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Process as painting: Gerhard Richter

Interrogating the limits of visual representation...

Across the course of his sixty-year career, Richter has interrogated the limits of representation – his experiments in abstraction are without comparison, and have greatly contributed to the medium of painting.

Since introducing abstraction to his repertoire in the late 1970s, Richter has produced works in seemingly conflicting styles; orderly ‘Colour Charts’, bold sweeping abstractions and representational ‘Photo Paintings’ of subjects ranging from portraits, furniture, landscapes, fighter jets to scenes from Nazi history. Richter uses a homemade ‘squeegee’ to create his trademark gestural blur by dragging paint across the canvas surface, obliterating, concealing and distorting what lies beneath, ‘I blur things to make everything equally important and unimportant,’ Richter says. Although Richter has worked alongside a quick succession of 20th-century art movements, he remains somewhat sceptical of their grand artistic and philosophical beliefs and prefers to think of himself as a purely traditional painter.

Richter has always revelled in what can be achieved using paint– its ability to compliment and mimic the visual effects of photography and create luscious concoctions of colour. Richter’s need to paint is innate to his character, ‘I felt a need to paint; I love painting. It was something natural – as is listening to music or playing an instrument for some people.’ The artist makes minimal claim to his works having an imaginative or spiritual authority, he instead praises incomprehensibility and considers that ‘Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible – giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible.’ 

Gerhard Richter, Blau, 1988 

Born in Dresden in 1932, and raised in the outlying villages of Reichenau and Waltersdorf, Richter grew up in a turbulent and horrific period of world history, coming of age shortly after the end of World War II. Although Richter’s parents remained apolitical whilst living in the countryside, his father Horst, a teacher, was eventually forced to join the National Socialist Party. Living under the rule of the Nazis for the first thirteen years of his life undoubtedly influenced Richter’s development artistically and intellectually, which eventually led to his depiction of his Nazi uncle in Uncle Rudi, fighter planes and gangs of young German terrorists as subject matter within his artwork.

"I felt a need to paint; I love painting. It was something natural – as is listening to music or playing an instrument for some people."

Richter left grammar school at the age of 15 and took on a series of temporary jobs including assisting a photographer and painting theatre sets before attending the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts. Here Richter gained a thorough understanding of the masters and began assisting with the creation of propagandistic Social Realist mural art. In 1961, just months before the wall was built, Richter moved to Dusseldorf, where he studied at the art academy alongside Sigmar Polke and viewed abstract art for the first time at the “documenta” II in Kassel as part of an abstract post-war exhibition. Alongside Polke and Konrad Fischer, Richter introduced the term Kapitalistischer Realismus (Capitalistic Realism) as a style of ‘anti’ art which appropriated the pictorial shorthand of advertising whilst also commenting on the consumer-driven art doctrine of western capitalism.

In the 1960s and 70s, Richter began creating paintings from black and white photographs which he would project onto the canvas and paint. He would first make a realistic replica of the photograph then apply his hallmark “blur” with light touches of the brush accompanied by aggressive smears with his homemade squeegee. In the year following the creation of his one of his first Photo Paintings, Düsenjäger (1962), Richter began viewing himself as a Pop artist seeing huge parallels in artistic exploration to Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (1963). Unlike the brash colourful works of the American Pop artists, which were gaining popularity in Europe at the same time, Richter’s Pop art was much darker and more cynical, painting in a manner which pointed to the absurdity of the notion of representation in the post-war era.

Since the late 1970s, Richter has made many purely abstract paintings which concentrate on the dramatic reality of colour, his signature smearing technique and the resulting textures often reveal contrary existences beneath the final surface of the painting. Richter’s abstract works give an illusion of space which is developed from an incidental process of the reactive gestures of adding, moving and subtracting paint. In 2012, Richter set the record auction price for a painting sold by a living artist, with his Abstraktes Bild (809-4) (1994), which sold for a record $34 million. Today he lives and works in Cologne, Germany and has works held in collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London and in the Art Institute of Chicago amongst others.

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