Gerhard Richter

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

Gerhard Richter has one of the most interesting minds in Europe and one of the bravest talents. To say that he is the result of two worlds is to belittle the originality and excitement of his vision, but it is nonetheless helpful to know that he was born in Dresden in 1932 and educated as a painter in the old German Democratic Republic where no nonsense was tolerated. In 1959 he saw work by Pollock and Fontana, which, in its energy, looseness and individuality (the word he used later was ‘brazenness’), was the very opposite to the work he had been taught to make. Two years later he moved to the west, where Joseph Beuys, Pop Art, and Andy Warhol were having a very loud party.
Because the material in Richter’s head was rigorously controlled, almost severe, he brought a rare present to the party, something disciplined and cerebral. He remained committed to painting at a time when other artists were literally putting their own shit into cans (Manzoni) or making paintings that were almost decorative (Albers) or producing readymade work on silkscreen (Warhol). There is something wonderfully austere about even Richter’s wildest work and something oddly spiritual in his figurative work as he seeks through a sheer act of will to eschew the sentimental (at times he fails with this) while making images that are full of mystery and echoes of romantic feeling about figures and landscapes.
Even in his paintings which take their bearings from newspaper headlines and the tv news, and from photographs, Richter has insisted that the images he makes be challenging, mysterious, uneasy, and all the richer and more rewarding for that.
As an abstract painter – his work comes in many guises – Richter is fascinating because of his struggle with colour versus meaning, with chance versus choice. For him, the idea of allowing chance to win over deliberation and design and pattern must have taken an extraordinary annihilation of self. There is something tremendously fearless about Richter as an abstract painter, and that includes a fearlessness in relation to the creation of images of pure beauty and brilliant colour. His canvases are sites for sharp-moving excitement, for defenceless, aleatory possibility, and for, at times, a sensationalism in the effect.
He is fascinated by light and by time; thus there are paintings which seem versions of the world as seen from a high-speed train, or represented by a trick in photography. No image for Richter is simple, unsmudged by art history or by his urgent need to engage the viewer’s gaze in an act of seeing which is deeply complex and rich in feeling.
Richter finds himself in the strange position of an iconoclast who is destined to make icons. His paintings of women, of lighting candles, of flowers (if you don’t mind!), of landscapes, of cityscapes, have an aura of greatness about them; his wild abstract paintings insist, against all the odds (and sometimes in a tone too shrill), that colour and form can hit the nervous system as deeply as music or words, or as effectively as colour ever could in the past.
There are a few paintings by him that you could spend the rest of your life contemplating; these include the grey paintings from the 1970s, a painting called ‘Cloud Study’ from 1970 and an astonishing seascape from 1969. They are made all the richer, oddly enough, by the knowledge that Richter has made much more brazenly coloured and varied work.
The work at the Serpentine in London is close to the glass which Richter recently made for the south transept window of Cologne Cathedral. It displays bright monochrome squares arranged in a grid formation, paintings which might seem almost industrial, almost cold, without any ostensible urge towards transcendence. Richter produced work like this first in the 1960s using the colour charts produced by paint manufacturers. This work might seem less ‘serious’ than his more brooding abstracts or his more expressive figurative paintings, but if you stand and look closely and carefully and for a long time, they can have the same yearning and deeply spiritual impact as a Mondrian or a Barnett Newman.
Our job is to learn to look at them in the same tentative, exploratory spirit in which they were made, in the hope as Richter puts it ‘that something is going to come, which I do not know, which I have been unable to plan, which is better and wiser than I am.’