The successful career of German artist Gerhard Richter re-establishes the term “inconsistent” into something positive and endearing. Utilising photography, Richter creates both realistic and abstract works as means to challenge traditional approaches to painting.
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 curriculum implemented by Russia, it is perhaps unsurprising that he would go on to produce work that advocates for the death of painting. Relying heavily on photography in his realistic work, Richter copies banal, found photographs with slight adjustments to the original image. This is particularly true of his Bader-Meinhof series which blurs photographs of the German terrorist group, a group of paintings which both outraged the country and launched his career. This blurred image is reflected, too, in his abstract works which push and pull colours across the canvas.
Across his realistic and abstract works, Richter explores the theme of distrust in painting’s ability to accurately depict the world. Both methods of art making create works that do the opposite of what art is meant to do; they do not arrest the viewer, they do not shock the viewer. Instead, they force the viewer to stop and really, truly look.
Based in East Germany following the war, Richter would go on to study mural painting in the ruined buildings at the Dresden Art Academy in 1951. However, after seeing works by Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana at Documenta II in Kassel, Richter came to terms with the true extent of censorship in his education and soon fled for West Germany. Settling in Dusseldorf, Richter enrolled in the Academy where he underwent a very different curriculum – one that was surrounded by 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 dabbles with Fluxus, who influenced Richter’s approach of planning compositions through a simultaneous planned structure and chance procedures.
Into his career in the West, Richter carried the events of the war and its aftermath, most notably in his series of paintings on the Bader-Meinhof terrorist group. Exhibited in 1988, the group of 15 works titled October 18, 1977 were based on images of the Red Army Faction, antiheroes of many young Germans, who targeted American Army bases. Based on photographs largely taken by police, the series reframes the crime-ridden lives of the group members by blurring the images and retracting any descriptive titles. He therefore creates a distance between the well-known, historical moment and the viewer, asking the viewer to place their own judgement onto the image.
This blurring of a copied photograph is characteristic of Richter’s works. Pulling photos of landscapes, flowers, skulls and people from news clippings, postcards or his own photos, Richter then stores these images in his “Atlas,” the inventory of almost every source he has ever used. Photographs, in particular the found images, were important to Richter as they lacked the artistic hand which dictates style or composition. Their freedom from the personal is what attracts Richter, stating “that’s why I wanted to have it, to show it – not as a means to painting, but use painting as means to photography.”
Richter believes that painting should focus on the image and his works do just that, but with slight adjustments. He crops out, adds in, covers over and blurs so the resulting painting is not an exact copy of an original photograph but it will nonetheless present as one. Speaking of his blurred effects, Richer stated “When I dissolve demarcations and create transition, this is not in order to destroy the representation, or to make it more artistic or less precise. The flowing transitions, the smooth equalising surface, clarify the content and make the representation credible.” This is particularly true of his Woman Descending the Staircase, that which draws obvious influence from Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Here is an unknown woman, glamorously dressed and descending a staircase, the movement of which is emphasised by the blurriness of the image, an effect created by dragging a dry brush through the wet pigment.
His use of photography and his interest in the issues of image-making in an overly mediated world notes the influence of Pop Art, both of which are further pursued in his prints. Richter produced prints largely between 1965 and 1974, and again beginning in 2014 where he made high-quality, unsigned facsimiles. Through his prints he continues the complex issues explored in his paintings, namely the mass-produced banality related to photographs. In its possibility for mass-production, printmaking allows Richter to further explore his interest in the death of painting by allowing him to use one multiple, that which was already copied from a photograph, in order to make another.
The method of printmaking is visible in the creation of his abstract works in which he uses a homemade squeegee made of wood and plexiglass. Beginning with splashes of colour or an outlined geometric composition, Richter wipes and drags the paint across the canvas with the squeegee. The resulting effects depend on the pressure he places, where on the canvas and how much. Richter never works on a single abstract work at once, claiming that it is important to work on a number at a time as they feed off one another.
In these abstract works, including those from his grey series from the 1970s such as the largely monochrome canvas of Grey, Richter expects the viewer to find a recognizable form such as a chair or a cloud. Considering the degree of abstraction, the task Richter sets is seemingly impossible. Yet, the impossibility of the task is something he is aware of, believing that abstract art is about the search for something, not about finding anything. In fact, Richter states that he wants his grey works “to be seen as narratives – even if they are narratives of nothingness.”