Discover art for sale. Buy and sell prints & editions online by contemporary visual artist Gerhard Richter. Calling for the ‘death of painting’ itself, Richter constantly challenges traditional painting techniques in his work.
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Unrestrained by any one visual style, German artist Gerhard Richter’s work spans abstraction to photorealism, glasswork to photography. Richter’s eclectic oeuvre is rich in varied media, from his famous reproductions of both banal and historic photography to his sheer panes of glass and church windows.
Born in 1932 in Dresden, Richter’s upbringing was shaped by the war and death that surrounded him. Though originally trained in the strict Socialist-Realist style, it is perhaps unsurprising that he would go on to produce work that advocates for the death of painting.
After the war, Richter was based in East Germany, where he studied mural painting at the Dresden Art Academy from 1951. Later, after a spell in Moscow, he decided to defect to West Germany, where he made a living building carnival floats and painting theatre sets, before studying at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. It was here that he began his art career in earnest.
The first catalogued work by Richter was a piece entitled Table (1962); he destroyed most of the paintings he had produced before this time in a fire outside the Düsseldorf Art Academy. The fire was prompted by the result of Richter’s first exhibition, which took place in Fulda, outside Frankfurt, in September 1962. He was asked to fill a gap in the program left by a postponed show; and though he sold nothing, his work was met with controversial criticism, which motivated Richter to burn all of his work and start afresh with renewed enthusiasm. As a result, little is known about these formative years, except that they featured a blend of figurative and abstract styles, taking the form of portraits of his wife and a series of abstract works he called ‘spots.’
It was after this fire that Richter began using photographs from magazines and newspapers to inspire his paintings. It was these works that established him as a notable artist and led to exhibitions across Germany in 1964 and 1965.
After garnering critical interest in the mid-60s, Richter went on to present exhibitions internationally. In 1993/4, the first retrospective of Richter’s work travelled through Bonn, Stockholm, Madrid, and Paris; and, in 2002, to mark the 70th anniversary of Richter’s career, a second was held at the MoMA in New York. Since 2010, many more exhibitions have been held at prestigious galleries across the globe, including Wako Works of Art in Tokyo, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and The Drawing Center in New York.
One of Richter’s most famous earlier works is Ema (nude on a staircase), painted in 1966, which demonstrates both Richter’s figurative interests and the use of photography in creating his prints.
As Richter took many of his photographs from newspapers at the time, the events and aftermath of the war were heavy themes in his work. The most notable example of this is his series of paintings of the Bader-Meinhof terrorist group. Entitled October 18 1977, the group of 15 works was based on images of the Red Army Faction, who targeted American Army bases and were anti-heroes for many young Germans. The series reframes the crime-ridden lives of the Faction members by blurring the images and retracting any descriptions. Richter asks the viewer to form their own judgement on these and other well-known images by totally removing their context and leaving only a hint of the well-known, historical moment behind.
In 1959, Richter saw the works of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana at Documenta II in Kassel. Seeing these abstract works helped him come to terms with the censorship that restricted art in East Germany to strictly traditional, figurative works. He soon fled to West Germany, determined to pursue his own preferred abstract style. Richter’s education at the Düsseldorf Art Academy formed much of his artistic influence. The curriculum was rich in the abstraction of Art Informel and the ground-breaking, media-challenging Fluxus movement. It was notably the work of John Cage, particularly known for his notation work and experimentation with Fluxus, who influenced Richter’s approach of planning compositions through a combination of planned structure and chance procedures.
Richter relies heavily on photography in his most famous works, using 'painting as a means to photography' and removing the stylistic choices of the artistic hand. He copies banal, found photographs, and either makes slight adjustments or pushes and pulls the colours across the canvas. He sourced his images of landscapes, people, skulls, and flowers from news clippings, postcards, or his own photographs, and then stored them in his ‘Atlas’ inventory. By blurring the image, Richter encourages his viewer to distrust a work of art’s ability to accurately depict the world; his work does not shock the viewer, but merely asks them to stop and really look.
Between the years 1965 and 1974, and then again after 2014, Richter turned to printmaking. His work shows the influence of Pop Art, as he explores the mass-produced banality of photography, as well as the recurring theme of ‘the death of painting’: one multiple, copied from a photograph, can be used to make another, removing the need for painting entirely. He always works with more than one print at a time, using a homemade squeegee to drag splashes of colour across the canvas.
By defecting to West Germany in 1961, Richter had committed the crime of ‘flight from the Republic,’ and all his remaining possessions in Dresden were seized by the authorities, including 38 paintings. Despite the trauma of fleeing his hometown, Richter claims never to have regretted his decision to move, as the culture of the West better suited his way of life and his abstract work - in the West, they boldly accepted the more challenging works of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana.
Since then, Richter’s work has made him one of the most influential living artists in the world, a position that he uses to regularly discuss the future and purpose of art, and which has afforded him countless prestigious exhibitions in recent decades.
Moving into the 21st century, Richter became more focused on abstraction, transparency, narrative, and a return to the bold colours of his early career. He revisited the medium of glass to blur the lines between wall-based art and sculpture, in series such as Eight Grey, works such as Pane of Glass (2002), and in commissioned stained-glass windows.
In 2005, Richter released a painting based on a photograph of the attacks on the World Trade Center of 11th September 2001. He deliberately erased the point of impact and left it up to the viewer’s knowledge to fill in the narrative. This idea of narrative is key to all of his later abstract works; Richter’s paintings give an indication of the story, and the reader creates the rest.
Richter announced his retirement from painting in September 2020 at the age of 88. His final painting was a window for a monastery in Tholey, in Germany, painted as a gift. He continues to live in Cologne.
Richter is set to become one of the most wealthy artists in the world and one of the most wealthy men in Germany. Thanks to the attention drawn by recent retrospectives and exhibitions, the price of his work continues to climb.
In 2020, Abstraktes Bild 649-2 sold at auction in Hong Kong for $27.4 million, far exceeding its estimate of $15 million. This was the highest price ever paid for a piece of Western art in Asia. The record for the highest price paid for a Richter painting globally is held by Abstraktes Bild 599, which sold for 40.9 million Euros in 2015. Despite his success, Richter disapproves of the high value of his work, choosing to live a private life away from the public eye.
Image © Sotheby's / Abstraktes Bild 649-2 © Gerhard Richter 1987
Abstraktes Bild (649-2) was one of the spotlight artworks at Sotheby’s first live-streamed contemporary art evening sale, alongside Banksy’s Forgive Us Our Trespassing.
Selling for over £21 million to The Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, the artwork also achieved the highest ever price for any western artwork sold in Asia. The piece smashed its presale estimates of HK$120-HK$140million when the hammer came down, paying testament to the ongoing popularity of Richter’s best-loved series of works. Many new standards were set that evening, with eight other artist records broken.
Image © Sotheby's / Abstraktes Bild © Gerhard Richter 1986
When Abstraktes Bild (1986) sold for £30.4 million at Sotheby's in 2015, it set the record for highest sale price achieved by a living European artist, and on the day after Gerhard Richter’s own 83rd birthday. The painting was the star of the night and far surpassed its £14–£20million estimate.
Richter created the piece by heavily layering oil paints on canvas and then pulling excess paint away using a wooden board and a homemade wooden squeegee. The artwork was known for being one of Richter’s personal favourites, which added to its collectability. It is also one of Richter’s largest abstract works, measuring 9ft 10in by 8ft 2in.
Image © Sotheby's / A B, Still © Gerhard Richter 1986
A B, Still stole the show at Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary art sale, selling for almost US$34million. It was one of seven Richter paintings to sell on the night, all of which came from the private collection of Steven Ames, partner at Oppenheimer & Co., who originally purchased the work for just US$264,000 in 1991. A.B., Still was not the largest Richter work to sell on the night (a title taken by the 8.5ft tall A.B. St. James), but stands at more than 7ft tall and features Richter’s distinctive carefully layered abstract oil paint.
Image © Sotheby's / Abstraktes Bild (636) © Gerhard Richter 1987