Home Magazine Gerhard Richter: the Painter who entered the 11th dimension

Gerhard Richter is a sublime pioneer in the field of conceptual painting, who plays a pivotal role in expanding the Duchampian idea of Readymade: informal, subversive, agitated. Active and fictional simultaneously. His work - spanning over six decades and crossing figurative, semi-abstract and photo-based paintings - can be considered a dense and viscous “atlas” to which a parallel reality approaches: his writings, artist’s books, letters and interviews, always questioning and unveiling. The super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richter’s longtime friend and critic, claims that “there are at least 11 dimensions of Gerhard Richter”, so many hidden depths that interact with each other to interpret an unequalled artistic vision. 

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In this moment of uncertainty in a global sanitary emergency - as we experience compression and subtle or enormous alterations - it’s a great idea to make up a documentary of exceptional reception, released in 2012 by German independent filmmaker Corinna Belz, “Gerhard Richter Painting”. Not only because it is a portentous work of art - elaborate, at times upsetting - but also because the life and work of one of the greatest painters of our time, Gerhard Richter, offers a potent consolation and a way-out. Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter escaped East Germany (The GDR) in 1961, long before its collapse. He became a certified political refugee and never saw his family again. Well trained in Social Realism at Dresden Art Academy with Sigmar Polke, Richter woke up to Capitalist Reality - exhibiting in the USA, his “Mature Works” during the 80s - and living in the context of post–World War II German society. Under the influences of Pop artists, Fluxus, Piet Mondrian and the 19th Century leader of Realism Gustave Courbet, Richter personally responded to the dark and atrocious legacies of Third Reich with a unique artistic gesture. 


Gerhard Richter, Flow, 2013, Lacquer paint behind glass mounted on aluminium, 39 3/8 × 78 3/4 in. (100 × 200 cm), Private collection, © Gerhard Richter 2020


Gerhard Richter, 4,900 Colors, 2007, Enamel paint on aluminum, 140 panels (Each panel: 19 1/8 × 19 1/8 in. (48.5 × 48.5 cm), Private collection, © Gerhard Richter 2020


Life after all. And “Painting After All” - as the title of the latest exhibition dedicated to Richter in New York at The Met Breuer (temporarily closed) points out.
In the spring and summer of 2009, Belz had the rare privilege to work very closely with Richter and access his atelier in Cologne where he was working on a series of large abstract “pictures” (Abstrakte Bilderer), an ongoing project since 1976. Richter remains sceptical about working under observation - painting is a secretive business, anyway. As an introverted and reflective person - when he was a teenager he became immersed in Nietzsche and Goethe - but not lacking in humor, he refuses to work with the camera around and, all of a sudden, he would paint anyhow. Not with a simple brush, or at least not only, but using a giant squeegee, the size of a canvas, overlaid by a lump of tube paint. Titanium white, ivory black, cadmium shades, red, ultramarine, lemon yellow: the classics, nothing exotic. A blob of realistic colors. 


Gerhard Richter, S. with Child, 1995, Oil on canvas, 14 3/16 × 16 1/8 in. (36 × 41 cm), Hamburger Kunsthalle, on permanent loan from the Stiftung Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, © Gerhard Richter 2020


Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1977, Oil on wood, 11 13/16 × 15 3/4 in. (30 × 40 cm), Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Loan from private collection, 2007, © Gerhard Richter 2020


Let’s focus Richter, listening to John Cage’s abstract “Music for Marcel Duchamp” (1947) when he moves on the canvas’ surface under the weight of a huge spatula: accompanying, pulling it with effort, up and down, forward, layer after layer, scraping and erasing, in a process similar to memory, eventually revealing hidden secrets. “Painting is another form of thinking”: the opposite of a rush process, which must sediment and take some risks. Richter’s production method made a name for itself through always planned and intentional coincidences and chance, binary logics, repetitions and differences: the choices he makes - what to let go, what to bury - and paintings’ autonomy - “It’s a fact: they do what they want” - collide. Despite errors, destruction, overblown ideas, Richter needs to find a way to make paintings appear fast and fancy-free, good and finished. But, when is it the time to stop, to make the judgement “now, it’s a painting”?, asks acutely the Art Historian Benjamin Buchloh in the movie. “Until I conclude there’s nothing left to do. When, according to my standards, nothing is wrong anymore, and the component of truth is manifested in the picture”, comments Richter.


Gerhard Richter, Forest/Wald (2), 2005, Oil on canvas, 77 9/16 × 51 15/16 in. (197 × 132 cm),
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg and Leonard and Susan Feinstein, 2006, © Gerhard Richter 2020


Gerhard Richter, 949-2 Abstract Painting, 2017, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 × 33 1/2 × 3/4”, © Marian Goodman Gallery © Gerhard Richter 2020


Punctuated by sharp and muffled sounds, the slow tracking shots, that the director Belz makes on Richter’s Oeuvre, are majestic. His entire prolific production is tenuously exposed: from his Photographic Paintings based on newspapers images and family photo albums to algorithmically generated Color Charts and recent Abstracts, dwelling on the Gray Pictures from the 1960s (Richter’s fondness for grey derives from old photos) or the Cage Paintings- one of his most important series. The distorted figurative paintings, like the Flowers - blurred Tulips, Roses, Orchid and Lilies - and the laconic head of his first child Betty (1977) are still interesting materials to Richter, while the October 18 Cycle (1977), based on the Baader–Meinhof Group (the West German far-left militant organization) is too spectacular, so artificially staged. But this is part of Richter’s game. Changing or destroying, loving or disliking: there is no concept or reason. Painting, after all, is “a moral - both individual and social - act. it’s not just a question of aesthetics”.

Cover image: Gerhard Richter, I.G., 1993, Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 × 40 3/16 in. (72 × 102 cm), Collection of Ruth McLoughlin, Monaco, © Gerhard Richter 2020.

The documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting” is available from Kino Lorber in the USA only Explore Richter’s art through The MET “Primers”

Written by Petra Chiodi

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