Richter’s Willkür

From Art Journal 71, no. 4 (Winter 2012)

Gerhard Richter, Konstruktion (Construction, Werkübersicht 389), 1976, oil on canvas, 8 ft. 2½ in. x 9 ft. 10⅛ in. (250 x 300 cm). Staatliches Museum für Kunst und Design, Nuremberg, Germany (artwork © 2012 Gerhard Richter; photograph provided by Atelier Gerhard Richter, Cologne, Germany)

There was no other choice for me, I have to go through work through [sic] that which is. And that which is—is exclusively nonobjective—is a wide big monstrous matter. I wouldn’t say that I’ll always remain nonobjective, for now I can’t [do it] differently. But I do not want to plan, conceive, speculate, nor believe—that is not our profession, while painting we “know” much more.
—Gerhard Richter, 1962


Following on the heels of his signature photorealist blurs, Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings have long exemplified a “permanent break in style as principle of style,” as Klaus Honnef noted in the artist’s first retrospective catalogue in 1969.1 Particularly the Abstrakte Bilder—gesturally painted or scraped “abstract pictures” that, at some two thousand, by far outnumber the more restrained color charts, gray monochromes, and recent strips—sealed a programmatic stylistic diversity that, in the US craze for New German Painting from the late 1970s on, epitomized postmodern art and attendant attitudes of irony and inauthenticity.2 Yet asked about the parallelism of abstraction and realism in his work, the artist asserted as early as 1973 that “there is no such parallelism. I don’t see any difference between a landscape and an abstract picture. I refuse to limit myself to one option, that is, to an exterior resemblance, a stylistic unity, which cannot exist.”3 How, then, might we think across the apparent divide in Richter’s oeuvre between representation and abstraction?4

The most consistent and idiosyncratic quality of Richter’s abstract pictures, distinguishing them from other twentieth-century gestural abstraction, is their conspicuous layering. Konstruktion (Construction, 1976) is Richter’s first Abstraktes Bild and the first to work with such layering. Some layers are smoothly painted blurs shaped to produce illusionist depth (large-scale triangular, linear formations pointing into the distance, smaller-scaled ones floating in front and behind), while others are gesturally applied and illusionistically set back (a bright yellow orange area in the lower left) or literally placed as a last touch (the red line and scrape). Over the next two years, Richter abandoned such optical tricks to focus exclusively on literal, material layers. In the abstract pictures he has made since, one can isolate at least seven modes of interaction between these layers, modes that make their first appearance in roughly chronological order, although they often coexist: style, overpainting, scrape, merge, hole, compositions, and system. For a few select paintings, as for example for Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture, 1978), Richter’s Atlas documents different stages of this layering process.5

First, style. Konstruktion contrasts different modes of abstract form making, the smoothly applied haze reminiscent of Richter’s blur paintings, set against gestural marks rich in texture and prefiguring the abstract pictures to come. Richter especially played with that contrast in his first abstract pictures of the late 1970s, although it echoed the gestural marks obscuring a table in the well-known painting Tisch (Table, 1962), reappeared in dramatic form in the overpainted photographs starting in 1986, and is closely related to the painting over or undoing of complete blur paintings, most famously in the 1995 series S. mit Kind. The latter suggests the proximity to another, second category, overpainting. Certain abstract paintings are worked over to such a degree that their last layer of paint dominates and effectively covers what is beneath. “In numerous cases,” Robert Storr reports, “Richter has sacrificed fully developed figurative works on his way to making abstract pictures.”6 In some, this is visible to the naked eye; in others, the act of overpainting leaves only the slightest traces or is merely intuited.7

Third, the scrape. Around 1978, Richter began to apply paint in his abstract pictures by scraping. By 1979 at the latest, it appears he generated speckled patterns by dragging a minimal amount of fresh paint over a dried paint layer with
a squeegee, linear smears made by working wet on wet.8 These scrapes stretch across a broad area or concentrate to create compositional accents or axes. By the early 1990s, scraping turned from a means of applying paint to one of taking it away simultaneously; now the process often involved a palette knife and exposed previously covered dried layers and leaving ridges of paint at the edges.9 Undoing, central to both scraping and overpainting, had formed the origin of Richter’s painting practice, as he gesturally and materially erased, as it were, the image of the table he had painted in his self-declared “first” painting, Tisch.10 The process is closely related to what Richter calls Vermalung. This untranslatable term has been poorly referred to in English as “inpainting,” losing its odd conjunction of meanings, namely, making a mistake while painting, as well as undoing by painting. While Richter has used the term to refer to his painting practice more generally, it is the title of 138 works made in 1971 and 1972, in which the artist applied and then blended paints in various shades to create an allover, dense, intertwining trail of what appears to be a single brushstroke.11 By contrast, overpainting in the Abstrakte Bilder always leaves some hint at layers beneath; in fact, strong colors and value contrasts often enhance the effect of revealing.

Fourth, the merge. At varying points of his abstract picture production, Richter created hazes or patterns in which distinct paint layers can still be intuited but are effectively collapsed. For example, working a squeegee wet on wet with pulsating pressure across the entire canvas produces a dense striated haze where layers blend into one another; or, applying a large number of semidry scraped layers produces an oscillation of minuscule speckles (as in Gudrun). In a concentrated body of work produced in 1991 and 1992, Richter locked different layers into almost static regular patterns, creating interwoven grids or stripes of strokes and scrapes. Fifth, by contrast, the hole. Mobilizing the viscosity of the oil medium, Richter used the squeegee to apply a film of paint such that small tears in that film created amorphously shaped openings onto underlying layers; at times there is just a cluster that focuses our attention, at other times they perforate the canvas all over; some are small inversions of the protruding speckles, others big gaping holes. Sixth, compositions. Most of Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder are structured through composition—composition understood as the visual balancing of unequal parts in relation to one another. Mobilizing color and scale especially, Richter notably layers within a single painting several compositions that complement or compete with one another.

Seventh, the system. At certain moments during his close to four decades of abstract picture making, Richter systematically confined himself to creating a limited set of variations of layer interactions with a small number of parameters. Most dramatically, Grün-Blau-Rot (Green-Blue-Red, 1993) consists of 115 small (thirty-by-forty-centimeter) canvases, in each of which the artist dragged red and blue paint respectively over a green ground. Interestingly, Richter included this work both in his catalogue raisonné of paintings—as 115 individual paintings—and in that of the editions—as one work in an edition of 115. In other words, Richter systematically explored the boundary between sameness and difference between layer relations, as an edition’s individual exemplars are usually close to the same, whereas in a series of paintings they are different enough to make for distinct paintings.12

Richter’s most complex, and Richter’s best, Abstrakte Bilder combine these layer interactions. Take the 1997 trio now divided among Tate Modern in London, the High Museum in Atlanta, and a private collection.13 The lower and upper layers exist in different registers of style and scale, with detailed texture set against extensive sweeps. In some places the lower layer pops out forcefully through distinct holes, in others it softly merges or dovetails with what is above. The horizontal striations created by the movement of the tool are set against the vertical ones originating from varying pressure to produce a faint grid. Multiple compositions pop in and out of our visual attention (the striated pattern, the single large hole set against multiple smaller ones in the High Museum painting); and as a miniseries worked in similar stages, the three paintings multiply and play out variations of layer interactions.


Temporality, History

To what end? On the most basic and conceptually abstract level, the Abstrakte Bilder figure temporality, the workings of time. In talking about the process of layering, Richter stresses this temporality of making. “Such a picture is painted in different layers, which are separated by intervals of time; whereby the first layer often represents the background. . . . And this smooth, blurry surface is at first like a finished picture, which after a while I understand or have seen enough of, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on in temporal segments, until there is nothing more to do to it and the picture is finished.”14 As Richter’s emphasis on the dialectic of making and unmaking suggests, this is not a one-dimensional temporality. If the process of layering as such suggests a basic model of linear time, the layer interactions described above complicate that linearity.

Stylistic ruptures drive a wedge into continuity; overpainting bars access to the past and renders time as forever slipping, even inaccessible; scraping undoes the disconnect to the past only to reconfigure that past in the process;15 merging and holes intertwine what was and is, suggest the way present shapes past and vice versa; and systems of variations play out the relativities of our access to and knowledge of past and present. Combining these layer interactions, Richter’s best abstract pictures immerse their viewers in the conceptual complexity of temporality while also, in their formal complexity, lifting them from the flow of time. It is in this sense that Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder engage in an act of “picturing” as a form of thinking and knowing. As the artist has noted, “Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because, in painting, thinking is painting.”16 In fact, it is through painting that Richter wants to try “to understand what is. We know very little, and I try it such that I create analogies,” analogies for knowledge, both for the artist and his viewers.17.” Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Hans Ulrich Obrist” (1993), in Gerhard Richter Text, 307.]

In that sense, then, Richter’s abstract pictures and his photographic blur paintings are not parallel endeavors but one and the same preoccupation, not just with abstract time but also, as we will see, with specific history and the sliding scale between them. By the 1970s at the latest, Richter’s abstraction and representation begin to collapse. If Richter’s signature blur paintings of the early to mid-1960s are about history and memory, the blur paintings from the late 1960s, created around the time that he begins to experiment with color charts and gray monochromes, dissociate from particular instants in history to reflect on the nature of perception—as in the motifs of curtains, doors, and windows. Then, the blur paintings from the late 1970s onward, around the time the Abstrakte Bilder start, become involved with quasi-philosophical, timeless contemplations of time—as
in the motifs of children, candles, skulls, land- and seascapes, even flowers. By contrast, the totality of Richter’s abstract painting production might be considered as a series of efforts to puncture the vast unfolding of time, over and over again, with moments of visual intensity and particularity, for himself and his viewers.

More specifically, however, there are four modes in which the abstract pictures push the abstract investigation of time discussed so far toward more specific historical reflection: titles, photography, ruination, and Informel. First, titles. Richter’s titling of the abstract pictures is closely related to the way in which their formal differentiation lifts moments from the flow of time. While most are simply entitled Abstraktes Bild, a good number bear specific, seemingly obscure titles. These may indicate the owner of a painting (B. B., for the critic and art historian Benjamin Buchloh), mark the coincidence of a painting’s making with a partic­ular experience that then gives it an additional dimension (Static, for the band whose concert the artist had attended), or suggest persons with whom the artist is wrestling (Gudrun, for the Red Army Faction member Gudrun Ensslin). That said, they rarely relate to the specific nature of a composition and are mostly given after a painting is finished. Most important, Richter’s titles serve to enhance the particularity of a painting and its experience.18, 1983) was not painted in July but first shown in that month. Gerhard Richter, “Kommentare” (1991), in Gerhard Richter Text, 274. ]

Second, photography. An important precedent for Richter’s first abstract pictures was his Ausschnitte series—literally “cut-outs” but commonly translated as “details”—that are blurred, enlarged copies of photographic details of liquid paint.19 The earliest of the Abstrakte Bilder, the so-called soft abstractions, developed these Ausschnitte by using abstract sketches as their photographic source.These were closely followed by the first layered abstract pictures, which, like Konstruktion, have identifiable base layers of abstract, blurred blow-ups.20 While some of these layers actually copied photographic enlargements of sketches or details thereof, others merely mimic or recall the photographic blur. Like the better-known color charts, this body of work blatantly collapses figuration and abstraction (actual and represented paint), but Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder do so more subtly. What matters is the general reference to photography, to the historical poignancy and “that has been” aura of the photographic medium, and to the artist’s earlier photographic blur paintings of historically significant subjects.21

For 128 details from a picture (Halifax 1978), Richter in turn returned an early abstract picture, Halifax (1978), to the photographic medium: one hundred twenty-eight black-and-white photographs of details of said painting—in extreme close-up, in raking light, and from varying angles—are reproduced and laid out as a grid in an editioned artist’s book published in 1980.22 The effect is stunning, revealing and accentuating the raw materiality Halifax shares with other Abstrakte Bilder, especially in contrast with the book paper’s lack of texture. While Richter’s photographic blur paintings of the 1960s too exhibit far more material qualities and a far greater range of textures than is usually acknowledged, the artist’s occupation with the heavy texture central to this book dates back to his cityscapes made a decade prior, in 1968, for example, the view of Düsseldorf in Stadtbild D (Cityscape D, 1968). That the cityscapes are formative for Richter’s abstract pictures is confirmed by two anomalous paintings from that year that must be regarded as direct predecessors of the abstract pictures, the only colored and blurred cityscape, closely followed by the only large-scale, gestural colored abstraction made before 1976.23 More important, this body of work proves not just formative but informative regarding the abstract pictures.

Richter’s cityscapes address the ruined cities of Germany and other European countries in the wake of World War II. One critic at the time remarked that Richter’s cities “recall fields of ruins [Ruinenfelder],” another that the “city panor­amas from a birds-eye perspective” suggest “cities that already appear to dis­integrate into ashes.”24 The artist later noted about Stadtbild Paris (Cityscape Paris, 1968), not coincidentally the cityscape with the thickest and most gesturally applied paint and hence with the strongest association of ruins, that “when I look at the cityscapes today, they seem like certain photographs of war-destroyed Dresden.”25 As for so many Germans of his generation, that experience was deeply ingrained in the artist’s memory. The thirteen-year-old boy had witnessed the February 1945 bombings of his native Dresden, shielded in the countryside from physical harm but, even at a distance, not from their aural and emotional impact. Richter reports, “Those were important years for me. Dresden as a rubble desert [Trümmerwüste], to live in that, that was formative.”26 After war’s end, the ruins remained for considerable time in many East and West German cities. Says Richter, “What I remember well is that very often, actually every day, we would walk through rubble to get from one building to another building, from Güntz-strasse to Brühlsche Terrasse and back. The whole city only rubble.”27 In Dresden especially, East German authorities famously decided to leave untouched the rubble of the Frauenkirche in the middle of the city center, where it served as an antiwar memorial until the reunification brought its reconstruction.

Mark Godfrey has recently discussed the cityscapes’ emphasis on materiality and undoing in relation not only to this experience of the material aftermath of the Allied bombings of Germany but also to the looming nuclear threat of the Cold War.28 Germans experienced that threat with a different kind of urgency, not only because they lived at the front between East and West, but also because many had lived through the Allied bombings. One might add that especially fellow Dresden artists like Richard Peter and Wilhelm Rudolph rendered the experience of the bombings’ aftermath via excessive materiality; that the less material certain cityscape paintings such as Stadtbild Mü (Cityscape Mü, 1968) are, the more they rely on other references to ruins, like the glaringly blank, white gaps marking the windowless walls of partially destroyed buildings still all over German cities today; and that some cityscapes like that Munich version were painted with Amphibolin, an acrylic paint widely used during the reconstruction and after for interiors and facades.29

Along with the Halifax photographs, then, the cityscapes lead to a third and more specific mode of historical reflection embedded in the abstract pictures, namely ruination. However, not the image but the logic of the raw materiality of a world destroyed and reconstructed, undone and redone, echoes in the layers of Richter’s entire abstract picture production, starting with what the artist notably called Materialbilder (Material Pictures) of 1962.30 Against this background, it matters that Richter photographed the details of Halifax at oblique or aerial angles, and that he posed with the painting amidst construction and debris in Halifax, Canada, that must have reminded him of the reconstruction during the 1950s and 1960s back home.


The double photographic mediation of painterly gesture in 128 details had further historical resonance for Richter and leads to the abstract pictures’ fourth mode of reflecting on history, namely Informel, a term generally used to describe abstract gestural painting made in Western Europe in the 1950s. Richter’s artistic formation in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) during that decade is finally receiving more attention, including his training and practice as a Socialist Realist mural painter before he relocated to West Germany in March 1961 at the age of twenty-nine, just months before the building of the Berlin Wall. While that move deeply informed his photographic blur paintings of the 1960s, its impact extends further into the abstract pictures.31

Richter had first encountered Western abstraction when in 1959 he was allowed to visit Documenta 2in Kassel, West Germany. That exhibition’s legendary inclusion of American Abstract Expressionism and European Informel, particularly painters like Lucio Fontana loosely associated with the latter, shocked and left lasting impressions on the twenty-seven-year-old artist, and he returned with the catalogue full of reproductions of mid-century painting.32 Already before and after, while still in the GDR and in private, Richter experimented with various forms of abstraction: with applying printer’s ink with a rubber roller to create dynamically speckled or even monochrome surfaces in a series entitled Elbe (1957; see pages 32–33); with mixed media worked on cardboard echoing much of mid-century European abstraction; and with small untitled ink studies dating from 1959 reminiscent of icons like Willi Baumeister’s black amorphous shapes and Jackson Pollock’s drips in particular.33 After his relocation to West Germany and into the next year, Richter embarked on a significant body of his own Informel paintings, many of which featured centered compositions of encrusted oil on canvas, and of the closely related Materialbilder, which were made with collaged, folded, or wrinkled, at times painted, fabric. Although the artist had his public debuts in the West with abstract art—showing Informel paintings at the Akademie-rundgang exhibition at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and Informel-and Materialbilder at the Galerie Junge Kunst in Fulda—he soon burned both bodies of work to start anew with photographic blur paintings.34

Various qualities of this early work echo in Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder: the textured paint surfaces of the Informel paintings; the intense materiality of these paintings, of the mixed media works, and especially of the Materialbilder; the layering of marks in the ink studies, and of films of ink applied with a printer’s roller in the Elbe sheets; even the layered ground preparation of professional wall-painting. Yet most relevant in this context is that—following his return to the GDR after visiting Documenta 2, following his relocation after making his own abstractions, following his burning of his own Informel paintings—Richter’s closest and most meaningful encounters with abstraction, like his Socialist Realist career, existed only in his memory, in the past, in photographs, carefully arranged in albums that were part of just a handful of items he was able to take West with him and that Jeanne Nugent has poignantly called a “shadow archive.”35 The return of that photographic mediation of abstraction in the Abstrakte Bilder pays respect to these early abstract encounters and experiments, through the very use of photographic blowup, but also measures the distance that Richter had come since—by making it but one of many layers of abstract forms. If his later layered abstractions were onto something—like the reflection of time and history—that was partially and paradoxically because of their reference to the early abstract encounters that had remained largely derivative, fallen flat, as it were.

Richter has insisted continuously over the course of his career on the importance for him of Informel. That should not merely be understood narrowly as an importance of mid-century European abstraction, even though the aforementioned encounters were formative and the Abstrakte Bilder betray affinity in style and process with historical Informel. More significantly, Informel for Richter encapsulated an experimental art making that included his photo-based figurative blur paintings: “When I copy a photo conscious thinking is turned off. I do not know what I am doing. My work is much closer to the Informel than any kind of ‘Realism.’”36 While this Informel mode underlies all of Richter’s art making, it crystallized most clearly and confidently as he embarked on the abstract pictures: “With the color charts—chance (Zufall), everything is right or better: forming is nonsense; with the new abstract pictures—Willkür, almost everything is possible.”37

In modern usage, Willkür mostly means “arbitrariness” but still carries with it, in certain contexts like Richter’s usage here and as distinct from chance, its etymological meaning of “acting according to free will.”38 to do everything that I had forbidden myself: simply placing something willkürlich to then notice that it can never be willkürlich. This happened so that a door opened for me.” Richter, “Interview mit Sabine Schütz” (1990), in Gerhard Richter Text, 261–22. Cf. Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Jonas Storsve” (1991), in Gerhard Richter Text, 280.] Willkür, for Richter, means painting without deliberate thinking, where “painting is thinking.” It captures his free and open-ended way of working that generates both photo blurs and abstract layers, that sublates realism and abstraction and thereby liberates their opposition from Cold War ideological clichés, that produces autonomous paintings in their own right and paintings that can help us reflect on, perhaps even know, the world, on painterly terms.39

Christine Mehring is associate professor in the department of art history at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Blinky Palermo, Abstraction of an Era (Yale, 2008), and co-editor of Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951–1972 (Getty Publications, 2010). She is currently working on a book with Sean Keller on the art and architecture at the 1972 Munich Olympics and on a book about abstraction and design in the twentieth century, both forthcoming from Yale University Press.

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Art Journal.

  1. Klaus Honnef, “Schwierigkeiten beim Beschreiben der Realität: Richters Malerei zwischen Kunst und Wirklichkeit,” in Gerhard Richter, exh. cat. (Aachen: Gegenverkehr, Zentrum für aktuelle Kunst, 1969), n.p.
  2. Richter first used the term Abstrakte Bilder in 1977; see Richter, “Interview mit Amine Haase” (1977), in Gerhard Richter Text 1961 bis 2007: Schriften, Interviews, Briefe, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), 97. Only twenty-eight abstract gestural paintings made between 1964 and 1969 might be characterized as Abstrakte Bilder; thereafter their number explodes: 276 (including 139 Vermalungen) in the 1970s, 547 in the 1980s, 847 in the 1990s, and 212 in the first decade of the new millennium. The term Bild is complicated; in the most basic terms and like the English “picture,” it implies a form of representation, as Richter’s remarks in this context make clear; for that reason, the frequent translation as “abstract painting” seems misguided.
  3. Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Irmeline Lebeer” (1973), Gerhard Richter Text, 72–79. Cf. Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, ed. Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, trans. unidentified (Cologne: Walther König, 2009), 72.
  4. The most substantial account of doing so remains Benjamin Buchloh’s understanding of both Richter’s photorealist and abstract work through the terms of the “culture industry.” With respect to the abstract pictures, Buchloh has argued in several places that randomized and mechanical processes, together with the accumulation of emptied-out modernist modes of abstraction, paradoxically produce pictorial complexity and differentiation, so that the abstract pictures resemble, undermine, and ultimately transcend spectacle and consumer culture.
  5. For the painting, see Gerhard Richter: Werküber-sicht, 19621993, vol. 3, catalogue raisonné to 1993 (Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundes-republik Deutschland, 1993), no. 432-4. See also panels 406-9 and 412, in Gerhard Richter Atlas, ed. Helmut Friedel (Cologne: Walther König, 2006). For some paintings, Richter has made related sketches; see for example Atlas panels 486–9. Richter’s layering process is also well documented in the recent film Gerhard Richter Painting, dir. Corinna Belz (2011; New York: Kino Lorber, 2012), 97 min.
  6. Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 72. Cf. Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Robert Storr” (2002), in Gerhard Richter Text, 392–93.
  7. An example of the former is Decke (Blanket, 1988), where Richter applied a layer of white paint to the second version of Erhängte (Hanged); examples for the latter are the series of opaque, monochrome red paintings from 1998. See Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht, 1962–1993, no. 680-3; Gerhard Richter, exh. cat. and catalogue raisonné 1993–2004, ed. Armin Zweite (Düsseldorf: K20, 2004), nos. 850-1 to 851-6.
  8. Some paintings in 1978 evidence paint applied by scraping; paintings in 1979 clearly evidence the use of a squeegee or a squeegee-like tool; see for example Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht, 1962–1993, nos. 432-2 and 432-8 onward, and 446-2 onward. Dietmar Elger’s biography too dates the first use of the squeegee to 1979. Elger, Gerhard Richter, Maler (Cologne: DuMont, 2002), 316. By contrast, Richter recently identified Abstraktes Bild (456-1), 1980, as the first painting made with a squeegee.
    “I have nothing to say and I am saying it: Conver­sation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011,” in Gerhard Richter Panorama, exh. cat. (London: Tate Modern, 2011), 26. Either way, an important, much earlier precedent is the scraped ink in one of Richter’s 1959 ink studies. I thank Luke Smythe for pointing this out.
  9. Cf. Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Doris von Drathen” (1992), and “Interview mit Hans Ulrich Obrist” (1993), in Gerhard Richter Text, 295 and 312. See also Elger, Gerhard Richter, Maler, 335.
  10. A detailed visual examination and photographs of the painting at the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University in October 2006 yielded a strong hypothesis that Richter used a solvent to undo the image of the table. I am grateful to Jay Curley and Peter Nisbet for sharing these photographs. John J. Curley, “Gerhard Richter’s Cold War Vision,” in Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951–1972, ed. Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, and Jon L. Seydl (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2010), 18f.
  11. On the Vermalungen, see, most critically, the addition to the English volume of Dietmar Elger’s biography of the artist: Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, trans. Elizabeth Solaro (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 194–95.
  12. See Gerhard Richter. Werkübersicht, 1962–1993, nos. 789/1–115; Gerhard Richter: Editionen 1965–2004;and Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Hubertus Butin and Stefan Gronert (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje-Cantz, 2004), no. 81.
  13. The two paintings not illustrated here are also each entitled Abstraktes Bild;see Gerhard Richter, ed. Zweite, nos. 849-1 and 849-3.
  14. Gerhard Richter in “Interview mit Wolfgang Pehnt” (1984), Gerhard Richter Text, 136. The reference is to the abstract pictures made since 1978. Here and in several places below, I have modified the uncredited translation in Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 136.
  15. That said, Richter does not engage in a conscious game of uncovering and recalling what is underneath. See Richter, “Notizen” (1992), Gerhard Richter Text, 283.
  16. Ibid., 15. Cf. Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 15.
  17. Gerhard Richter, “Interview Rolf-Gunter Dienst” (1970), Gerhard Richter Text, 55, and Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 55; translation modified (see note 14). Elsewhere, the artist describes his abstract pictures as “models” for “a different, ever changing [world
  18. See Elger, Gerhard Richter, Maler, 337–38. On Static, see Gerhard Richter, “Interview mit Bruno Corà” (1984), in Gerhard Richter Text, 135. In general, Richter plays down the importance of his titles for the abstract pictures as “only names” but does explain that relationships develop between a painting and certain simultaneous or recent experiences. Gerhard Richter, “Gespräch mit William Furlong, Jill Lloyd, Michael Archer und Peter Townsend” (1988), in Gerhard Richter Text, 207–8, 211. The relationship is not always the obvious one: Abstraktes Bild (Juli) (Abstract Picture [July
  19. The source photographs are collected in Richter’s Atlas, panels 89–90, 92–105, 231.
  20. In working on some of these paintings, Richter painted directly on photographs of details. See Atlas, panel 405.
  21. Richter relays that he used photographic copies in the early abstract pictures to address his concerns about their subjective nature and to make them more objective. Richter, “Interview mit Dorothea Dietrich” (1985), Gerhard Richter Text, 151. In some later abstract pictures, this nod to the photographic medium takes the form of the absurdly oversized brushstroke that betrays its projected photographic origin. See Camille Morineau, “The Blow-Up, Primary Color and Duplications,” in Gerhard Richter Panorama.
  22. Gerhard Richter, 128 details from a picture (Halifax 1978) (Halifax, Nova Scotia: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1980); and Gerhard Richter: Editionen, no. 56.
  23. The two paintings in question are Stadtbild PX (Cityscape PX, 1968) and Farbschlieren (Color Streaks, 1968). See Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht, 1962–1993, nos. 174-3 and 192-2.
  24. Werner Schulze-Reimpell, “Fotogenaue Malerei,” July 29, 1968, clipping from unidentified newspaper, Gerhard Richter Archiv, Dresden; and Ursula Binder-Hagelstange, “Laut und Leise: 14 x 14 in Baden-Baden eröffnet Günther Uecker und Gerhard Richter,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,April 12, 1968. Cf. Jürgen Harten, “Der romantische Wille zur Abstraktion,” Gerhard Richter, Bilder 1962–1985 (Cologne: DuMont, 1986), 39.
  25. Richter, “Kommentare” (1991), in Gerhard Richter Text, 271, and Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 262; translation modified (see note 14).
  26. Gerhard Richter “Gespräch mit Birgit Grimm” (2000), in Gerhard Richter Text, 367. For Richter’s recollections of the bombings, see Richter quoted in Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 19.
  27. Gerhard Richter, “Interview Jan Thorn-Prikker” (2004), in Gerhard Richter Text, 477, and Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 467; translation modified (see note 14).
  28. Mark Godfrey, “Damaged Landscapes,” in Gerhard Richter Panorama, 74–8. Cf. Harten, 39.
  29. For Stadtbild Mü, see Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht, 1962–1993, no. 173. On Amphibolin, see (as of November 1, 2012).
  30. Gerhard Richter, “Arbeitsübersicht” (1968), in Gerhard Richter Text, 48. I am grateful to Luke Smythe for drawing the term and its use here to my attention.
  31. See Christine Mehring, “East or West, Home Is Best: Friends, Family and Design in Richter’s Early Years,” in Gerhard Richter Panorama, 29–43. For the most important accounts of Richter’s formation in East Germany, see, in chronological order, Harten, 9–18; Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter: From Socialist Realism to the ‘Demonstration for Capitalist Realism’ (1963),” in “Gerhard Richter: Painting after the Subject of History” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 1994), 1–40; and Jeanne Anne Nugent, “Family Album and Shadow Archive: Gerhard Richter’s East, West, and All German Painting, 1949–1966” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2005).
  32. Richter mentions acquiring the catalogue in his letter to Helmut Heinze, August 11, 1959, in “Briefe 1957–1965 Richter an H. Heinze,” Gerhard Richter Archiv, Dresden. For the catalogue, see II. Documenta ’59: Kunst nach ’45, Volume 1: Malerei, exh. cat. (Cologne: DuMont, 1959). For his recollections of the exhibition visit, see Richter, “Interview mit Benjamin H. D. Buchloh” (1986), in Gerhard Richter Text, 164f.
  33. Elbe is the name of the river that runs through Richter’s native Dresden, where the series was made and remained until Richter saw it again in 1989 after the fall of the Wall. Richter signed and dated selected works at that point and the remainder in 2008, making them the only works dating from his GDR years that the artist has officially accepted as his art. He did so because he recognized a relationship to his later work, including his landscapes and abstract pictures, particularly a sense of intimacy and melancholy. For full reproductions and a more detailed account, see Dieter Schwarz, “Gerhard Richter: Elbe,” in Gerhard Richter: Elbe 1957 (Dresden: Gerhard Richter Archiv, 2009), 73. Compare the artist’s comments on this work in “I have nothing to say . . .” 19–20.
  34. See Gerhard Richter, Maler, 51. One painting—Wunde (Wound 16, 1962)—survives because Richter had given it to Franz Erhard Walther. For a reproduction, see Curley, 16. Richter’s photographic documentation of early abstract works made between 1961 and 1963 and not included in his catalogue raisonné is in the Gerhard Richter Archiv, Dresden, Akte NA-D-1/5 Frühe Bilder 1961–1963. The Fulda exhibition catalogue includes a list of works and two reproductions. M. Kuttner, G. Richter: Düsseldorf, essay by Alexander Deisenroth, exh. cat. (Fulda: Galerie Junge Kunst, 1962). Luke Smythe has researched and discussed this body of work in the greatest detail. Smythe, “Lightness and Loss: Abstraction in the Art of Gerhard Richter” (PhD diss., Yale University, 2011), 86ff.
  35. The idea of the shadow archive runs through Nugent’s dissertation but above all captures for her the way Richter’s work in the East informed his work in the West. Nugent, “Family Album and Shadow Archive.”
  36. Gerhard Richter, “Notizen” (1964–65), in Gerhard Richter Text, 29, and Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 29; translation modified (see note 14).
  37. Gerhard Richter, “Aus einem Brief an Benjamin H. D. Buchloh” (May 23, 1977), in Gerhard Richter Text, 93, and Gerhard Richter Writings 1961–2007, 93; translation modified (see note 14). Willkür is translated there as “arbitrariness.”
  38. Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, online at (as of October 1, 2012). Consistent with this older usage, the concept of Willkür plays an important (and changing) role for Immanuel Kant as the faculty of choice, or the freedom of the power to choose. Richter’s usage of Willkür in relation to the abstract picturesin two later contexts captures a dialectics of Willkür. In 1986, he describes Willkür as an initial means not to communicate something, but to create a “non-subject” (Nicht-Sujet), in order to arrive at a more general and universally valid subject (Sujet). Richter, “Notizen” (1986), in Gerhard Richter Text, 163–64; in 1990, he noted that “the small abstract pictures [allowed me
  39. Richter’s anti-ideological stance has run through his writings and interviews. See Gerhard Richter Text. His open-ended way of working and the resulting stylistic multiplicity are characteristic of much postwar European art. For Richter and his contemporaries, they stem at least in part from a certain freedom to explore and experiment afforded by the longstanding absence of a continental art market, a freedom that most canonical postwar American artists lacked once their “signature” work had achieved financial recognition.