December 2009

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting by Dietmar Elger, translated by Elizabeth M. Solaro

Gerhard Richter is unique -- a celebrated painter in an era usually associated with conceptualists like Damien Hirst or photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe. His work has been embraced by pop culture (the band Sonic Youth famously used Richter’s 1983 work Kerze in the cover art for their album Daydream Nation), and by aficionados, most notably in a massive, and massively popular, retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2002. When you add his turbulent life -- born in Nazi Germany in 1932, Richter grew up in Dresden, a city famously destroyed in World War II, and later endured communist repression in East Germany before fleeing to the West in 1961 -- he’s irresistible for a biographer.

The author of Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Dietmar Elger, is the first to take up this challenging subject. He’s especially well suited for the task, having worked for Richter in the 1980s. Perhaps because of his connection to the artist, Elger strives to give readers a sense of how the painter views his own life and work, touching on almost every exhibition in Richter’s career and quoting him at length. The upside of this methodical approach is that it spares the author from having to argue on behalf of Richter’s greatness. The sheer volume of material under consideration allows the artist’s work to make its own case.

Richter has said, “For me there is no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting. In my opinion, the term ‘realism’ makes no sense.” And he has lived up to that statement by refusing to choose between realism and abstraction, and by constantly attempting new styles and techniques. Elger covers them all, from the murals Richter painted in East Germany to the photo paintings of the 1960s, from Richter’s more abstract works to major pieces such as 18. Oktober 1977.

Elger devotes considerable time to the Oktober cycle, which depicts members of the terrorist Red Army Faction (also called the Baader-Meinhof Gang). Each Oktober piece is based on a preexisting photograph, which Richter has reproduced as a painting, blurring the images to varying degrees. Many of them depict the bodies of Red Army Faction members who died violently. Viewers are left to work out for themselves whether or not these pictures portray political martyrs or radicals consumed by their own violent ideology.

The controversial series was a major success when it debuted in 1988 and helped solidify Richter’s international prominence, though the works themselves remain inscrutable. As Elger observes, “Critics on the left and on the right both co-opted [the series] to suit their own purposes -- which sometimes meant insisting that the artist’s political sympathy lay with their opponents.” Elger’s own analysis of the paintings, grounded in Richter’s own words, is evenhanded and enlightening. As the artist himself observes, “I’m not sure whether the pictures ‘ask’ anything; they provoke contradiction through their hopelessness and desolation, their lack of partisanship.”

The great accomplishment of Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting is the way it captures this ambivalence, which runs throughout much of the artist’s work. This detachment emerged early in Richter’s career, beginning with his “photo” paintings -- paintings based on and evocative of particular photographs -- in the 1960s. As Elger explains, “Working from a photo eliminates the artifice of form, color, composition… The intention is to give paintings the most unartistic, impersonal, and distanced character possible.”

Elger does a remarkable job of putting this innovation into context, especially when he discusses Richter’s ongoing dialogue with the work of modernist icon Marcel Duchamp:

Richter’s painting project throughout the late 1960s was intended to prove not only that painting is possible after Duchamp but also that a painting produced as a readymade -- an estranged object -- is a logical outcome of the then-prevailing debate about the death of painting.

Elger also excels when explaining the influence of Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol on Richter’s early work. More importantly, he makes tricky concepts like “capitalist realism” accessible to readers who might otherwise be intimidated by art-world jargon.

There are times when the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, however. It’s hard to imagine who (aside from Richter’s accountants) would be interested in the various financial arrangements the artist entered into with different dealers over the years, but they’re discussed anyway. At length. And there are so many exhibitions discussed throughout the book that the less important ones begin to blur together.

Also, Elger’s insight into Richter’s artistic ambivalence prevents him from digging too deeply into the painter’s private life. While the lack of gossip is refreshing, there are places where a little more biographical detail would be illuminating. For example, when surveying a particularly bleak set of landscapes that originated at the end of Richter’s first marriage, Elger notes, “His marriage was in crisis, and the photographs he took in Greenland [as a reference for the series] were visual analogues for his own failed hopes.” But there is not enough background on the marriage itself, or any of Richter’s other relationships, to give the observation a proper context.

Any details that could influence our view of Richter’s work are intentionally played down. While this is in keeping with Richter’s stated belief that “Pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures,” it means that there isn’t too much conventional biography here. As a result, Elger’s insights into Richter the painter don’t lead to many insights about Richter the man. This could limit the book’s audience to those already familiar with Richter’s work; fans of the artist, however, will appreciate this look inside the master’s creative process.

Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting by Dietmar Elger, translated by Elizabeth M. Solaro
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226203239
408 Pages