In 2017, artist Gerhard Richter made the announcement that his latest series of paintings would be his last. At 85 years old, the physical demand of his practice was starting to take a toll. While Richter noted that he will continue to work on smaller drawings, the announcement symbolized the end of a period of painting by Richter that shaped much of the art world of the past century.
The Early Sixties: Beginnings
It wasn’t until he was in his early thirties that Gerhard Richter set his sights on becoming a professional artist. Arriving in Düsseldorf in 1961, Richter enrolled in the Düsseldorf Academy, where he found himself surrounded by other prolific German artists of the time, such as Sigmar Polke and Joseph Beuys. Richter found himself torn between the stylistic innovation of the US, such as Jackson Pollock’s approach to abstraction and Andy Warhol’s approach to pop art, and an indebtedness to the socio-political focus of European art at the time.
Throughout the early 60s, Richter experimented with different source materials, but ultimately settled with photographs from newspaper clippings. Richter described photographs as “The most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style.”
As seen in his 1966 work ‘Sailors’, Richter would take a photograph, translate it onto the canvas in paint with cool, monochromatic tones, and blurring the image to give the appearance of it being out-of-focus and in motion. Richter would state that his obsession with blurring images comes from a desire to “make everything equally important and equally unimportant.”
The Late Sixties: Entering Abstraction
In the later half of the 1960s, and as his fame began to rise, Gerhard Richter began to further explore abstraction and its endless potential. Already embracing it in part with his signature style of blurring found photographs, Richter was in search of something more profound.
Richter conceived a series of works called the Color Chart paintings after a visit to a Düsseldorf hardware store, where the artist noticed an array of paint sample cards. He became inspired by the industrially formulated and chromatically comprehensive selection that was utterly devoid of aesthetic motive. In order to make the paintings, he copied the cards exactly, injecting as little compositional input as he could. Each Color Chart painting presents multiple uniquely colored and uniformly sized rectangles or squares of glossy paint arranged on a white background. The Color Charts were among the first of Richter’s paintings not done in black and white, and stands as a memorable example of Richter’s ability to constantly reinvent his artistic practice.
The Eighties: Abstraktes Bild
In a return to the gestural style of his photographic paintings and a move away from the minimalism of his Color Chart paintings, Richter embarked on his Abstraktes Bild series, which introduced the iconic use of the squeegee technique. This process was not one of addition, but rather of subtraction — exploring the instantaneous moment of creation, purposely uncontrollable and purely facilitating the application of paint rather than the final composition. Richter would apply pressure using homemade wood and plexiglass squeegees to drag and wipe the paint repeatedly across his canvas, methodically building up and deconstructing the layers. The resulting bands and smears of vibrant color rupture as they sprawl across the canvas. The Abstraktes Bild series is widely considered one of his greatest contributions to art history, beginning the series in 1976 and continuing it through until 2017.
The 1980s marked another shift in Gerhard Richter’s practice, one that returned to his very first obsession: the photograph. He began a series of overpainted photographs. Unlike his photo-inspired paintings from the 1960s, these works used a true photograph as the background, with Richter applying layers of paint above to disrupt and conceal the image. The result is a fascinating interplay between the photographic image and the painted surface, that challenges the viewer's perception of both mediums.
The 2000s: Strip Paintings
In 2011, Richter once again reinvented his artistic process with his Strip series. Stepping away from the use of source material taken by others, he instead utilized his own earlier painting as the source material. Digitally dissecting his Abstraktes Bild (724-4) (1990) into 4,096 sections, Richter mirrors, multiplies and recombines the details, finally printing them as pictures composed of horizontal stripes, in various formats up to 10 meters in length. Using computer-controlled image-making processes to reinterpret his own abstract painting, we are once again reminded of Richter’s incredible, chameleon-like ability to transform as an artist.
2017: The Final Painting
Gerhard Richter’s final large-scale painting, Abstraktes Bild 952-4 (2017), represents a culmination of all of the past decades of artistic exploration. His final paintings are his most complex, most layered works, revealing and concealing more than before. Hues of red and black (a color rarely used by Richter) creep through acidic strokes of green and purple. Above all, his final set of large-scale paintings radiate with a sense of freedom not seen in previous works.