An early and a late work by … Gerhard Richter

After Boltanski, Artsper examines the work of German painter Gerhard Richter this week.

His comings and goings between abstraction and figuration and his technical mastery of the pictorial material make him one of the most expensive living artists of the market; he is absent from the annual  Artprice annual report  though because he was born in 1923. If in Boltanski’s case we could notice e certain continuity, things are different for Richter. The artist still uses painting as a medium, but his technique and scale have changed completely over the years.

Richter mural of the German Hygiene Museum, Dresden, 1956

Lebenfreude, 1956


Cage, 2006

During his last year of study at the Dresden school of art, where classical and academic studies were essential and the daily studies and drawings of nature were regarded as the culmination of the artistic genius, the young Richter got a commission from the Deutsches Hygienemuseum, on the theme of the joy of living (Lebensfreude). Very well received by the officials of the museum, the work was described as “a joyous celebration of a socialist system freed from fascism”. The work is extremely conventional and without relief, the human figures are robust, the children perform healthy activities and the group on the left, in the foreground, slightly evokes Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Everything transpires an academic influence on which Richter is still extremely dependent. The painter is not interested in making a living from official commissions, and will soon take his distance from this early style.

Richter’s career was celebrated in 2011 by a retrospective at the Pompidou Center and he was acclaimed as a great figurative artist of the 1980s; The artist is almost 90 and the 21st century marks a shift towards abstraction in his practice. The Cage series from 2006 is without any doubt his most beautiful abstract achievement. It was produced as a tribute to American composer John Cage, that the artist has never met ; he declared in a 2004 interview that “it is grossly in Cage’s style who said: I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. I have always thought that this was a wonderful quote. It is the best option that we have in order to be able to continue moving forward”. Even if we thought that Richter’s talent was wasted and perverted by his artistic education, the artist, thanks to his insatiable desire to explore the language of painting, has been able to reinvent his work, and today he is still one of the forerunners of contemporary art.