Rundschau series on the 90. Birthday : gerhard richter – an artist who doubts

Every year in the fall, the "Kunstkompass" selects the most successful international artists – and has been doing so for more than half a century. For 18 years, one name has been at the top of the list: Cologne-based Gerhard Richter.

Although he has retired from the painting business, he is still considered the world’s best painter, the most successful. In exhibitions very present – at auctions always good for records. People went to the movies to see him paint ("Gerhard Richter Painting" by Corinna Belz) or to learn about his biography ("Werk ohne Autor" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). You go to the Cologne Cathedral to admire his prominent window.

The candle by Gerhard Richter

The work "Candle" is one of Richter’s most famous works.

picture alliance / dpa

Which is so popular precisely because it radiates a great spirituality, without being narrative like all the art and decor of the cathedral. The then host Joachim Cardinal Meisner had wanted something figurative, six martyrs. Richter refused, reached deep into his fundus, found the solution for his cathedral window in "4096 Farben" (1974). The fact that Meisner found it meaningless, used the word "degenerate" and thought it would fit better in a synagogue or mosque only made the window more attractive.

The breach of style as a principle

2007 was that. Richter at the zenith of his career, one of many highlights. Two years earlier the very important retrospective at the K20 Dusseldorf. In 2006 he becomes a father once again, in 2007 he participates once again in the Venice Biennale. In 2008 he paints a hundred abstract reverse paintings on glass ("Sindbad"), in 2009 he can be seen in parallel in large exhibitions in Vienna, London, Munich and Grenoble. No other artist achieves this presence – especially with his unbelievably fresh work of old age.

Gerhard Richter - here in 2015 at the presentation of abstract paintings in the Albertinum in Dresden

Gerhard Richter – here in 2015 at the presentation of abstract paintings in the Albertinum in Dresden.

What makes Richter so successful, his work so irresistible?? Said his work? It is hard to find anything more heterogeneous: there are the photo paintings that began in the 1960s, the abstract paintings that emerged at the same time to be divided into various phases and subgroups. Then, as a giant conceptual project and quarry of motifs between 1962 and 2013, the "Atlas" is created, comprising thousands and thousands of illustrations on 802 panels. There are 38 artists’ books, sculptures, tubes, glass and mirror works.

"It’s a little ugly, Cologne, a lot ugly."Clear words, which Gerhard Richter gives slightly mischievous in Corinna Belz’ documentary film "Gerhard Richter Painting" from the year 2011 from itself. "If chance had taken me somewhere else, I would love that too – or like it."Since 1983 he lives in the cathedral city, in the Hahnwald he has a house and his studio, a first one was in the Bismarckstrabe.

In 2007 he was awarded honorary citizenship – in the same year he expressed his gratitude with the cathedral window. Fritz Schramma he portrayed for the gallery of former mayors. The Duz friend felt he had to return the favor in 2019 and launched the idea of a "Gerhard Richter Museum". An idea that the otherwise rather interview-shy artist flatly rejected in an interview with dpa: "I don’t want a Gerhard Richter museum!"

He calls the Museum Ludwig "my home museum" – even though the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden is home to the "Gerhard Richter Archive". (HLL)

An exuberant, changeable work and an artist who doubts and struggles with himself and with painting. At the same time works like a man possessed. The phenomenon Richter is hard to grasp. "His unconditional belief in art and his demonstratively painted disbelief in the possibility of art today became Richter’s daily credo qua absurdum: I believe because it is unreasonable," wrote art historian Eckhard Gillen on his 85th birthday. No artist has conducted the debate about the meaningfulness or absurdity of painting in the age of the new media and the neo-avant-gardes so insistently and so consistently in public. For 60 years he has been the talk of the town.

And this largely with works of art that, despite their intellectual superstructure, have a strong sensual appeal: the blurred, out-of-focus photographic images that refuse to engage the viewer and yet make him even more curious; the traces of color drawn with a squeegee that perform a sophisticated game of chance and calculation on the abstract paintings and give rise to bizarre color spaces that one had not seen before; the clouds of color with which Richter covers Titian’s "Annunciation". Gray skies, cloud paintings, shadow paintings.

The series could be continued almost endlessly. It is hard to imagine that almost all of his work groups began almost simultaneously in the 1960s. The breach of style as a principle. "When I asked him in a first conversation in 1970 why he practiced stylistic change in his painting as a kind of stylistic principle, he answered spontaneously: Because I am insecure. That was anything but meant coquettishly," says art expert Klaus Honnef, when asked about Richter’s recipe for success. "Rather, it expressed his attitude of avoiding any kind of definition, of not letting it get so far that a style, a trademark, so to speak, emerges."

Failure as a constant possibility

The consequence was "that he, knowledgeable in all painterly techniques, always understood painting as a field for creating something impossible, such as painting photographs rather than copying them."Failure is a constant possibility in his art, says Honnef, who published an excellent monograph on Richter in 2019: "And many of his best pictures are an expression of this failure – most recently the stirring Auschwitz-Birkenau cycle – which nonetheless radiate a sense of responsible freedom on the viewer as well. Painting despite everything, is the compelling motto." In his book, Honnef gives hints about factors that led to Richter’s success.

The fact that his photographic images were (erroneously) labeled "German Pop Art" (he called it "Capitalist Realism") and that the art market craved it probably boosted Richter’s reputation as much as the network of up-and-coming galleries that presented him, growing up with him, and he with them: Rudolf Zwirner (Essen, Cologne), Heiner Friedrich (Munich), Rene Bock (Berlin), Konrad Fischer and Alfred Schmela (Dusseldorf). All with good international contacts.

Which is not to say that the trees grew to the sky for Richter. In the German art scene, he was a career changer: childhood years in Dresden, artistic roots in Socialist Realism. Shortly before the Wall was built, he fled to the West, and at the age of 29 began his career in Dusseldorf.

Monetary success was initially limited. In 1969 he had his first exhibition in a public institution in Aachen, in the "Zentrum fur aktuelle Kunst – Gegenverkehr" ("Center for Contemporary Art – Counter Traffic") directed by Klaus Honnef. 1971 he is appointed professor at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. In 1972, he was featured in the German pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale with, among other works, "48 Portraits" and was on show at documenta 5, the start of an ever steeper career. Since the middle of 1980, his paintings have been selling steadily on the international art market, one reads in the chronicle on the website of the Richter studio.

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Monograph on Gerhard Richter : lines of development of a planned spontaneous

In 1970 the first art compass was published. US artists dominated with pop art the ranking determined by Willi Bongard, later by Linde Rohr-Bongard. Richter is also already there, nevertheless rank 57 (Beuys on place 32).

In 2015, "the most expensive living artist" (Monopol) criticized the art market and the hype surrounding it: "A frightening development," the then 83-year-old told Die Zeit. The horrendous prices for his paintings are proof of "how insanely the art market has developed". They would have nothing to do with the work. "This is pure personality cult."

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