Gerhard Richter

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God.”

– Gerhard Richter 1962

Gerhard Richter was born is Dresden in 1932. He is currently one of the world’s most popular and celebrated contemporary painters. My introduction to his work was the 2011 documentary Gerhard Richter Painting. The film is very interesting and provides an insight into Richter’s process in the studio, how he creates his abstract paintings, and some of his theories on art. Since I’ve discovered his work, I continue to be surprised each time I return to his oeuvre . He is a painter that has gone through many evolutions and approached many different subjects from many different angles and techniques. He became popular in the 1960s with his photo paintings, in his personal writings from 1964 he noted, “The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source.”

In the documentary I remember thinking how Richter seems to be an artist that attempts to empty himself of his own thoughts and intentions in order to let an expression move through him. In other words, the artist becomes an empty vessel capable of channeling something greater. Although his photo paintings and Abstracts seem to be worlds apart, there is a similarity to his approach to a painting that is consistent. Richter attempts to be free of style, to allow an image to appear, whether or not it is representational. For Richter, whether or not an image is abstract or representational is arbitrary, what is important, and universal, is that when one looks at a painting they are looking to see something that they know. One of the key characteristics of his photo paintings, and most of his representational work for that matter, is that there are no sharp lines, the images appear slightly blurred or smudged. Ricther said on 2000,  “The smudging makes the paintings a bit more complete. When they’re not blurred, so many details seem wrong, and the whole thing is wrong too. Then smudging can help make the painting invincible, surreal, more enigmatic – that’s how easy it is.”

In his abstract work, he is patient to let things develop. After a days work he makes no decisions as to what to change untill he has left the studio and returned the next day. He seems to be capable of knowing when he sees something true, he develops and destroys untill the image appears that feels right, whether or not it is intellectually or reasonably justifiable. “If, while I’m painting, I distort or destroy a motif, it is not a planned or conscious act, but rather it has a different justification: I see the motif, the way I painted it, is somehow ugly or unbearable. Then I try to follow my feelings and make it attractive. And that means a process of painting, changing or destroying – for however long it takes – until I think it has improved. And I don’t demand an explanation from myself as to why this is so.”

Visit his site to explore for yourself, each time I dig in I discover something new.

Skull with Candle 1983 - Gerhard Richter

Skull with Candle 1983 – Gerhard Richter

Woman with Child 1965 - Gerhard Richter

Woman with Child 1965 – Gerhard Richter

Garden Path 1987 - Gerhard Richter

Garden Path 1987 – Gerhard Richter

Large Tiede Landscape 1971 - Gerhard Richter

Large Tiede Landscape 1971 – Gerhard Richter

Cloud 1970 - Gerhard Richter

Cloud 1970 – Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting 2005 - Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting 2005 – Gerhard Richter

Forest 2005 - Gerhard Richter

Forest 2005 – Gerhard Richter

Cage 6 2006 - Gerhard Richter

Cage 6 2006 – Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting 2008 - Gerhard Richter

Abstract Painting 2008 – Gerhard Richter

About Michael Johnson


  1. Zach

    Richter’s versatility astonishes me. He’s able to seamlessly transition from the hyper-realism of his photo-paintings, in which we can observe the technical mastery he developed as a socialist realist painter in East Germany before leaving for West Germany*, into the chaotic and unpredictable nature of his fully abstract works. I particularly find some of his still-lifes and portraits to among the most beautiful paintings i’ve yet to see: ‘Betty’ of 1988, ‘Lillies’ of 2000, ‘Reader’ of 1994, and ‘Flowers’ of 1991 specifically. What’s so remarkable, and mystifying, about these photo-paintings, is the way in which Richter creates a tension in the works themselves between the subtle and painterly blurring of the contours of objects and a somewhat indescribable realistic quality when taken in all at once: from a distance they truly seem photographic, while at the very same time impressing upon the viewer that they are undoubtedly paintings (‘Lillies’ being the exception as it features a significant blurring effect). I may not have articulated that very well, but the essence of what i’m getting at, and of what I think Richter’s photo-paintings contain, is a tension between the “documented” and the “painted,” and the way in which these two qualities ceaselessly vie back and forth in the paintings, resulting in a tension that never seems to settle, and which makes what would otherwise seem to be fairly innocuous still-lifes and portraits into works that contain a rare and renewing beauty each time I return to them.

    He also has an abstract triptych of very large double canvases that correspond to the winter months: ‘November,’ December,’ and ‘January’ all from 1989. They’re really quite remarkable and seem to be somewhat rare instances in Richter’s fully abstract works in which the paintings appear to directly correspond to external phenomena in both title and content.

    * The story he tells in explanation for why he felt he had to move is interesting: Upon seeing an exhibition of the New York School of abstract expressionism he felt challenged, particularly by Pollock. He said, and i’m paraphrasing, that, upon seeing Pollock in particular, that he didn’t understand what he was looking at, didn’t like them, but still felt profoundly challenged by them; and he subsequently decided that he needed to give up his socialist realist painting and begin to embark upon his own artistic path, which prompted him to move to West Germany. I found his story fascinating from the standpoint of how severely the aesthetic of Pollock moved him to completely re-think his own work. I sometimes forget, or at least I choose to forget during moments when i’m not so high on some of his works, how radical a challenge Pollock’s drip paintings were to artists around the world.


    • Thanks for this comment – I had never seen the November, December, January paintings before you mentioned them – they are incredible – though, I feel there is a lot of subtle color work that is escaping me in a computer screen and demands to be seen in person. You’re right about it being a rare instance of a direct correspondence to external phenomena – Richter is often (sometimes frustratingly) unwilling to label, title, supply meaning or intention. I have to say I enjoy the titles of the months, it is an entryway and an invitation, without losing the vast association and moving energy that many of his untitled abstract works harness.

      Pollock – I think one thing that is amazing about Pollock is his ability to maintain a coherence once he had made the explosive discovery of the drip paintings. What I mean by this, is that I think Jackson Pollock the man, the artist, was much more dynamic than the one mode of painting that he is known for, but what is admirable is his ability to recognize his unique bloom, and it’s appropriateness in his time – and to sustain focus on that bloom, sustain faith in it’s importance, and create a massive body of work that speaks to his sense of responsibility, and supports his view from a perspective that had such a wide scope. I think what’s so challenging about Pollock is both the violent aesthetic break from traditional forms of painting – and also his perspective and scope as a thinker, the ability to occupy a position that is so radical, and to remain there as a new axis for others to spin around, spin off of. I think Richter has become his own axis now, especially with his abstract work – it’s appropriate that Pollock shocked him into a new pursuit. I think what both artist’s share in their abstract work in an exploration of what is Unthought, Unthinkable. Recently I’ve started to see Richter’s influence in a lot of painters, I think that documentary alone, Gerhard Richter Painting, caused a lot of painters to go and try those techniques for themselves. Like Pollock though, it’s not simply the technique that speaks or has intrinsic ability, but it’s that intangible ability to wield energy, cast spells, and occupy a unique place in time that echoes. In other words – genius is singular, but inspiration multiform.

      last thought: what you say about the tension between the ‘documented’ and ‘painted’ I find very interesting, and far-reaching. Similar to what we talked about in our last exchange about what is planned and what occurs outside of control. I read one of Richter’s writings, I’ll have to paraphrase now, about how when engaging with the photo-paintings there is inevitably something that happens when the picture is transferred, through him, onto canvas. Meaning, even when he is trying to paint the picture to perfectly resemble the photo, exactly as he sees it – the end result has always changed, been altered, is now importantly different than the original image. I think, for Richter, this was incredibly interesting. This tension was explored in different ways, the blurring you mention, and then even further with smearing or sweeping away of images. This is a sort of link to the abstract work in the sense that the artist becomes a filter for a flow that passes through him – what is unthought becomes manifest inevitably, but can never be known, can never become intention. I like particularly what you say about the effect of the blurring on the viewer’s eye – the realism when taken all at once, and then the undefined quality of any single object in the representation – there is more to be said about this, i think you’ve put a finger on an important insight about the autonomy of representations – no single object can exist without a relation to surrounding objects – the picture makes sense as a picture, but no object is in itself intrinsically coherent.

      thanks again for the comment, really enjoy these exchanges –
      – Michael

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