PRINT May 1985


AMONG THE LOOSE COLLECTION of essays, notes, comments, and fragments that William Carlos Williams entitled The Embodiment of Knowledge one finds “The Beginnings of an American Education (Chapter 2. The Address Toward Collegiate Study. The New in Art.),” in which the poet remarks about an art student’s “difficulty in knowing.”1 Whatever the student has learned about what has been done in the past will, according to Williams, amount only to “that which is . . . of no use to him, in fact nothing less than a barrier which he must surmount if ever he is to do anything that can be called serious work.” Throughout his life Williams guarded against an imposition of the past on the present: “There is an antagonism between the ages,” he wrote elsewhere; “Each age wishes to enslave the others. Each wishes to succeed.” To Williams the ballast of the past proves especially fatal in art, “the category most responsive to living conditions.” “A painter like Cézanne or Titian, or a statue as good as some by Phidias, is a complete triumph to the learned, and worth nothing whatever.” In 1966, under completely different circumstances but for similar reasons, Gerhard Richter expressed the same attitude in a remark included in a text of combined statements written with Sigmar Polke for an exhibition at the Galerie H, in Hannover: “I find many amateur photos better than the best Cézanne. In general it isn’t just a question of painting good pictures.”

Richter also does not want to be encumbered by imposed doctrines of the past. He began in 1962 by painting pictures that look like photographs. He used illustrations from popular magazines such as Quick, Stern, or the Bunte Illustrierte as his sources, choosing them in opposition to the formalistic painting movements such as the Zero group and Tachism that were dominant at the time. “It was perhaps a protest,” Richter says, “because people here in Germany were constantly looking at the formal side. I resist this because my art always has something to do with my life and how I deal with it . . . I’m ashamed to say this, because it’s so obvious that one can discharge all the criminal energy that one has stored up.”2 Richter considers his provocation of Cézanne to have been brought about by those protests of the early ’60s, but he considers his statement still true: “At that time there were certain claims to quality which art supposedly had to fulfill in order to be art. We didn’t want that. Today I find that art mostly has to fulfill economic conditions. That’s no good either. Art must be truthful—that’s its moral aspect.”

In reaction to the pseudo painting movements today and concerned about the “dilettantism” behind them, he adheres to a concept of “beauty, which is a word no one likes. ‘Beauty’ has become a downgraded word, but that shouldn’t be the case, because we would all like to be healthy, perfect, fulfilled, everything—the opposites of war, crime, and sickness. I see beauty in all the works of art we cherish.” In the current context Cézanne’s persistent drive for perfection, exemplified in his painting Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, could in fact be seen to correspond with Richter’s desire for “Volkommenheit,” “perfection”—with similar fixation on painting that is manifested, for instance, in his series of “Stadtbilder” (City pictures, 1968–70).

For both painters, the desire for completeness is accompanied by a continuous state of disillusion distinctly enunciated by Cézanne in a letter to Emile Bernard from 1906, in which he writes that his dissatisfaction will only disappear “when I have achieved something that comes out better than the previous attempt and that can thus prove the theories, which are always easily stated. The only thing that causes serious difficulty is providing the proofs for what one thinks. And so I continue with my studies.”3 So does Richter continue his studies in an intense search for inclusiveness from picture to picture. While mediating between photography and painting, Richter encounters the gap between an objective image of reality—through the mechanics of the camera eye—and the subjective perception of the senses. He constantly balances all the objective and subjective factors that occur during the act of painting photographically. He tries to bridge his own “mood” in relation to the mood of the times, and the anonymity of the photograph, which has no style, to his desire for completeness through classical beauty. Gradually the realization grows that something is left out. The sense of imperfection necessitates the painting of another picture.

At the age of 64 Cézanne told a young painter, Charles Camoin, whom he accidentally met in the streets of Marseilles, “Everything, especially in art, is theory, developed and applied in contact with nature.” He believed in “becoming classical through nature,” and thought of the old masters as “a moral support,” even when their work offered nothing to be copied.

Although Richter’s approach is more alienated than this, and is expressed through painting only photographic images of nature, he shares with Cézanne the search for classical harmony in the work of older masters and in nature: “I believe that art has a kind of rightness, as in music when we hear whether or not a note is false. And that’s why the old classical pictures, which are right in their own terms, are so necessary for me. In addition to that there’s nature, which I see also has this rightness. It appears that these days one can put almost anything on the canvas, and I am against that.”

Richter analyzes the “nature” of painting. Working from photographs—some of which he takes himself—he tries to achieve classical beauty in meticulous “photo/paintings”—oil paintings based on photographs—of cloud formations, skulls, candles, romantic landscapes, and abstract pictures, all of which reflect his dissonant version of a “harmony parallel to nature.” They are presented on an intimate scale intended to express “the regret or resignation that I can’t work that way anymore, that this classical art is past. Nevertheless I want to paint that way, but not simply as a quotation—that wouldn’t be enough.” Indeed, in 1973 Richter painted the series “Verkündigung nach Tiziari” (Annunciation after Titian) which is more than a reference to the original; it is an attempt at a reconstruction followed by four other pictures in which the image diffuses and vaporizes gradually into a cloud of paint. Titian’s image is dissolved in a mass of brushstrokes; only the color scheme and the movement of the composition, echoing the original figures, preserve the atmospheric mood of Titian. The process by which the image gradually disintegrates and disappears reverses the stages in the development of a Polaroid photograph.

Only in the act of painting snapshots, combining non-high-art subject matter with a conventional mode of rendering in chiaroscuro, can Richter both oppose and accept tradition in art, thus achieving a modern schismatic sensibility. If any contemporary artist profoundly and paradoxically both scrutinizes and resists the “classics” it is this obsessed painter, who, as much as Williams or Cézanne, cannot extricate himself from the dilemma of choosing the present while calling upon the past. His struggle for self-actualization is shaped by the dualism of his own past.

Richter was born February 9, 1932, in Dresden. He recalls that he decided to become an artist at the age of 16: “It had to do with being an introvert. I was alone a great deal, and drew a lot.” For the next two years he worked as a scene painter for a theater company and as a sign painter in a factory, where he painted slogans on billboards and, occasionally, portraits of political leaders. At 19 he failed the entrance examination for the Kunstakademie Dresden, but was admitted the following year. There he received a thorough training in traditional genres—figure drawing, still lifes, and landscape painting—always working from the real thing, as any other method was forbidden. After five years Richter had achieved exceptional skills in a wide range of techniques, including the illusionistic precisionism of such 19th-century painters as Caspar David Friedrich and Adolf von Menzel, but he grew increasingly weary of the official esthetic doctrines of East Germany. He had learned something about 20th-century art, despite the fact that everything from Impressionism on was officially considered “decadent,” and books on the subject were not available in the library. Somewhat influenced at the time by the work of Picasso and of the Italian Socialist-Realist painter Renato Guttuso, both members of the Communist Party and thus among the few foreign contemporaries whose work was shown in East Germany, Richter started to experiment. The result was that “I was a Modern painter, but with a horrible mixture of things.” When these deviations from the prescribed esthetics—by Richter and a few others equally rebellious—gained sudden notoriety as a “new” formalistic direction in art, he realized that he had to leave East Germany and start from scratch. “I knew that I did not want to have that kind of false importance,” he explains.

In 1961, two months before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Richter crossed the border by streetcar, taking with him two suitcases. A friend found him a place to live in Düsseldorf, and shortly afterwards he received a scholarship to the Staatliche Kunstakademie in that city. There he analyzed and practiced Tachism and a conglomerate of other styles, quickly catching up with stylistic developments in the West. No longer depending on nature, he painted imaginary figures, and made objects out of shirts stiffened with glue. He scanned avant-garde periodicals, visited out-of-the-way exhibitions, traveled, and questioned his contemporaries. But the half classical, half Modern esthetics, in the vein of the École de Paris, that were taught at the academy in Düsseldorf left Richter unsatisfied. Then in 1962–63 Pop art appeared on the scene, and became the turning point for Richter.

The American Pop artists, including Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann, Andy Warhol, and others, reacted against the elitism and abstruseness of the Abstract Expressionists by making icons taken from the environment of daily life, and by choosing as subject matter such common things as comic strips, billboards, supermarket fast food, hardware supplies, furniture, and so on. Their industrial style and iconographical treatment of kitsch initially had political, social, and economic implications, even though the artists were not necessarily involved in politics. Nevertheless the misconception that equated Pop art with naive optimism was common in the early ’60s: as one critic wrote, “They [the Pop artists] have done so not in a spirit of contempt or social criticism or self-conscious snobbery, but out of an affirmative and unqualified commitment to the present circumstance and to a fantastic new wonderland, or, more properly, Disneyland, which asserts the conscious triumph of man’s inner resources of feeling over the material rational world.”4

The release from tradition provided by American Pop art, together with the experience of Fluxus concerts, annihilated everything Richter had done up to that time. “I thought that one was not allowed to paint from photographs,” he remembers, “until I saw the first reproductions of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings in Art International.” Lichtenstein’s nonartistic and unconventional method of painting cartoon images provided Richter with the next necessary detachment to break from the dominant European painting tradition. At about that time, he recounts, “I threw away all my paintings, burned them, and started anew.”

In Europe, parallel to radical activities in art in the United States, Richter and other artists from the Rhineland section of Germany—including Sigmar Polke, Konrad Lueg, and Wolf Vostell—as well as K. H. Hödicke and K. P. Brehmer, from Berlin, opposed formalism in preference to an art that dealt with their own environment. This entailed taking a subject matter that contrasted sharply with the ironic attitude of American Pop. The Germans chose the uncertain political reality of daily life and work in a country divided by a bitter schism. Brehmer expressed the implications of their socially conscious attitude: “we can only find a wider basis for our work if we deal with the problems of the masses, if we go into these problems and try to contribute something to their solution. But that can’t be accomplished through our work alone.”5 Richter, too, struggled with conscientious objections to being “just a painter”: “There were things that were more important to us than painting. We had to go into the street, to demonstrate and create a party, to be active. This time was a bit neurotic, of course, when you had to ask yourself what you were allowed to do. The activity of painting in context was understood to be reactionary, and so if you were somewhat sensitive you always had to think carefully about whether it was permissible to paint or not, and if so, what.”

But it was the arrival of Fluxus, with its ironical, anarchistic attitude toward society, that released Richter from this repression, and at the same time lifted somewhat for him the political imperative of the times. On February 2 and 3, 1963, the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, initiated by Joseph Beuys (a professor at the Düsseldorf academy) and organized by George Maciunas, took place in the academy as a “colloquium for the students.” Maciunas set the tone of the evening with his manifesto: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional and commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM!’ [sic].” This presentation was described by Tonio Finta in his article “Kaka, Sch und geplatzte Torte” (Kaka, shit, and exploded cake), in Der Mittag, February 6, 1963: “Then over the paper curtain flew, alternately, huge amounts of cardboard strips and printed paper, which later turned out to be the manifesto of the ‘fluxus’ movement, authored by Maciunas, its chief ideologue, and composed in flawless American.”

Richter remembers Nam June Paik’s Fluxus Champion Contest (in pissing) performed by members of the group—Frank Trowbridge won, at 54 seconds. He also remembers Beuys’ performance of Siberische Symphonie, I Satz (Siberian Symphony, first movement, 1963); Vostell’s Décollage musique, Kleenex 4, 1963; and John Cage (who appeared on the poster and possibly on audio tape, but not in person). He summarizes the events: “It was all very cynical and destructive. It was a signal for us, and we became cynical and cocky and told ourselves that art is bull and Cézanne is stupid, etc., and . . . I’ll paint a photo! Fluxus was the catalyst.”

Soon thereafter, on October 11, 1963, Lueg and Richter staged their own event, “Eine Demonstration für der kapitalistischen Realismus” (A demonstration for capitalist realism), in a Düsseldorf furniture store, Bergeshaus, Flingerstrasse 11. Here the usually serious Richter loosened up. He recalls the occasion:

It wasn’t very serious. There was Socialist Realism, which was very well known, especially to me. This was just the opposite, and I could use it without taking it too seriously, because “Capitalist Realism” was another form of provocation. There is no such thing as Capitalist Realism. This term somehow attacked both sides: it made Socialist Realism appear ridiculous, and did the same to the possibility of Capitalist Realism as well.

The concept for the demonstration had three parts: first, the complete furniture store would be exhibited in an unaltered state; second, a programmed viewing of the Demonstration would be presented to spectators on October 11; finally, in a separate space an average living room would be exhibited as if it were being lived in, along with such typical paraphernalia as food, drinks, books, and housewares. The two painters, dressed in black suits, white shirts, and ties, were also on exhibition. Some pieces of furniture were placed on pedestals, like sculptures, to make people realize that they were seeing an exhibit.

Richter’s and Lueg’s exhibiting of themselves recalls Piero Manzoni’s presentation of himself on the pedestal he called “base magica,” in 1961, and it anticipated the “living sculptures” of Gilbert & George. The setting in the furniture store is also reminiscent of Oldenburg’s “Store” exhibition, which opened in December 1961 in a small store on East 2nd Street in New York. “The Store” had been an attempt to bring art objects back to their real function as Oldenburg saw it: “Why should I even want to create ‘art’—that’s the notion I’ve got to get rid of. Assuming that I wanted to create some thing what would that thing be? Just a thing, an object. Art would not enter into it.”6 “The Store” had also served as a location for performances, which Oldenburg characterized as “Theater of Objects.” The several floors of the much larger furniture store chosen by Richter and Lueg were also used to present a combination of event and exhibition. In the midst of the showrooms of bed and living room furniture they hung their own paintings (all 1963): Lueg presented Vier Finger (Four fingers), Betende Hände (Praying hands), Bockwürste auf Pappteller; Bügel (Sausages on paper plate; hanger); Richter showed Mund (Mouth), Papst (Pope), Hirsch (Stage), and Schlosse Neu-Schwanstein.

The event in the furniture store owed something to Duchamp, but when this was pointed out to Richter he qualified the reference: “Yes, yes. But then someone more like a prole would do it. But I’m no prole, never was . . . and I like a bit of culture. But I’ve never been a dandy, either. I don’t have this intellectual arrogance. It’s not my thing.” Richter was not so much attracted by Duchamp’s more private brainy puns as by his ready-mades, and even more so by his paradoxical attitude, reflected in Fluxus, of making an intellectual, critical statement through the use of public imagery and banal materials. Fluxus’ emphasis on ephemera confirmed for Richter the use of casual family snapshots and ordinary magazine clippings, which he had begun to work with in 1962. Once Richter had purged himself of tradition through his active participation in what at the time was radical and “new” in art, he could reconcile that same “anti-art” attitude with his desire for classical beauty. From then on he would no longer experience painting hesitation, evidenced by the hundreds and hundreds of pictures that follow, which he numbers for organizational reasons.

The first numbered photo/painting is Tisch (Table, 1962), which he based on a black and white illustration from the Italian magazine Domus. This use of an illustration from a glossy design magazine such as Domus is exceptional; most of the series of tabloid pictures that followed, up to the last one, “Tourist,” 1975, take poor-quality reproductions from cheap magazines as their models. Tisch could be an illusionistic painting, precisely and smoothly painted, if the picture were not “spoiled” by a highly visible smudge. This textured, streaky smear, which could be a mockery of gestural painting, leaves the spectator in doubt: is it just a nonartistic smudge, or an element of the painting painted in Abstract Expressionist style? In either case, the smudge obstructs the plasticity of the table, and causes it to flatten out so that the object becomes identified with the ground of the canvas. In order to soak up the surplus oil and thereby thin the paint surface to make it resemble a photograph, Richter pressed a newspaper on to the wet paint; this left a slight imprint which contributes to the effect of a poor-quality newspaper reproduction. Because of this the image shifts between representing a conventionally painted illusion and a magazine illustration.

Tisch seems close in thinking to Vostell’s process of décollage, begun in 1958, as demonstrated during the Fluxus events in Düsseldorf and later in May 1963 during the Yam Festival of Happenings in the Smolin Gallery, New York. There Vostell put up a wall of collages from current Life magazines and invited the audience to smudge out parts of the collage with cotton drenched in carbon tetrachloride. For Vostell, “Décollage is the art of de-collaged forms—such as disrupting, squashing, exploding, tearing, erasing, and melting. The objects change their original form. Décollage decomposes the collage that preceded it.”7 Richter’s photo/painting also suggests details of Rauschenberg’s combine paintings in which he applied his invented technique of transferring photographs from their original ground on to a new one. Later Rauschenberg, along with Warhol, hit upon silkscreen reproduction as a means of transferring blowups of photographs to canvas. “The printed material became as much of a subject as the paint,” he wrote, “causing changes of focus and providing multiplicity and duplication of images. [It was] a third palette with infinite possibilities of color, shape, content and scale . . . added to the palettes of objects and paint.”8 In Tisch Richter, using instead a tradition of painting the photograph, arrived at a similar result as Rauschenberg had.

Unlike such 19th-century predecessors as, say, Degas, and more significantly unlike Rauschenberg, Richter’s work is more a photograph than a painting. Unlike Warhol, however, it feels more like painting than a photograph. Richter’s vision twists the 19th-century idea of the radical choice between painting and photography, between abstraction and realism. Instead of choosing between the two ways he embodies the 20th-century split sensibility which combines the miscellaneous experience of both. His dualism broke his enslavement to past traditions of both painting and photography, showing him the possibility of crossing the borderline back and forth and of exploring a stylistic no-man’s-land between realism and abstraction: “I was able to see it [the photograph] differently, as a picture . . . without all those conventional criteria, which I formerly attached to art. There was no style, no composition, no judgement. It liberated me from personal experience. There was nothing but a pure picture. Therefore I wanted to possess it and show it—not to use it as a means for painting but to use painting as a means for the photograph.”9

Tisch may have been for Richter what Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, was to Rauschenberg, who said of that work that he “was trying both . . . to purge myself of my teaching and at the same time exercise the possibilities so I was doing monochromatic no-image.”10 Using the eraser as a drawing tool fit de Kooning’s practice of erasing images. Richter, through the double entendre of the smudge in Table, got rid of the old Tachistic esthetics, exploring at the same time new non-stylistic possibilities. Rauschenberg and Richter, secure in their knowledge of the past, could virtuously efface the methods of their predecessors in the hope of becoming a part of their own age—although some leftovers tended to slip in.

Richter has in common with Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and others the rejection of traditional subject matter in favor of a more directly accessible iconography that mirrors banal daily life—he has to such an extent that too often over the last twenty years superficial comparisons have been made and based only on the use of similar subject matter. The fact that Lichtenstein and Oldenburg both used a lightswitch, a stove, and other household appliances as subject matter, that Robert Morris and Beuys both worked with wax and felt, or that Lichtenstein and Richter both took brushstrokes as subject matter for a mural doesn’t necessarily make these works cancel each other out or prove that one was made totally under the influence of the other. Instead, such similarities show how differently the same subject matter or material can be treated. In fact, in photo/paintings such as Trockner (Drier, 1962), Schärzler, 1964, Turmspringerin I and II (High diver I and II, 1965), or Alfa Romeo (mit Text) (Alfa Romeo [with text], 1965), he stands closest to (and farthest from) Lichtenstein, who met the dilemma of painting and yet not painting by introducing cartoon images he did not create. “The impersonal look is what I wanted to have,” Lichtenstein wrote. “I prefer that my work appear so literary that you can’t get to it as a work of art.”11 Lichtenstein searched for an enhancement of the highly mechanical and detached style of cartoon images, for a technique that would seem to be, but actually would not be, commercial. Richter also wanted an impersonal procedure. “Pictures should be made according to a recipe. The act of making should occur without inner involvement, like crushing stones or painting a building. Making is not an esthetic act.”12 Just as Lichtenstein had done in his cartoon images, Richter found a way in his photo/paintings to handle such emotional content as love, war, and crime in a common manner. But he doesn’t choose an industrial style like Lichtenstein’s application of benday dots, or Warhol’s assembly-line use of silkscreen reproductions, which builds up the power of the image. Richter never loses the painting touch, and the provocation of the subject matter is brought out by his “classical” method of transferring the image by dividing the canvas into a grid, just as the old masters used to do. Later, in 1965—again as Lichtenstein had done—he used an episcope to project the image onto the canvas, but not out of a sense of the necessity to be faithful to the original, as Lichtenstein had said in an interview with John Coplans in Artforum in October 1963: “The closer my work is to the original the more threatening and critical the content.” Especially in the beginning, Richter stayed close to the original because he felt he had to establish that he was painting photographs. In retrospect he realizes how imperfect these early pictures were: “When I look at these pictures today, they’re so imperfect that they look like paintings again, because in the meantime we’ve had the Super-Realists—I admired Malcolm Morley’s ocean liner very much—and they showed us how to really achieve technical perfection.”

In his later photo/paintings, Richter could freely depart from the original model, as long as he maintained the essentials of photography. By using defects in the photographic method, such as blurring due to camera movement, combinations of in focus and out of focus, simplification due to sharp black and white contrast, grainy quality, smudges and specks due to sloppy development technique, and so on, he created “flaws” that mediate between the two mediums. Nor was he averse to introducing television static or to painting other arbitrary and invented, yet convincing, disturbances, like the smudge in Tisch. In all these variations Richter employed the softening, blending effects of “classical” painting techniques to intensify the ambiguity between style and nonstyle. He attributes the haziness of many of the photo/paintings to his own relation to reality, which has something to do “with insecurity, inconsistency, and fragmentary performance.” But he insists that since paintings “are not made in order to be compared with reality they cannot be indistinct or inexact or different.”13 They only seem hazy in comparison with the subject painted.

Richter took for subject matter images that are at first sight dull, in contrast to Warhol, who chose newsworthy, dramatic images and used them with calculated timing, for example in his silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe, done just after her death. Even when he used front-page material Richter always underplayed the sensational and avoided the fashionable: “I painted Jacqueline Kennedy, but I made her unrecognizable, because I was embarrassed to paint Jacqueline Kennedy. It was such a beautiful photo, of a woman crying.” Where Warhol’s detachment seems to be complete in his use of an objective, mechanical style to depict such gruesome subjects as the electric chair or disastrous car crashes, Richter, despite his detached vision, still shows a sentimental involvement: “I would rather paint the victims than the killers. When Warhol painted the killers, I painted the victims. The subjects were often poor people, banal poor dogs.”

In 1964 the architect Philip Johnson commissioned Rauschenberg, Warhol, Oldenburg, and Robert Indiana, among others, to make murals for the New York World’s Fair. Warhol made 10 huge silkscreens of the FBI’s “most wanted” men, which proved too controversial and were exhibited only briefly. In 1966, Richter, in his turn, painted portraits of eight student nurses who had been killed in the dormitory of a South Side Chicago hospital, in Acht Lernschwestern. “And here, because I didn’t know them personally,” he wrote, “I just wanted to paint anonymously, not in color, from the photos, that is, to avoid painting, avoid direct involvement with life and through it subjectivity and still, despite the detour, produce an affect so that it touches your heart, indirectly, not in a conventional—sentimental—way.” Even the subject of Turmspringerin, which embodies the desire for completeness, the Olympic ideal of physical strength and beauty, is given a human turn to emphasize the sloppy gray world we live in. In painting with high black and white contrast a photograph of poor quality, casually cut out yet enclosing the concentrated energy of the athlete trying for a perfect jump, Richter found a way to underline perfection by containing it in an imperfect state. His series of urban cityscapes, the “Stadtbilder,” are another example of the paradox between a desire for classical beauty in the way they are architectonically painted and a precise photographic registration of the pessimism at the end of the ’60s about an obliterating technocracy. Such a pessimism surprises him because of his not easily achieved earlier commitment to detachment: “They were horrible, like newly built housing developments, so inhuman, revolting. They looked as if they had been bombed, though they were normal cities. But I never said that I meant anything with them.”

But in 1975 Richter’s indirect involvement came to an end in a series of paintings entitled “Tourist.” It was painted after a movie still which illustrated a newspaper story about a tourist who was eaten by a lion while visiting a wildlife park in France. The tourist had stepped out of his jeep for a moment in order to photograph the lion. His friend, who remained behind to film the animal, accidentally recorded the tragedy. Richter commented: “I made four pictures, and that was the end of it. Since then I haven’t painted from photos anymore. I realized that I was becoming the tourist, because I would get eaten up too. I can’t always restrain myself.”

At the end of the ’60s the attitude of West German artists toward America changed. In 1970 Beuys published a small edition of the Fluxus manifesto that Maciunas had performed at the Düsseldorf academy. Beuys tore the manifesto out of Jürgen Becker and Vostell’s book Happenings, Fluxus, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme (Hamburg: Röwholt Taschenbuch, 1965), photocopied it, and changed the word “Europanism” to “Americanism”, which made the sentence read: “PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘AMERICANISM!’” He then had it published with his signature and stamp. Richter did not speak out as directly, but he gradually turned away from the consumer world as subject matter, and engaged himself more and more in a dialogue on painting and style in relation to photography.

Richter is not the type of painter who keeps working in any one style; he is too complex, too restless, and too responsive. He is engaged in a continuous process of discovery: it may be an obsession with a painterly idea to be followed to the end; he may dialectically choose to oppose his own work; or again, in asking questions, he may become aware of so many new problems that he has to start all over again. For instance, in 1968 he reacted to his own series of emotionally loaded, sharply contrasted black and white “Stadtbilder,” painted in heavy impasto, by doing a series of monochromatic “Graue Bilder” (Gray pictures, 1968–76), smoothly painted in a neutral, emotionally unified tonality. The latter have nothing in common with the monochrome paintings of Yves Klein, or Ad Reinhardt’s painting everything into an overall uniformity and regularity. They not only avoid the mystical “nothingness” of the Zero group, but are also too sentimental to fit the Minimalists, with their anti-illusionistic, nonmetaphorical approach. For Richter, “Painting always deals with illusion. You can’t avoid it. The ‘Graue Bilder’ are total illusion, they are not merely color.” At that time Richter was rather desperate, a fact that is reflected in his making what he thought was a nihilistic statement in the “Graue Bilder.” He recalls comparing them to John Cage’s remark, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” But the nihilistic motive turned into something positive, even beautiful: “It was the ultimate possible statement of powerlessness and desperation. Nothing, absolutely nothing left, no figures, no color, nothing. Then you realize after you’ve painted three of them that one’s better than the others and you ask yourself why that is. When I see the eight pictures together I no longer feel that they’re sad, or, if so, then they’re sad in a pleasant way.”

His indirect involvement in the “Graue Bilder” is almost identical to his approach in the photo/paintings of the student nurses; apparently it makes no difference whether an image is used or not: “With the ”Graue Bilder“ I wanted to avoid painting. I forbade it. But I also wanted to avoid representing life in any way; nevertheless I did represent it. They have emotion and sadness, and one can feel moved by them. I wanted to get into these things precisely by avoiding painting, and avoiding life.” The monochromatic “Graue Bilder” became in their nonreferentiality more subject to painting than to photography; in 1975 they were included in the “Fundamental Painting” show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. But to Richter, “Gray is, by virtue of its neutrality, . . . eminently suited to act as mediator, to clarify, just as illusionistically as a photograph,”14 and he believes it is better than any color in the representation of “nothingness.”

After beginning the smoothly painted “Graue Bilder,” Richter produced the “Fingerspuren” (Finger traces, 1970), the roughness of which is in turn offset by the glacially surfaced “Wolken” (Cloud) studies, 1970. In 1971 Richter made a painting from a photograph, with an illusionistic appearance, in shades of yellow, beige, and brown. In response, Blinky Palermo made a monochromatic, anti-illusionistic companion piece by mixing Richter’s different color shades into one color. In yet another series, the “Farbtafeln” (Color charts, 1966–74), which run in size from small to monumental, Richter wanted to point out that any color will match another as long as one has the right system—which in this case included certain overall proportions, divisions of white strips, and the consistent use of lacquer paint. Next he contradicted his own system by painting “Farbtafeln” in which the colors match even without white strips. The “Farbtafeln” can be seen as a sequel to the “Graue Bilder,” but at the same time they are a comment on such paintings as those of Josef Albers, Richard Paul Lohse, and Victor Vasarely. It was not a huge transition for him to follow this up by painting a photograph of an area of trees in a park in a painterly manner, Parkstück (Park piece), at the end of 1971. For Richter, “There is no difference between a panel of colors and a small, green landscape. Both present an identical, fundamental attitude.”15 Then, instead of continuing his tree studies, he picked up on the green color scheme, decomposing the landscape images more and more toward total abstraction, while sustaining the mood of the park. Whirling touches are extremely prominent in these abstractions; they gave rise to another painting idea, that of grinding up, which is demonstrated in the paintings of 1972–73, where the colors red, blue, yellow, and white are mixed in what appear to be enlarged brush strokes made up of overlapping tracks of the different colors.

The differences between Richter’s attitude during the ’60s and that of the ’70s stand out clearly when one compares his collaboration with Lueg, in 1963, to his collaboration with Palermo in 1971, Zwei Skulpturen für einen Raum von Palermo (Two sculptures for a space by Palermo). The former is an anti-art and ironic event: the latter evinces a longing for classicism. According to Richter, “at that time something classical, an idea of euphoria, of painting purity, clarity, and beauty was strictly forbidden. The installation took place in Galerie Friedrich in Cologne. Palermo painted the walls in a nonmetaphorical, anti-illusionistic way, going beyond their identity as walls to give a universal, generalized effect, while Richter installed two plaster sculptures of Palermo and himself with closed eyes, cut off at the neck as in normal classical busts, on pedestals as tall as the artists. ”It had something to do with the image of the artist,“ he recalls ”with the memorial of the artists, and with immortalization."

In its classical mood this installation anticipated the “Achtundvierzig Portraits” (Forty-eight portraits, 1971–72). Richter returned to photo/painting with this impressive series of “portraits” of well-known physicists, philosophers, writers, poets, composers, and others all male and nearly all born in the 19th century. If the photographic illusion had not induced a modern element, the past would have taken over the painter this time, especially in the symmetrical installation he gave them, as a sort of “hall of fame” in the German Pavilion, during the Venice Biennale of 1972. This installation recalls the traditional portrait galleries found in universities or aristocratic places. The absence of women enforces the impression of a male-dominated society; where are writers like Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf; the composers Clara Schumann and Ethel Smyth; the astronomer Henrietta Leavitt or the scientist Marie Curie, to mention a few? But women are not allowed; according to Richter, because of their difference in features and clothing, the inclusion of one or two female portraits would disrupt the homogeneous, linear flow of the installation. The formality of the men, dressed in their dark suits, white shirts with stiff collars, and ties, complemented by the classically balanced installation, is undercut only by the crude highlighting and black and white contrasts which are the result of enlarging photographic reproductions taken from an encyclopedia. In his selection Richter deliberately avoided going off the oppressive track by doing something that would have been noticeably distracting; hence there are also no painters, as their inclusion might introduce an element of personal choice.

In exploring different painting styles during the ’70s, Richter’s oeuvre spread out like a fan. During the early ’80s the many layers of the fan have closed up again—but not quite fully—into the introverted “Abstrakte Bilder” (Abstract paintings, 1976–). Here Richter expresses what he feels and how he lives. They are complemented by a more public outlook on the world in “classical” photo/paintings of candles, skulls, and landscapes, which are sometimes shown side by side with the “Abstrakte Bilder”: “There is the notion that it’s actually appropriate for an artist to develop a specific type of expression and that’s it. This is seen as the high point. But then again you’ll always find arguments on the side of making two or more different kinds.” Compulsively, Richter alternates between the series of “Abstrakte Bilder,” boldly painted and vigorously scraped, and meticulously painted photo/paintings, in order to keep the intrinsic quality of “classical” painting alive.

While the “Abstrakte Bilder” are of a Modern, nonconformist sensibility, the others, made after snapshots he takes himself, capture the intimacy of a sentimental, romantic mood, and embody nostalgia for an image of the world that doesn’t exist any longer but can be held onto through the old masters. Traces of it can still be found in an increasingly threatened nature. Richter longs to make “classical paintings” himself, which, as long as they can be understood as a part of our time, will be part of today. The drive for a romantic “classicism” is offset by the nonstylistic inclusiveness and impurities found in the snapshots he works from. They are a built-in contemporary opposition which allows him to reveal himself sentimentally: “The paintings are often even kitschy, when I bring all the elements from myself into them, because I’m not just good and rational and all that, but I also put all the rubbish into them.” The same can be said of the examples from the “Abstrakte Bilder” series that were made between 1976 and 1980, which he painted from photographic blowups of painted sketches, some of which he changed slightly, blurring the original starting point. Faust, 1980, is the last photo/painting painted according to that method: “In the beginning it’s all very simple. It doesn’t matter which color you use or how big it is or whatever. Then it gets harder and harder. I start to think about it, and then sometimes I make a photo of it. I try what looks right on the photo and that never works. It’s a way of seeing what to avoid. Then sometimes I lay a transparent sheet over the painting and paint on that, and that never works. Whatever I think out consciously doesn’t work. It suddenly works some other way, and I’m surprised that it works. Then I get something just right; it’s right the way a painting can be right—I don’t know why.”

The most recent series of “Abstrakte Bilder,” painted directly, without using a photograph of a painted sketch, are even more layered, even more complex arrangements of contradictory feelings. The first stage is a finished picture, which seems dead because it is too beautiful. Next Richter destroys that beauty by painting another layer, in a reverse sensibility, over it. Perfect brush strokes have to be offset by venturesome, kitschy ones. Harsh colors, chosen to provide the greatest contrast, are set next to one another. The color scheme is about intensity; a new sense of atonality comes into being, avoiding on the one hand everything that is too “piquant,” and on the other hand the complementary, close-ranged tonality found, for example, in landscapes, paintings of old masters, or Kodak photographs. So rich in contrasts are the “Abstrakte Bilder” that it is impossible to photograph them in color without losing some of the effects. Yet even these paintings retain an illusion of photographic space through their depiction of a blurred, out-of-focus background with clearer layers up front.

In his “Abstrakte Bilder” Richter tries to give an independent answer, an actualization of his own experiences, one that is expressive of modern disintegration but that goes beyond it to preserve a unity of opposites. They are not painted in a reaction to or in relation to any dominating art movement. Richter relies on himself, and as a result the “Abstrakte Bilder” communicate more immediately his feelings, even when they are ineffable: “The pictures are identical to me; there’s no detour and no transformation and not too much intellect. I want the painting be be transparent. I want it to tell the whole drama.”

The stolid repression of Modernism by East German doctrines that Richter experienced at the Dresden academy made him go against the grain, asserting his own identity as an outsider. In crossing the border, he lost that identity because of his new-found, seemingly total freedom of expression and sense of belonging. However, that liberation also turned out to be restricted by the parameters of sophisticated avant-garde thinking, which is bound to its own rules—of historical analysis and self-criticism; of detachment and involvement with society; and, the rule most limiting to Richter, of breaks with the past to reach the “new” in art. It is not the imprisonment of keeping up with the latest styles that turns Richter into one of the few serious contemporary painters. Nor is it an obedience to notions of what a painter is supposed to paint. In each encounter with a fresh canvas Richter relives the conflict within himself of crossing borders of all types. Unable to forget the past, he forces himself to break with it. This dichotomy, this Janus-faced duality which is so pivotal in his work, this position of voluntary exile which is destined to remain an ongoing restless search, turns Richter into one of the most intense contemporary painters. He is polemical toward “bad” painting, yet always aware of the other side, as is clearly demonstrated in his statement about art education today: “Dilettantism is everywhere; that’s the new direction. The academies are very much a part of it. On the one hand, this is completely awful and will no doubt pass. However, on the other hand something will develop from this that has less to do with pure technique. The dilettantism may provide the basis for a future development.”

Coosje van Bruggen is an art historian and curator who lives in New York.



1. William Carlos Williams, The Embodiment of Knowledge, New York: New Directions, 1974.

2. Unless otherwise noted all quotes from Richter are from a taped interview with the author on November 20, 1983, in Cologne. West Germany.

3. Paul Cézanne, Uber die Kunst, Mittenwald, West Germany: Mäander Kunstverlag, 1980.

4. Alan Solomon, “The New Art,” introduction to the catalogue for “The Popular Image,” an exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C., April 18–June 2. 1963.

5. Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus, Berlin: Edition René Block. 1971, p. 19.

6. Claes Oldenburg, Notes, New York, 1961.

7. Quoted in Rheinisher Merkur (Coblenz), November 22, 1963.

8. Robert Rauschenberg, Print XIII, i, January–February, 1959, p. 31.

9. Gerhard Richter, interview in the catalogue of the the 36th Venice Biennale, 1972. p. 23.

10. Interview, May 1976. p 36.

11. “Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol: A Discussion,” Artforum, vol. 4, no. 6, February 1966.

12. Grafik des Kapitalistischen Realismus, p. 29.

13. Gerhard Richter, interview in the catalogue of the 36th Venice Biennale. 1972, p. 24.

14. Fundamentele Schilderkunst, Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1975, p. 57.

15. Quoted in Gerhard Richter, Paris: Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou—Musée National d’Art Moderne, 1977, p. 47