Gerhard Richter from Private Collections

Gerhard Richter: Motorboot (1. Fassung) / Motorboat (1st version), 1965

Three Gerhard Richter retrospectives are currently touring through Europe:


All shows are very good and provide insight in the very conceptual work of the postmodern master.


For me it was quite a while difficult to approach his work. Richter’s paintings often appear to me distanced and cold. Most of the subjects he chose to paint were not the real issues of the work. Richter himself says:


‘The motifs in my pictures have no meaning whatsoever.’


Most of his motifs are chosen from Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’: Since 1963 he started to collect potential motifs for his paintings. For his ‘Atlas’ he collects newspaper clippings, collages, sketches and personal snapshots by him or by complete strangers. (I think it is a lot of work to collect several thousand Atlas images and then say ‘the motif has no meaning’.)


Gerhard Richter: Kuh (Cow), 1964 © Collection Ströher

In early paintings, like ‘Kuh’ of 1964 or ‘Alfa Romeo’ of 1965, Richter hints at the trivial origin of these motifs by integrating pieces of (newspaper) text in the painting.


To explore Richter’s work these two questions were helpful for me:


  • How does Richter paint it? and
  • Why does he paint it like that?


Gerhard Richter: Familie am Meer (Family by the seaside), 1964 © Collection Ströher

In his photorealistic paintings, for instance ’Familie am Meer’ (‘Family by the sea’) of 1964, he takes a picture of his Atlas and projects it on the empty canvas. Then he does not just copy the photo, but blurs and smudges it. By ‘Richtering’ the photo he builds up a tension between the original photorealistic impression and the contradictory painted gesture. I admire the mastership of his technique in doing so.


Gerhard Richter:Schädel mit Kerze (Candle with Skull), 1983 © Collection Böckmann

In his series of skull and/or candle paintings you can see his reference to the 16th and 17th century tradition of Dutch vanitas paintings. There are two very good examples of this highly acclaimed series: ‘Kerze’ (‘Candle’) of 1982 and ‘Schädel mit Kerze’ (‘Skull with Candle’ of 1983) in the exhibition.


Gerhard Richter: Kerze (Candle), 1982 © Collection Frieder Burda

Richter is exploring today’s remaining possibilities of painting in this post-modern time. In his view most of the classic modern innovations (like abstraction) already have been made. He is looking for pictures a painter can still paint without simply repeating art history again.


Gerhard Richter: Eule (Owl), 1983 © Collection Böckmann

It is very astonishing to see that Richter does not work in phases. In the last four decades he has been working in his various ‘styles’, or better concepts, simultaneously: He is painting photorealistic and abstract paintings at the same time.


Gerhard Richter has been born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany. There he studied painting at the then East-German Dresden Art Academy. In the GDR (German Democratic Republic) there was the official doctrine to paint in socialist realism style. In 1961 he fled to West-Germany, and settled then in Düsseldorf. From 61 – 64 he studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Later he himself became a professor there for more than 20 years. Since 1983 he lives in Cologne, Germany.


In the 1960s Richter, Konrad Lueg and Sigmar Polke called their way of painting ‘capitalist realism’. It was both,


It also had elements of pop art, as they ridiculed themselves about Western consumer society. But since the early 1970s Richter cannot be categorized by anything else but ‘Richter’.


Gerhard Richter: Abstraktes Bild, Courbet, (Abstract Painting, Courbet) 1986 © Collection Ströher

Richter often rejected subjective and subconscious gesture in his painting. Even in his abstract paintings that look like abstract expressionist paintings, but aren’t really: He is using a silkscreen printing frame and pushing bright color through it. That creates the typical ‘abstract realism look’ but is not in the traditional way, as it is carefully planned and avoids personal brush stroke gesture. The exhibition ‘Abstract Paintings’ in Munich, Germany, shows deeper insight into this series.


A different approach is his minimalistic ‘color charts’: Richter once went into a color shop and saw a sample book of different colors. He exclaimed: ‘That is beautiful!’ In the studio he put monochrome small squares into a computer and has the arrangement done by a random program. The result was also a beautiful painting. That way he critiques Josef Albers, a Bauhaus icon of color theory, who said that only special colors would go with each other. He is also questioning the role of the artist, who ingeniously puts the most beautiful colors together to a ‘good’ painting. Does it really need an artist for ‘composition’?


In 2007 a large glass window of the Cologne cathedral was unveiled by Richter in this style.


I like the monochrome grey paintings by Richter. They don’t show anything but painted grey surface. Many of them were started from other paintings that were rejected by himself and painted over. Richter ingeniously varies this simple topic of a monochrome grey painting to an impressive variety. Once it is reflecting, once it has heavy brush strokes, and so on.


In the portraits of his daughter ‘Betty’ he pretends to paint a classic photorealistic portrait. All the composition is a typical portrait – but Betty turns and looks away. You cannot see her. A portrait is intended to represent somebody gut this one doesn’t.


Gerhard Richter has become one of the most important living artists of the last decades. He is an icon of painting many younger artists (have to) react to. He is frequently among the top 10 of various most important and most expensive in art lists.


Abstraktes Bild Nr, (Abstract Painting No.) 611-1, 1986 © Gerhard Richter / Albertina, Wien - Collection Batliner

Even wealthy long-term Richter collectors, like Frieder Burda, have said now they cannot afford to buy his paintings anymore. The prices of his paintings have risen sharply in the times of the art boom.


That is why the price of Richter paintings is under pressure since the credit crunch hit also the art market. (That was marked by a disastrous Sotheby’s contemporary auction last October in London, when also two large Richter paintings failed to sell. They were estimated GBP 3,000,000 – 4,000,000 for the abstract ‘Red’ and GBP 5,000,000 – 7,000,000 for the photo realistic ‘Jerusalem’.)


I guess Richter will not really care about that. He will continue to go in his studio and just paint…



by Chris Neuschler




Gerhard Richter – Abstract Paintings:

Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany, from 27th Feb. - 17th May 2009


Gerhard Richter – Paintings from Private Collections:

Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany: 19th January 2008 - 27th April 2008

National Art Museum of China, Pejing, China, 10th May - 2nd July 2008

National Gallery Complex, Edingurgh, GB, 8th November 2008 - 4th January 2009

Albertina in Vienna, Austria, from 30th Jan. to 3rd May 2009

MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg, Germany, 16th May - 16th August 2009


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