Gerhard Richter is best known for his innovative incorporations of photography and painting that uniquely reconcile representation and abstraction. Born in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime, Richter avoided ideological artistic expressions. After fleeing to West Germany in 1961, he started producing blurred yet realistic paintings taken from photographs and opened his practice to a variety of media. In the following decades, Richter experimented with abstraction, employing original tools and producing large, monochromatic canvases which question the limits of representation. He continues to push the boundaries of painting, blurring the lines between materiality and illusionistic space.
Gerhard Richter’s artistic explorations, which stretch over more than six decades, constitute a radical attempt to integrate representation and abstraction. Known for his painted copies of black and white photographs rendered with a blurred effect, Richter has broadened the potentials of both photography and painting.
Born 1932 in Dresden, Germany, Richter’s childhood was affected by the rise of the Nazi regime and the traumatic events of World War II. According to some of his critics, these painful memories, combined with a regimented life in East Germany under Soviet rule, discouraged him from conveying ideological expressions through art. Such unpretentious perspective materialises in his continued focus on colour combinations and on the tangible quality of his canvases.
Richter began his studies at the Dresden Art Academy in 1951. A turning point for his artistic development was his visit to documenta 2 in Kassel in 1959. Here, he experienced the radical abstractions of Pollock, Fontana and Jean Fautrier, which sparked in him the need to adopt completely new expressive forms.
In 1961, Richter fled to West Germany where he studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. In this liberated, experimental environment, Richter first produced his photo‐realistic paintings, in which he developed his trademark blur. This technique paradoxically adds both realism and distance to the oil paintings which he copied from photographs.
At a time when his contemporaries were captivated by the new possibilities of conceptual art, Richter proved that there were still undiscovered lands in the world of painting to be explored. Richter’s blurred paintings embody a reflection on both the mechanical nature of the original photographs and the manual nature of his works, which emerge through the paint’s disrupted appearance. Such interests in multimediality and in the hidden potentials of materials originated from Richter’s connections with contemporary art movements such as the influential Fluxus, which combined absurdist content with original artistic forms.
In the 1970s Richter produced an extensive series known as ‘Grey paintings’ which experimented with abstraction as a means for questioning the limits of representation. Painting canvases exclusively in tones of grey, Richter attempted to unveil a neutral, uncomplicated kind of communicative potential. From this moment onward, most of Richter’s work has been preoccupied with the interferences between the production of an illusionistic space and the physical, material realities of the act of painting.
Unwilling to stick to one genre, however, Richter ventured in and out of abstraction, at first creating colour charts from commercial samples, then moving to more expressive gestures and techniques. His discursive use of the body emerges in his squeegee paintings, initiated in the 1980s, which involve the often taxing physical labour of distributing oil paint across large canvases. These images create immediately recognisable, intriguingly complex and colourful results.
His interest for multimediality transpires in his permanent installations, such as his stained glass windows for the south transept of the Cathedral of Cologne (2007), in which powerful light and colour juxtapositions come to life through a complete abandonment to the power of chance.
Richter’s reflectiveness, bold experimentations and painterly skills have made him an artist beloved by critics, collectors and the wider public alike. Richter’s artistic achievements are showcased in the world’s most renowned museums with major exhibitions and permanent displays. Experimenting with different media and exploring technical innovations, Richter has consistently produced new ways of understanding the world through the lens of art.
In the 1980s, intrigued by the possibility of obtaining a random yet controlled distribution of colour on canvas, Gerhard Richter began experimenting with the squeegee, a tool made of wood and Perspex which he used to scrape pigments across the painting’s surface. Through this technical innovation he produced ground‐breaking works now held in major institutions and galleries worldwide. A selection of them was turned into a series of prints by HENI Editions in 2014.
Richter’s ‘Abstract Paintings’ emphatically avoid the representation of clear figurative elements by accumulating thick layers of rich, vibrant colours, especially green, white, red and orange. The complex structures that result from the squeegee drawings seem to suggest, at times, underlying figurations that have subsequently become blurred, distorted or otherwise hidden.
Paintings such as ‘Abstraktes Bild’ (1990) employ a bright colour palette of reds, pinks, blues, greens and yellows which compete for the viewer’s attention in a complex arrangement of layers. Dividing the image into quarters and mirroring and repeating the image, Richter created four tapestries, ‘Musa’, ‘Yusuf’, ‘Iblan’ and ‘Abdu’ (2009), in which the paintings metamorphose into mesmerising ornaments, reminiscent perhaps of intricate eastern arabesques.
The ‘Abstract Paintings’ series also served as the basis for the artist’s book ‘Patterns: Divided Mirrored Repeated’ (2011) and the related ‘Strip’ series (2011‐present) in which the painting dissolves through digital editing and is transformed into a mesmerising accumulation of seemingly moving lines.
In line with Richter’s research values, chance and chaos are the main subjects of these works. ‘When I paint an abstract picture’, he stated, ‘I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there’.
Gerhard Richter rose to fame with his unique photo paintings, in which he replicated photographs of still lifes, portraits and landscapes into highly realistic paintings. These works are characteristically blurred, mimicking the mechanical nature of photography through his embodied practice.
Richter’s practice of reproducing his black and white photographs in painting began in the 1960s and 70s. His images are based on a variety of sources including images from newspapers and books, his personal snapshots, and aerial views of towns and the countryside found in magazines.
Richter maintains the same methodical process across the series, always beginning with an individual photograph that is subsequently projected onto a canvas. He then traces its exact forms and reproduces its colour palette, achieving his trademark ‘blur’ with a delicate hand gesture, the use of a soft brush or with a more powerful pull of a squeegee.
Far from embarking on a superficial exercise in technical virtuosity, Richter was interested in the psychological reverberations of photography and the challenge it posed to vision. In an interview he stated that ‘the photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its ways of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source’.
Richter was not trying to imitate photographs but rather make them anew through an inventive technique and with alternative materials. He claimed to be ‘practicing photography by other means’, and that his trademark blurs are not to be seen as ‘identity tags’ for his paintings. They are not meant to destroy representation or to make it less precise and thus more painterly. Rather, Richter’s photo paintings create transitions, which make each element on the canvas equal, filtering out excessive or unimportant visual information.
WORKS BEHIND GLASS
Gerhard Richter started incorporating glass into his painterly practice in 1967 with his installation ‘4 Panes of Glass’. This work, consisting entirely of glass sheets, complicated the common interpretation of paintings as ‘windows’ into vision, reality or the artist’s inner world. This experimentation evolved into his paintings behind glass, such as the celebrated ‘Flow’ series. These wildly colourful works behind glass have been subsequently made into a major series of printed and digital works of monumental size.
To produce these works, Richter distributes contrasting shades of enamel paint on a flat surface, leaving them to freely flow before sandwiching the paint under a sheet of glass. ‘I move the paint around. If it looks good and feels right I place the glass over it’, he stated in relation to this seemingly childish process. ‘The difference is that a child never knows when to stop’, he asserted. In using glass, the image is flattened and made abstract, remote and inaccessible. The materiality and tactility of paint is negated by the cold and smooth presence of the glass panels.
Glass captures colour in its rawness and brightness, in transient compositions that attempt to maintain the purity and brilliance of paint, capturing the power of colour itself. In some areas of these works, pigments appear smooth and fresh as if they were newly spilled. In others, they display ripples and creases, showing where paint was drier when the glass sheet was applied, manifesting a sense of time in an otherwise transcendental work.
As with most of Richter’s oeuvre, these works combine traditional pictorial elements and highly conceptual meanings. Exploring and celebrating what paint can do, alternatively rendering reality and imagining alternative visions, Richter continues to innovate in his painterly practice with combinations of materials, technologies and ideas.
Throughout his career, Gerhard Richter has expanded the possibilities of image making by combining old and new media. Key elements of these experimentations have been his ‘Overpainted Photographs’, which he initiated in the mid‐1980s. Unlike his photo paintings of the ‘60s, these works maintain the status of their photographs with the artist’s input limited to the application of paint. The technical perfection of photographic reproduction meets the abstract yet material quality of Richter’s practice.
Most of the photographs that constitute the base of these works are taken by Richter himself, who then covers them with paint without the use of brushes and with only a sparing use of palette knives. Richter’s aim was to allow paint to flow freely, quickly creating spots and blobs. As with many of the artist’s works, the ‘Overpainted Photographs’ were produced rapidly, allowing the elements of chance, spontaneity and immediacy to become the real subject of the figuration. Richter merely pushed and pulled the paint across the surfaces, at times lifting the corners to create creases. The simplicity of gestural motions contrasts with the powerful emotional impact of the resulting images.
These unique, hybrid works startle viewers with their procedural contradictions. Immediately one’s attention is drawn to the brightly coloured bands of paint, and only at a later point to the underlying photograph that they conceal. Potential narratives are covered by the rich, swirly textures of paint, creating an enigmatic sense of secrecy. The sense of confusion is heightened by the colour palettes, either complementary or contrasting.
With this series, Richter has brought his continued interest for innovative combinations of painting and photography to new directions. These compelling works merge beauty and mystery, taking viewers on a journey into the artistic potentials of technique and technology.
ANNUNCIATION AFTER TITIAN
Gerhard Richter was first acquainted with Titians ‘Annunciation’ (1540) in 1972, when he exhibited his series ‘48 Portraits’ at the Venice Biennale. Titian’s painting, held at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, so fascinated the painter that he bought a postcard of the masterpiece and began making copies once back in his studio in Germany. When asked about his choice of subject for this series, Richter has acknowledged the fetishistic quality of his attraction for the painting: ‘I wanted to trace him as precisely as possible,’ he stated, ‘maybe because I wanted to own such a beautiful Titian’.
Richter produced five works in this series. In the first, he remained mostly faithful to the original, softly blurring the edges of the bodies of the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. In 2014, he chose this painting for the limited series produced by HENI Editions. In the subsequent versions the delicate blur becomes a colourful, confused cloud which completely obscures the figuration. It is only through the paintings’ titles and contexts that viewers are able to connect them to Titian’s original.
In this series Richter was not attempting to copy the ‘Annunciation’ but rather dissect and purify Titian’s artistic quality. In the five versions he made of the ‘Annunciation’, Richter sought a transcendental element that could bind painterly techniques and religious discourses of the past with modern reality.
While Richter answers his own inquiry of artistic accomplishment with abstraction, there is a yearning for a romanticised simplicity of past painterly lives: ‘The topic of the ‘Annunciation’ fascinated me. I just imagined it wonderful to be announced something’.