Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gerhard Richter’s work has provided five decades of rebuttal to the prevailing claim that painting is a dying medium. Now that Richter is one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential artists, many forget that he competed in such a hostile critical landscape during the 1960s and ’70s. He struggled for recognition against the darlings of the Minimal and Conceptual schools early in his career, and he adopted their cryptic tone in descriptions of his own work: “I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency,” he wrote. “I like the indefinite, the boundless.”

Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting

By Dietmar Elger
389 pages
University of Chicago Press

Yet Richter later admitted he put on this posture of indifference for self-protection. Many of his paintings call to mind the damaged psyche of his native Germany, others reflect on his family life. It troubled Richter to think that his work would be dismissed as sentimental. Instead, he presented his paintings as “fictive models” coldly exploring the ontology of the image, which raised the illusion that his deeply personal subjects were traps for critics foolish enough to fall for such a superficial reading.

A Life in Painting is the first biography of Richter and portrays the artist as neither apolitical nor unemotional. The author, Dietmar Elger, was once his studio secretary and now presides over the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden. Elger follows Richter’s life through Germany’s troubled century as well as through the vagaries of contemporary art, taking nothing for granted in the reader’s prior knowledge. His writing is thorough, earnest, and even in translation it has the waltzing cadence of academic German. He situates Richter’s work within the events of his life in a way that the artist, himself, had long resisted.

Richter was born into the Third Reich, then was raised behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. He lived in the firebombed city of Dresden and practiced in the enforced Soviet Realist style until he fled to the West at age thirty. Richter settled in Düsseldorf, where he studied under the Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys and became acquainted with later collaborators like Sigmar Polke. Richter was first recognized in the mid-1960s for painting blurred images copied from photographs. The works were lauded for engaging the very discipline that once threatened the obsolescence of painting, and he was awkwardly categorized a pop artist for depicting iconic and horrific subjects with detachment. One such subject is copied from a snapshot of his uncle, a Nazi soldier posing proudly in uniform. Another depicts his aunt, who was taken to a psychiatric hospital and murdered during the Third Reich’s cleansing of undesirable citizens.

Richter’s later work includes landscapes, grid-work color charts, and enormous mirrors meant to display the inescapable transience of images. Yet today he is most famous for large-scale abstract paintings, many of which have signature mottled streaks from pulling a squeegee across the canvas. For these, Elger says, “Richter intentionally veered from the avant-garde course and, in so doing, revitalized a type of painting whose end had been erroneously declared.”

By this time in his life, it seems, Richter was influential enough to revitalize any art form he chose—and to charge seven figures for it. Elger’s biography culminates in Richter’s 2002 commission to design a stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral to replace the one that was destroyed during World War II. It is a fitting end for the story of an artist who lived through the rise and fall of Germany—its defeat, division, and reunification—and finally overcame his resistance to the role it played in his life’s work.