ARTIST ROOMS artist essay

Three rooms comprising 14 works including: two sculptures (Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo, 1971 and 11 Scheiben (11 Sheets of Glass), 2004; two important early paintings (Brigid Polk, 1971 and Gilbert, George, 1975); three mirror paintings dated 1991; four abstract paintings dating between 1994 and 2004; two works on paper (Untitled, 1985 and Self-Portrait Standing, Three Times, 17.3.1991, 1991); and the important photographic work, 48 Portraits, 1971/1998.

Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden, which after World War II became part of the German Democratic Republic. He left East Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall was built in 1962 and settled in Düsseldorf. He has since become one of the most successful and influential painters.

In the mid-1960s Düsseldorf was one of the most stimulating places for an artist to be. The arts clashed with the rapidly growing economy. The Fluxus movement, including Joseph Beuys, was staging its events. Richter had his first one-man show with Alfred Schmela in 1964 where he exhibited several of his early paintings based on photographs. The future gallery owner Konrad Fischer together with Richter and others created the short-lived movement Capitalist Realism. However, although Richter felt that art needed to be shaken up at this time, he never considered giving up painting.

Richter began his ongoing investigation into the process of painting during the 1960s, and, as can be seen from his book entitled The Daily Practice of Painting (1992), it has sustained him ever since. His work generally demands a long period of gestation. The most flamboyant-seeming abstract marks are precisely applied. There always has to be a good reason for what and how he paints. He identified three broad areas of activity in painting: figurative, constructive and abstract. But the categories overlap and the artist may also use early works as a reservoir of ideas to be developed later.

During the 1960s and into the 1970s Richter’s work was primarily figurative but the realist tendency is always balanced by the care he takes to distance it from naturalism, by using photographs. He paints his images in shades of grey, or in black and white, and blurs and simplifies them by brushing over the wet paint. This arbitrary intervention also disassociates the work from the personal responses of the artist and makes it seem more abstract. In portraits such as The d’Offay Donation’s Brigid Polk (1971) and Gilbert, George (1975), there is a similar blurring effect. In 48 Portraits (1971/1998) realism is tempered by the black and white photo reproduction source from an encyclopaedia which makes these images seem both primitive and iconic, and perhaps closer to propaganda than portraiture.

Just as Richter has always maintained that in portraiture he prefers to paint from photographs as a means of keeping his personal reactions out of the picture, when dealing with an abstract situation Richter always maintains a connection with the world of reality outside the picture. His coloured mirrors draw in the outside world, although their dark colours also present a world of shadows.

Since the 1970s Richter has made many purely abstract paintings which concentrate on the often dramatic reality of colour, brushstroke and texture, but these can sometimes reveal contrary existences beneath the final surface. The d’Offay Donation covers all aspects of the artist’s complex practice and includes unique works in many different media from the sculpture Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (1971) to the recent glass sculpture 11 Scheiben (2004).