A former student remembers his ‘friendly, but merciless’ teacher
Do you know what ‘Richter’ means in German? It means ‘judge’. I started at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1973, where Gerhard Richter had been teaching for some years. I hadn’t done any art before arriving, except some drawings, but one of my friends was a painter and had been in his classes. He said: “Richter is okay, he lets everybody do as they wish.” So I joined his classes in 1976.
The academy had a good atmosphere. It had a canteen, workshops, heating and free studios. At the time we had an odd director, the very early minimalist sculptor Norbert Kricke. In one year he had hired Klaus Rinke, Gerhard Richter, Günther Uecker and Bernd and Hilla Becher. So not only was there a boom in the number of young students (the year I arrived there was an intake of 150), but also a host of artist-teachers in their late thirties or forties who were very engaged. They treated the students like artists, not as kids, and there was a lot of exchange of ideas and information between everybody. We also got to hear first-hand from other artists and theorists who would arrive in town. One week Benjamin Buchloh would give a lecture, or Richard Serra would show his movies, or Lawrence Weiner would talk about his work. It was a very good situation.
Richter was always supportive to me and the others. He was a friendly teacher, but merciless too. His main question would be: ‘Didn’t you ever think about doing something else, other than art?’ It was so polite, but you wouldn’t be able to sleep for days afterwards. He never said ‘that’s bad’, or ‘you must destroy this’. At the time I was trying out everything, from painting to photos, and white paintings on the wall to the brick wall Grosse Mauer (Large Bricks) 1977. I still have a lot of works from that time, which I showed at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds in 2007.
What I liked about his attitude was that he expressed doubts much more openly than any other artist. He always was scrupulous, thinking his work was not good enough. He was never a show-off painter like all the other German heroes. He wouldn’t be dogmatic; in fact, he would be the opposite. He would plant questions and doubts into the young people, but also into himself. I think that is why he has gone through so many different periods during his career. Some years ago I joked to him: ‘The real painting has still to come.’I think his abstract paintings are okay, but they are also a symptom of being stuck. But the feeling of being stuck happens to every artist – every single day. And the problem of failing exists for every serious artist.
He was definitely the main influence on how I work. He had the approach that if you can’t continue in one direction, you can switch to another. If I’m stuck, I don’t spend my weeks in misery, I change direction, switching between problems, media or scale. What I learned from Richter is that even with a limited field you can create a rich story with one’s work, if you work every day. He had the confidence in his own medium, painting. I find that very interesting.
I owe Richter, as well as his friends the gallerist Konrad Fischer and the curator Kasper König. As soon as I finished at the academy I started showing and selling a little all over Europe. Without these three people there would be nothing. They pulled me out of the art school scene, into the world.