Quick-Change Master

Shifting among styles as diverse as Day-Glo abstractions, photorealism, and geometrically structured color charts, Gerhard Richter has consistently perplexed and dazzled the art world.

The gigantic sweeps and swirls and layerings of paint, shimmering with Day-Glo intensity, that Gerhard Richter exhibited at Documenta VII in 1982 were a far cry from the blurred black-and-white photorealist works for which the artist first became known in the 1960s, or even from the later seascapes and cloudscapes that hinted at an abstract impulse. Nor was it easy to find a connection to the geometrically structured color charts that had at one time appeared to link the German painter to Pop art. Those new abstractions, which seemed literally to throb with energy, led Petra Kipphoff, the doyenne of German art critics, to remark that the artist “changes his style as often as the nomads change their tents.”

Gerhard Richter.
©Thomas Struth/Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Such shifts and changes have long since become Richter’s trademark: stylistic incongruity as stylistic principle. It isn’t a matter of the artist’s shifting from a figurative to a nonfigurative idiom, Richter’s realism ranges from photo-inspired portraits and still lifes and cityscapes to nostalgically soft, pastoral landscapes. At irregular intervals, and therefore always surprisingly, explicit political and autobiographical themes emerge as well. And his abstraction covers the full range, from monochrome gray to explosive interactions of color. Furthermore, there are no clear chronological phases. Richter painted his first gray-in-gray pictures in 1973, and the most recent were executed only last year.

The “Eight Gray Ones,” as Richter dubs them, were commissioned by the contemporary-art Museum in Kanazawa, Japan, where they will fill an entire gallery. (A similar work is being planned for the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin.) They consist of gigantic sheets of glass, painted in reverse with enamel and suspended in front of the wall by invisible steel supports. Each panel will be hung at a different, slightly crooked angle—a factor of almost subliminal irritation that underlies much of the artist’s work. Plainly, he has lost none of his sly pleasure in teasing the viewer. Relishing the game, he whistles as he moves about the large central hall in his studio building. And then he pauses to study his own reflection in the glass: a transient, ghostlike presence in a field of gray.

The theme of mortality has been present in Richter’s work from the beginning—in recurrent images of burning candles, in the study of murdered student nurses, in a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy—and not merely since he suffered a mild stroke in l998. As he gears up for a 70th-birthday celebration and a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (through May 21), which will travel to Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Richter can look back on an eventful and consistently successful career. But he is also aware of the uncommon responsibilities he has assumed with a young family. Having married for the third time at the age of 60, he now has a seven-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. “Being an elderly father,” he confesses, “is very strenuous, but it is also very beautiful.” And he feels that his age makes him a better father than he was to his first child, Betty, who was born in 1966. “It was a time when I thought more about my career than my family and was seduced by the anti-authoritarian dogma of the day, which didn’t make things easier,” he says. Betty recently completed an M.A. in philosophy and plans to specialize in art theory.

Richter’s self-discipline is legendary, as are his somewhat elaborate, old-fashioned manners. He is always classically well dressed and impeccably groomed, his lean, lithe figure belying his years. Even a young father might be daunted by his daily routine, which starts at 6:10 A.M., when he rises to make breakfast for the family. Afterward, Sabine Moritz-Richter takes their son to school in the city and proceeds to her husband’s former studio there, where she herself paints. Meanwhile, Richter has delivered their daughter to kindergarten and arrived at his “office,” as he terms it, at 8:15. The early hours of the day are taken up by administrative matters, including consultations with a full-time secretary, various assistants, and a caretaker. “If I’m lucky,” Richter says, “there may even be time for painting.”

Since 1995, Richter’s private and professional lives have been focused, improbably enough, on the Cologne suburb of Hahnwald. It is a prim and pricey postwar neighborhood with an air of nouveau riche complacency, unblemished by urban amenities such as shops, bars, or restaurants. But when Richter found a pair of back-to-back properties there, he saw the chance to create a quiet, enclosed realm for himself and his family: a studio, measuring 4,000 square feet, and a spacious, two-story house. The long, windowless concrete wall of the studio fronts the street, like a fortification. The interior consists of three large adjoining spaces, illuminated by skylights. At the rear, the building opens through glass doors onto a spacious garden. The house, at the foot of the garden, is built in a Palladian cross, with a central, skylighted atrium. Two square ponds complete the ensemble.

The artist takes contagious pleasure in his domestic situation, which mingles a formal elegance with cozy gemütlichkeit. Almost as an afterthought, his own works and his wife’s are scattered throughout the downstairs rooms. In the atrium hangs a poster-size, hand-drawn and -colored cultural graph, covering the years 1300 to 2000 and recording the chronological appearance of major monuments, painters, philosophers, writers, and composers. “I was never able to keep all this straight before,” Richter explains, and that plainly offended his sense of order. Alongside the framed chart hang delicately filigreed drawings that radiate a nervous intensity. Looking at them, Richter reflects that he doesn’t have the solitude any longer that such work requires. “I don’t do much drawing these days,” he says. “I guess things are simply going too well for me.”

This latest, singularly happy chapter of his life began shortly before Richter stopped teaching at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he held a professorship from 1972 to 1994. When a promising young student brought him her portfolio and applied for admission to his painting class, he turned her down on the grounds that he would soon be retiring. When she stubbornly made a second try, Richter relented. “We’ve been together ever since,” he adds. Sabine Moritz-Richter works in a realistic figurative style that shows the clear influence of her famous teacher, though the lush, velvety impastos of her still lifes and portraits testify to her individuality. Master and pupil confront each other in the dining room of the house in a startling juxtaposition of images: on small-format, square canvases, Gerhard Richter has rendered the ultimate memento mori, a human skull, while Sabine Moritz-Richter has created a tender portrait of their daughter, Ella.

Wherever one turns, there is evidence of a fulfilled, reflective, but by no means passive, life. Still, Richter readily admits that he is happy to have put the bustle of downtown Cologne behind him. And just as he now views his role as a father in a different light, so has he come to take a somewhat revisionist attitude toward his past. His former symbolic role as an artist who had fled the restrictions of the German Democratic Republic to unfold his true talent in the free air of the West is now seldom recalled. The reunification of the two Germanys helped, of course, to diminish what formerly passed as a certain exoticism. Nonetheless, the artist’s socially and politically critical posture owes much to the years spent under two dict
atorships: the reign of National Socialism and the Communist regime.

Born in the courtly capital of Dresden in 1932, Richter grew up in the nearby village of Oberlausitz, where his father had accepted a post as the village schoolteacher. The son, then known as Gerd, was a gifted child with an obvious artistic bent, but notoriously bad in school. Like almost all boys of his generation, he would ultimately join the Hitler Youth organization, though the war came to an end before he could be called up for military service. After a number of brief false starts, Richter found a creative niche as a scene painter for the local theater. At 18 he applied for a place at the Dresden Art Academy and was rejected, but he was accepted a year later, in 1951. He specialized in mural painting, for which he received substantial recognition, but he chafed increasingly at the esthetic restrictions imposed by Socialist Realism. “I knew there was no hope of showing my own more experimental works,” he says.

The Abstract Expressionists, whom the young artist encountered in 1959 at Documenta II—which included the largest ensemble of contemporary American art seen in Germany since the war—made him yearn even more for the chance to express himself freely. He was particularly fascinated by Jackson Pollock and the Italian painter Lucio Fontana. Less than two years 1ater, only a few months before the construction of the Berlin Wall stopped the flow of refugees, Richter moved to the West and soon enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. He recently remarked of himself and his friends who came to the West, “We swam in a pool of hope.”

When he left Dresden, Richter abandoned virtually all the work he had created there—about 80 paintings, which subsequently disappeared. In his own meticulous catalogue raisonné, the first “official” work, Tisch (Table), is dated l962. It is uncannily prophetic. As a model for the painting, Richter chose (as he often did in those days) a printed illustration: in this case, a simple table featured in the design magazine domus. In the final stage of work, Richter attacked the still-damp paint with his brush, obliterating most of the motif with circular motions. This expressive “overpainting,” however, was not so much a destructive act as an act of symbiosis. Despite the autonomous painterly gesture, the motif is still recognizable. At the same time, it has been reduced to such an extent that the very form of the table might be seen as a geometric abstraction. Richter plainly respects the two modes of figuration and abstraction as equally valid strategies for the appropriation of reality.

The painter’s chameleon-like transformations, however, also have more than a little to do with his initial impressions of life in West Germany, where the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle, was shifting into overdrive. Having fled the stylistic dictates of Socialist Realism, he found himself confronted by the new demands of fashion and consumption. Much of the artist’s early work ironized consumer society. An advertisement for a portable drying rack, its virtues being demonstrated by a happy housewife, forms the basis for Folding Dryer, executed in the same year as Table. And in a famous action performed with artist colleagues in 1963, Richter staged an exhibition in a Düsseldorf furniture store under the rubric “Capitalist Realism.” The artists hung their pictures throughout the store and elevated pieces of furniture on pedestals, transforming them into “sculptures.” The term “Capitalist Realism” wasn’t necessarily negative. Richter was drawing parallels with American Pop art, which he saw as “an attempt to overcome the sterility, isolation, and artificiality of conventional painting.”

By repeatedly shifting his own painterly stance, Richter declined to become a recognizable brand name. If this stance confused critics for a time, it did not prevent the works from later achieving record-breaking prices. A large 1982 oil, Drei Kerzen (Three Candles), sold for a record $5,395,750 at Sotheby’s last May. Richter’s main gallery is Marian Goodman in New York.

How does the artist himself feel about his works selling for such high prices? “At the beginning,” he reflects, “I was proud and at the same time irritated. Also a little intimidated when I stood before a blank canvas. Somehow one just has to ignore the whole thing. Yet I occasionally feel that something has been taken away from me, as though I’ve lost a certain right of self-determination—not just the control over what is painted and how it is painted but how and where the results are exhibited, what they cost, and so on. Still, I have to accept the fact that these offspring of mine find their own way, and sometimes the path leads to a museum.” Nonetheless, Richter confesses to having experienced a certain smug satisfaction when a painting he considers “a less-than-best picture” failed to make its auction minimum at Sotheby’s in November.

A quixotic quest for the best picture has marked the artist’s entire career, and this accounts for the fact that he has regularly destroyed substantial quantities of his own work. The shift from one style or theme to another often results from the feeling that his ideal is eluding him. “Then I may think a change of direction is called for,” he explains. “What results must be a picture that pleases me, and this must have a human as well as a formal or technical dimension.” No subject is foreign to this goal. In the past Richter has even derived imagery from pornography, sometimes combined with scenes from concentration camps. And in the series “October 18, 1977” (1988), named for the day three members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group were found dead in their prison cells, he examined a painful, controversial chapter in recent German history.

“In principle,” the artist insists, “no theme is taboo for the painter, though some themes exceed my own abilities.” He has twice tried to deal with the Holocaust, for example—once in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, when he gathered photographic materials from Israel and from documentation centers in Germany. “Perhaps it was shame or pity or piety that held me back,” he suggests. “I never figured it out.”

For similar reasons, he adds, he could never deal with the events of September 11. Richter and his wife were on their way to New York on that fateful morning, to attend the opening of his show at the Marian Goodman Gallery, when their plane was diverted to Halifax. “The next three days,” he says, “were confusing and frightening and uncomfortable, sleeping on the floor of a gymnasium, though it also felt almost normal, like in the war.” But pity and piety, he adds, as well as “a lack of sufficient painterly skills,” put that day beyond his creative reach. Such a feeling, in turn, is a measure of the passionate humanism that informs Richter’s entire oeuvre.


David Galloway is the Wuppertal correspondent of ARTnews. He wrote about Neo Rauch in December.


©2002 ARTnews L.L.C.

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