I WAS RECENTLY introduced to the reputation of the highly regarded German painter Gerhard Richter by a collector who bought a small work of mine. Some consider Richter the greatest living artist today. This collector, a philosophical writer and novelist, was sure I would find this noteworthy man of particular interest, specifically the painter’s extensive pronouncements on art.
Here is a brief snippet from an interview I found fascinating, and while the bulk of my current work has little in common with Richter’s, I do agree with his declared independence from the hordes and the art theorists, despite my penchant for muddying my own waters.
There is a substantial body of work on Richter to be found on the web. I think, for my part, Gerhard Richter may very well herald a shift away from the figurative towards abstraction as a matter of confidence building. Time will tell.
From the Journal of Contemporary Art, January 15, 1990. Translated from the German by Klaus Ottmann:
Sabine Schütz: About a year ago you created a great stir with your painting cycle “18. Oktober 1977.” This group of fifteen paintings, done in the black & white blurred photographic style of your earlier work grapples with the death of the RFA [Red Army Faction] terrorists in the Stammheim prison and unleashed a controversial and emotional discussion which went far beyond a purely artistic debate. Were you pursuing with these paintings a direct political concern?
Gerhard Richter: No direct political concern, especially not in the sense of political painting which has always been understood as politically left, as art which exclusively criticized the so-called bourgeois-capitalistic conditions—that was not my concern.
Schütz: But the subject has not only been highly explosive but it was also expressly politically left . . .
Richter: . . . which now can be considered completely laid to rest . . .
Schütz: . . . exactly, and it is also already history. One could ask now why you came forward with these paintings in 1989 and not already ten years ago?
Richter: This time distance was probably necessary. But I cannot exactly explain the reasons for making something at this or at that point in time; something like that does not proceed by plan but rather unconsciously. It seems important to me that the paintings now, with the breakdown of the socialist systems, obtain another, more general component which they did not have so evidently a year ago. On the other side, I shun to talk about the concerns or statements of the paintings. I do not want to narrow them down through interpretation.
Schütz: Do you see the terrorists today as victims of a false idea which was inevitably doomed to failure?
Richter: Definitely. Nevertheless I also feel a certain sympathy for these people and for their desperate desire for change. I can understand very well if one cannot find this world acceptable at all. Furthermore, they were also part of a corrective which we will first be missing in the future. We will find other attempts at criticism eventually which will be less sentimental or superstitious and more realistic and therefore more effective—I hope.
Schütz: This cycle has been described as a resuscitation of historical painting which has been largely ignored by modern and contemporary art. Would you agree to this categorization?
Richter: This does not interest me that much. Even when it occurred to me, while painting, that these pictures could be regarded as historical paintings, that is, as something reactionary, it didn’t make any difference to me. This is more a problem for theoreticians.
Schütz: In your journal you once said that it shouldn’t actually be possible to paint the way you paint: without subject matter. Was it different with this cycle? Was there a subject matter?
Richter: Yes, there was. But this “black” note referred more to the abstract paintings and beyond that to the general helplessness and powerlessness which then of course can itself become a subject matter. But on the other hand, one has sometimes enough motivation which renders questions such as these abstract—one then just paints.
Schütz: When you begin a painting, do you always know from the start what you want to paint? Could one say that you are a conceptual artist?
Richter: No, that I am not, and I don’t always know what I should paint or how the painting should look in the end. Even with the Oktober cycle I did not know what kind of painting would come out of it. I had an enormous selection of photographs and I also had quite different ideas. Everything should have been much more comprehensive, much more to do with the life of the depicted, and at the end there was this small selection: nine subjects and very much focused towards death, almost against my intention.
Schütz: One would not necessarily have expected from a painter who twenty-five years ago already once painted toilet paper, to confront a subject so rich in content. Even the record player is in itself a banal object. However, the relation to the pictorial subject seems to have changed considerably since that time.
Richter: Not considerably, because a toilet-paper roll is not necessarily a funny picture. Neither is it true that I am now old enough to paint only sad things. But the record player painting is of course a very loaded painting, since the viewer knows that it is the record player of Andreas Baader, that in it was hidden the deathly weapon, etc. That doesn’t make it a better painting, but it obtains first more attention, because one can attach more of a narrative to it.
Read it all.