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Monday, August 3, 2015

Gerhard Richter

A painting titled Abstraktes Bild by Gerhard Richter (1982) brings a record
price of $44.62-million, for a work by a living artist, February, 2015.
The past couple days I've been discussing labels. I've talked about generic labels having to do with media and broad areas of style. I've talked about art history labels involving eras and movements. Yesterday, I discussed comparative labels between two artists. In general, I'm not too fond of labels in that they're very often inadequate, inaccurate, and sometimes incomprehensible. But, as a writer as well as an artist, I also recognize labels as an invaluable necessary evil. We who write have to give things names. We have to apply adjectives. We have to give art (and usually by inference, the artist) meaningful labels which are familiar enough to the reader to be useful in bringing to mind generally accepted concepts or images. However, some artists should never be labeled. (Some might argue that applies to all artists.) One such individual is Gerhard Richter. Notice, I didn't even label him as to nationality or gender, though the name, itself, probably makes both unnecessary.

Skull with Candle, 1983, Gerhard Richter. The artist lost several relatives during the war.
Self-portrait, 1996, Gerhard Richter.
Yes, it's a painting, not a bad photo.
Gerhard Richter was born in 1932. Technically he's German, though his birthplace of Dresden, is so far east as to make him also Polish and Czech. The border town of Lower Silesia where he spent his early childhood was in Czechoslovakia at the time, but is now called Bogatynia (and it's now in Poland). The whole area is sometimes referred to as being Slavic. In that he seldom stays in one place very long, it's best to say, like so many top artists today, that Richter is "international." As for his art, don't even think about labeling that. The man has painted in virtually every medium and style having to do with Modern Art, mixing them, smashing, mashing, and splattering them together to such a degree any labels, wouldn't stick very long in the first place, and would be largely meaningless in any case. Add to that fluency in photography, printmaking, and sculpture, and it quickly becomes apparent that all the labels applicable to Richter would involve a list as long as your arm, thereby negating their usefulness. Labels are a literary form of shorthand.
Untitled, 1989, oil on photograph, Gerhard Richter--war as a blight on the landscape?
A very large part of who Gerard Richter has to do with when and where he was born. The area of Richter's early years, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, might well be termed "ground zero" with regard to World War II. Richter was fortunate in one regard, though his father, a secondary school teacher, was drafted into the German army and fought on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, his son was too young even for the Hitler Youth. He was, however, conscripted into the German Youth, which was something of a "cub scout" organization preparatory to the Hitler Youth. Gerhard, his mother, and sister survived the war by moving to a small, alpine community too remote and insignificant to see much fighting. In any case, the young artist's character and persona were not formed by the war, but in its desolate aftermath as Richter began studying art amid the bombed out horrors of Dresden during the early 1950s. Later, in 1961, Richter was fortunate too in that he, his wife, and daughter escaped East Germany for the West by way of Berlin bus ride just two months before the wall went up.

Townscape Madrid, 1968, Gerhard Richter
Betty, 1988, Gerhard Richter
Upon completion of his studies at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, Richter sought out a career as a mural painter only to have his first two efforts painted over some years later by the East Germans for ideological reasons. During the 1950s, Richter worked at the academy as a "master trainee" painting portraits and what he called "townscapes," which evolved into paintings such as his Townscape Madrid (above) from a decade later. In 1957, Richter married his first (of three) wives, who gave birth during the same decade to their daughter, Betty, seen in the youthful portrait (below) dating from 1977; and his much more famous portrait of her (right) dating from eleven years later. What do you do when your model is so easily distracted? Actually, Richter is probably as famous for it innovative exploration of the tired old art of portraiture as for anything else. No one, with the possible exception of Andy Warhol, had shaken up the painted portrait to such a degree. His self-portrait demonstrates one of his most common techniques--the blur. His double portrait of the performance artists, Gilbert and George (below, left), explores a sort of photographic collage technique which he has sometimes used as source material.

Betty, 1977, Gerhard Richter
Gilbert and George, 1975, Gerhard Richter.
Richter has also pursued similar exploratory ventures into landscape paintings--more blurring--which also suggests an atmospheric haze akin to aerial perspective. Or, as seen earlier, Richter simply takes blown-up landscape photos and imposes upon them dramatic swaths of richly textured, multi-colored paint, in effect setting Abstract Expressionism to war against photographic realism. During the 1970s, Richter explored color theory in a series of color tab works seemingly hijacked from a local paint store, as seen in his 1025 Colours, from 1974, (below, right).

House Sohl, 1972, Gerhard Richter.
1025 Colours, 1974,
Gerhard Richter
Richter has recently become famous for the incredible prices his older pieces have brought at auction (top). It might surprise some to realize that most of these record prices were for Richter's Abstract Expressionist works done in the 1980s, specifically his giant Abstraktes Bildseries in which the artist delights in "playing" with the paint on canvas, using brushes, squeegees, and other more unconventional tools in broad strokes with a wild abandon not seen since Jackson Pollock first "accidentally" dripped paint on one of his canvas drop cloths. Richter's painting, Abstraktes Bild, (as of early 2015), established a new record price of $44.62-million for a work done by a living artist. Though none would dare label Richter as merely an Abstract Expressionist, it would seem that his works from this period such as his Fisch 1-3 (below), also from the 1980s, and other serial works from this period, have, nonetheless, been his most popular paintings.

Fisch 1-3, 1980s, Gerhard Richter
S with Child, Gerhard Richter.
(The male Mary Cassatt?)


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