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“I simply copied the photographs in paint and aimed for the greatest possible likeness to photography. So I avoided brush marks and painted as smoothly as I could. Factors like overexposure and lack of focus found their way in unintentionally, but then they had a decisive effect on the atmosphere of the pictures.”
Gerhard Richter studied painting at the Kunstakademie in Dresden. From 1951 to 1956, he worked as a muralist during post-war years in East German. In 1961 he moved to West Germany to continue his studies at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. While there, he was taught by the painter Karl Otto Götz, a leading German representative of Art Informel. After graduating in 1963, Richter became active in the contemporary art world of Cologne and Dusseldorf, where he was exposed to the latest trends in art: American and British Pop art, and the Fluxus movement. Inspired by these trends, Richter and Konrad Lueg, a fellow artist from school, organized a one-day event on 11 October 1963, Demonstration in Support of Capitalist Realism. They displayed themselves as well as furniture on pedestals as works of art in a Düsseldorf department store.
Despite the conceptual and performance art elements of this event, Richter always regarded himself as a painter. In 1962, he began to explore this medium systematically. He set aside traditional concerns for subject-matter and composition and concentrated exclusively on the process of applying paint to the surface as a means of conveying information and also as an expressive force.
He began to paint enlarged copies of black-and-white photographs limiting himself to greys. He chose his subjects from a variety of sources: newspapers and books, sometimes incorporating their captions; private snapshots; aerial views of towns and mountains, and seascapes. Richter used these photographs as starting-points and not as images to be copied.
The reliance on a ready-made source gave Richter’s paintings an objectivity that he felt was lacking in the abstract art of the period. They appeared casual, inconsequential in subject and lacking in artistic pretension. The blurred and indistinct images that emerged in their transformation with thick layers of oil paint, freed them from their traditional associations and meaning. They were thus considered as pure paintings.
In 1969 Richter produced the first of a group of grey monochromes that focused on the textures created by different methods of paint application. Even as early as 1966, he had made paintings based on colour charts, using the colour rectangles in a limitless variety of hues. This series culminated in 1973–4 in a series of large-format pictures in which painting was reduced to its essence. Although these paintings, like those based on photographs, were still dependent on an existing image, all that was left of the image was the presence of colour, the essential material of all painting.
By 1976, all vestiges of subject-matter seemed to have been abandoned by Richter. He began to work with bright colours and broad, expressionist brushstrokes as seen in Diffuse, 1986 (NGC). Concurrently, he also painted conventional-looking landscapes that were photographic in origin.
The extreme variety of Richter’s work left him open to criticism. His rejection of maintaining a consistent style was a conscious conceptual act that allowed him to investigate freely the basic principles of painting. Uninterested in a linear development, he opened himself to the possibility of adopting whatever idiom best suited his purpose. In the series 18. Oktober 1977 which Richter produced in 1988 from black-and-white photographs, he recorded the death of members of the Red Army Faction who were imprisoned in West Germany. Given their highly political connotations, these pictures introduced a further provocation to Richter’s observations about painting as an objective activity.
Lilies, 2003, a recent work is an example of his photo-realist work. It is a still-life depicting a bouquet of white lilies in a glass vase placed on a table. Richter has frequently turned to traditional subjects for inspiration.
Over the years his work has reflected a wide range of influences, including Pop, Minimalism, Abstraction, neo-Expressionism, and Conceptualism. Austerely critical of himself and of the practice of art in general, Richter has in fact consistently eluded all "isms."