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Long Profile of Artist Gerhard Richter


Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German artist Gerhard Richter on the press day of his exhibition 'Gerhard Richter Panorama' at the Neue Nationalgalerie on February 10, 2012 in Berlin, Germany.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Brief Biography:

Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, Germany, and raised in Waltersdorf, a small village on the Czech border. As a child, he grew up under control of the Nazis, and then after the war, by the Russians in Communist East Germany.

He became interested in art as a teenager and studied painting at the Dresden Art Academy in 1951, where he soon became a muralist, painting Socialist Realism imagery on public buildings.

A trip to documenta II in Kassel, West Germany, in 1959 exposed him to art by Jackson Pollock, Jean Fautrier and Lucio Fontana, which convinced him he had to leave the Iron Curtain behind. In 1961, before the Berlin Wall was constructed, he escaped East Germany to live in West Germany.

From such bleak wartime beginnings, the prolific painter has become one of the most successful artists of the 20th century.

In 2012, he became the highest-selling living artist as his painting Abstraktes Bild, owned by Eric Clapton, sold for a record price of $34m at Sotheby's.


Richter attended the Düsseldorf Academy from 1961-1964, where Joseph Beuys was professor, and he befriended fellow art students Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer and Blinky Palermo.

While a student, he explored the relationship between painting and photographic images, a formal concern which he would pursue throughout his career.

Signature Artworks and Art Genre:

Gerhard Richter is known for his paintings of both abstraction and figuration, done with brush and by squeegee, which he calls 'technical wiping'.

He rebelled against the prevailing viewpoint that an artist needed to develop one signature style, as his art encompasses all styles.

His oeuvre includes a vast range of genres and subjects in painting: alpine landscapes, animals, children, candles, nudes, toilet paper rolls, color charts, stripes, and abstracts, plus sculptures, glass works and stained glass.

Many of his figurative images are based from photographs. His source material is documented in his encyclopedic Atlas, which include newspaper items, photographs and drawings.

He also maintains a comprehensive, and beautifully designed website: Gerhard Richter's site.

Summary of Artist's Artworks:

One of the strengths in his work (in which he is sometimes criticized) is that he is not beholden to any ideology.

Many of Richter's images evoke isolation, otherness and despair.

Certain themes recur in Richter's work:

  • the veracity of images (painted or photographic)
  • mediated images blur our memories
  • the media's obsession with death becomes our obsession
  • horror exists in the banal
  • freedom (not being pinned to a specific style was freeing)
  • Important Art Exhibitions and Collections:

    Gerhard Richter had his first solo exhibition September 1964, at Alfred Schmela's gallery in Düsseldorf, while the same month, he was in René Block's Berlin gallery group show entitled Neodada, Pop, Décollage, Kapitalistischer Realismus.

    He exhibited widely in museums and galleries around the world, and his art is actively collected by major collections. He exhibited in numerous documenta exhibitions and various Venice Biennales.

    He had a 40-year retrospective in the US in 2002-2003: Forty Years of Painting debuted at The Museum of Modern Art, and traveled to The Art Institute of Chicago; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; and Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

    He's won numerous awards such as the Staatspreis of the State Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, in 2000; the Wexner Prize, 1998; the Praemium Imperiale Award, Japan, 1997; the Golden Lion of the 47th Biennale, Venice, 1997, to name a few.

    Key Publications:

    There are numerous texts on Gerhard Richter. Here are two to start with:

    Notable Quotes:

    "Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God."

    "Art is the highest form of hope."

    "Theory has nothing to do with a work of art. Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures. A picture presents itself as the Unmanageable, the Illogical, the Meaningless. It demonstrates the endless multiplicity of aspects; it takes away our certainty, because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.


    Gerhard Richter's painting series titled October 18, 1977 consists of 15 black and white paintings based on news and police photos of Germany's Baader-Meinhoff terrorists. The mournful, yet ambiguous imagery, drew controversy as viewers did not know if Richter was eulogizing or condemning the group.


    His landscape paintings have been compared to Caspar David Friedrich, and his luminous Candle series to Georges de la Tour.

    Besides inspiring younger artists such as Thomas Schütte and Thomas Struth, he has influenced the indie band Sonic Youth and the novelist Don DeLillo, whose short story "Looking at Meinhof" referred to Richter's controversial Baader-Meinhof series.

    Sources and Further Reading:

    Biographical, Art and Exhibition Information Courtesy of the Following Sites:

    Quotes by Richter:

    Superlative Interview

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