Gerhard Richter

Dresden Germany 1932, lives and works in Cologne

The two grey monochromes by Gerhard Richter, which De Pont has on long-term loan, form a strong visual contrast with his multicolored, 120-part Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Painting) from 1992. In a general sense as well, Richter’s oeuvre includes highly divergent types of work. His work is an exploration of the possibilities which painting still holds.

Richter originally regarded his grey paintings, produced between 1968 and 1976, as the expression of a personal powerlessness to create ‘real’ paintings, but gradually he came to realize that these works have a much more general significance. The monochrome is, in a certain sense, the limit of painting – a limit which has been explored by many artists. By relinquishing color, Richter confined his latitude even more than had previous painters of monochromes. 

In a letter from 1975 Richter associates the color grey with Gestaltlosigkeit, with formlessness. And he has repeatedly said that he considers himself an ‘informal’ artist. The nearly even-toned Graue Bilder (Grey Paintings) are, in his view, as much an example of informal art as of the impasto paintings from the fifties for which the term is normally used: they reflect our era’s lack of a guiding concept as to the arrangement of society and, in connection with that, of art which is regarded as being universally valid. Nonetheless, with their beautiful treatment of paint, the monochromes attest to Richter’s persistent belief in the value of painting.

Other works of Richter that deal with Gestaltlosigkeit include the figurative paintings based upon press and private photographs, initially in black-and-white, which the artist lightly wiped with a soft brush while the paint was still wet. This gives the image a hazy appearance and thus makes one question its reliability. Richter, who grew up in Communist East Germany, has a profound distrust of ideologies and rigid world views; the informal allows him to make images less absolute, to neutralize their banal quality. On the other hand, since the seventies he has been making increasing use of conventional elements in his figurative work: there have been hazy landscapes and paintings of figures in color that often verge on kitsch. He creates images that are, in fact, too beautiful to be true. That the beauty of those works is actually implausible points to the problematic nature of dreams for a better world, which are nevertheless a dire necessity.

The complex and usually very colorful abstract paintings produced after 1976 are not the result of planning, but rather of the destruction of plans. The informal is now presented as a kind of cosmic chaos, a jumble of layered paint structures. In Abstraktes Bild, from 1992, there is a confrontation between chaos and a grid. In fact there are two grids: the regular grid that is formed by the edges of the 120 small paintings and a fragile, irregular grid of red paint that extends across those paintings. The latter comes about through Richter’s scraping away of the blue, green and white layers of paint in some areas; this is where the bottom, red layer of paint is exposed.

Like the monochrome, the grid, which Richter has also used in previous work, continues to surface in twentieth-century art. It is a rigid form, an arrangement without any differentiation, but the red grid in this work is, on the contrary, irregular and jagged. The red lines give rise to a dialogue, as it were, between the rigid grid formed by the small paintings and the formless green, blue and white layers of paint. In this way Richter brings about an improvised, capricious and fragile order between the opposites of complete rigidity and chaos.

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Robert Storr on the work of Gerhard Richter (SFMoMa)

Nicholas Serota in conversation with the artist

Website of the artist