibition:
Godfrey, Mark: Gerhard Richter Panorama Exhibition 6 October 2011-8 January 2012, Tate Modern
Storr, Robert: Gerhard Richter, Forty years of Painting, The Museum of Modern Art, NY, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007
Wilmes, Ulrich: Gerhard Richter - Large Abstracts with essays by Benjamin H D Buchloch, Beate Sontgen, and Gregor Stemmrich, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2008