This month the German painter Gerhard Richter celebrates his 85th birthday with an exhibition including new paintings at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Without adhering to a fixed style, without using expressive gesture or observational truth, Richter reinvigorated the medium of painting, helping him rise to become one of the most prominent artists of our time.
Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA in New York, believes that Richter is the author of pictures so “different from one another that at first glance they seem to be by different hands.” Not that anyone could possibly mistake a Richter, his incisive investigations into every facet of human image making could only emanate from him alone. For over 60 years he has relentlessly scrutinized the viability of contemporary painting in the age of digital reproducibility, producing conceptually challenging and aesthetically engaging works that interrogate how images that seemingly portray truths, can be wholly untrustworthy and unstable.
His backstory is nothing short of extraordinary. As a 13-year-old boy, he saw the glow as Dresden burned during World War II. His mother’s brother was killed fighting and her younger sister, Marianne, a schizophrenic, was starved to death in a Nazi euthanasia camp. After the war—and despite being supported as an artist in the GDR—he grew frustrated at the limitations put upon him, and after seeing Jackson Pollock’s work in documenta II, he and his first wife Ema fled to the West. This was in 1961, a matter of months before the building of the Berlin wall.
Since his move to Düsseldorf, Richter has never looked back, and he enjoys international acclaim as the finest painter of the 21st century. As well as the most expensive—in 2015 his painting Abstraktes Bild (599) attained the astounding price of $46.3 million at Sotheby’s auction house.
Now alongside 26 new paintings created last year, many pioneering works will be on show from the Ludwig Museum’s permanent collection. We take a look at some of the standout works included in the exhibition.
Ema (Akt auf einer Treppe), Ema (Nude on a Staircase), 1966
Considered by many to be one of his key works, Ema, 1966, also remains one of his most controversial. Once the victim of a knife-attack it now hangs behind unbreakable glass at the Ludwig Museum. The painting reveals a life-sized naked woman descending a staircase, possibly asleep. An example of his astounding photo-paintings, it provoked one Berlin museum director to reject it in 1967 on the grounds that he “did not collect photos, but paintings.”
The figure is of Richter’s first wife, Marianne Eufinger (Ema), two months pregnant. Using his pioneering blurring technique, she is before our eyes but as though hidden behind a veil. Now known as the “Mona-Lisa of Cologne”, it was Richter’s response to seeing a Marcel Duchamp exhibition in 1965 and his famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Richter was drawn to Duchamp’s “conclusions about the incapacities of painting” and Ema was painted with extraordinary sensitivity, even modifying the light source of the original staged photograph, so as to allow the figure to emerge forward.
Richter is known to become frustrated at not achieving the close-focus precision he often aspires to. In an interview with his biographer, Robert Storr, he revealed his compulsion to blur the image to make the painting work: “It’s an emergency move at the end. To make the picture attractive to look at.” Yet he has also made clear that he blurred “things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant”, so that they do not look “artistic or craftsmanlike but technological.”
Fünf Türen (Five Doors), 1967
The year Richter painted 5 Doors was an unsettling and transitional time for the artist, his daughter had just been born and he painted far less this year than was usual for him—archiving only 31 works that entire year. The doors tease by offering a way out but never reveal what lies beyond. Evoking a sense of transformation, they challenge the viewer to enter into the space beyond.
11 Scheiben (11 Panes), 2003
With eleven panes of glass stacked beside each other, Richter is playing with the ability of glass to be both reflective and see-through. The transparency of each pane is incrementally affected by the addition of each further pane’s reflectivity, providing the trademark blurring effect so evident in Richter’s photo-paintings.
Poised between architecture and painting, the artist is also playing with the western notion of a painting being either a window to another world or a mirror reflecting whatever is held before it.
48 Porträts (48 Portraits), 1972
Made for the 1972 Venice Biennale, Richter’s oil paintings are intended to resemble soft-focus black and white photographs. Each of the heads appears uniform as though emanating from an identical source. Oscar Wilde and Albert Einstein are included and each of the figures are white European or North American males in the fields of music, philosophy, and science. Markedly no politicians or artists are included in the list. The gazes were arranged facing from the center to the left and from the center to the right, with the central portrait being that of Franz Kafka seen head on.
In typical Richter style, the artist refuses to give any indication of what lies behind the work, and the work itself does not reveal anything as to why these characters were selected. “I am interested in the speechless language of these images: heads, although full of literature and philosophy, become quite unliterary. The personalities become anonymous. That’s the point.”
Krieg (War), 1981
It is alleged that Richter did not like the painting, and felt the name was too explicit. In later abstract works he would just number them and would not comment on the subject matter. Painting, according to Richter, has to retain “something incomprehensible”, and his intent in later works is for the viewer to dissect the painting based solely on the merits of the paint itself.
For his painting Krieg, large swathes of paint are pulled in emotionless paths across the canvas, using Richter’s trademark squeegee. The works made during this period often explore the language of abstraction whilst uncovering strategies to “dismantle the machinery of figurative painting.”
Richter has often made claims to paint like a “camera” even when there is a dearth of photographic content: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph, I’m trying to make one”, says the artist, “those of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs”.
Gerhard Richter is also a skilled producer of multiple and limited edition works, and a small selection is available to buy here on fineartmultiple.
“Gerhard Richter New Paintings” at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne will be on view from the 9th of February through to the 1st of May 1, 2017.