Life and Work of Gerhard Richter, Abstract and Photorealistic Artist

'Gerhard Richter. Abstraktion' Press Conference & Exhibition Preview In Potsdam
Christian Marquardt / Getty Images

Gerhard Richter (born February 9, 1932) is one of the world's most celebrated living artists. He has lived and worked in Germany his entire life. He has worked primarily as a painter exploring both photorealistic methods and abstract works. His efforts in other media include photographs and glass sculpture. Richter's paintings draw some of the world's highest prices for pieces by a living artist.

Early Years

Dresden Germany
Dresden, Germany. Bettmann / Getty Images

Born in Dresden, Germany, Gerhard Richter grew up in Lower Silesia, then part of the German Empire. The region became part of Poland after World War II. Richter's father was a teacher. Gerhard's younger sister, Gisela, was born when he was four years old in 1936. 

Gerhard Richter's father Horst was forced to join the Nazi Party in Germany before World War II, but he was never required to attend rallies. Gerhard was too young during the war to be made a member of the Hitler Youth. After working as an apprentice sign painter for two years, Gerhard Richter began studying at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1951. Among his teachers were prominent German art critic and historian Will Grohmann.

Escape from East Germany and Early Career

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall. Owen Franken / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Gerhard Richter escaped East Germany two months before the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961. In the years leading up to leaving his home, he painted ideological works like the mural Arbeiterkampf (Workers' Struggle). 

After leaving East Germany, Richter studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. He later became an instructor himself and began teaching in Dusseldorf where he stayed for over 15 years. 

In October 1963, Gerhard Richter took part in a three-person exhibition and art event that included the artists performing as living sculpture, television footage, and a homemade effigy of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. They titled the show Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism. It effectively set them up in opposition to the Soviet Union's Socialist Realism.

Photo-Painting and the Use of Blurs

Gerhard Richter
Schniewind. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

By the mid-1960s, Gerhard Richter began focusing on photo-paintings, painting from already existing photographs. His methodology included projecting the photographic image onto a canvas and tracing the exact outlines. Then he replicated the look of the original photograph by using the same color palette in the paint. Finally, he began blurring the paintings in what became a trademark style. Sometimes he used a soft touch to create the blurs. Other times he used a squeegee. The subjects of his painting varied widely from personal snapshots to landscapes and seascapes.

After he began producing abstract works in the 1970s, Richter continued with his photo-paintings, too. His 48 Portraits in 1971 and 1972 were black-and-white paintings of famous men including scientists, composers, and writers. In 1982 and 1983, Richter created a celebrated series of paintings of photographs of arrangements of candles and skulls. These echoed the tradition of classic still life painting.

Abstract Works

Gerhard Richter Color Chart Painting
Multi-panel Color Chart Painting. Ian Gavan / Getty Images

As Richter's international reputation began to grow in the early 1970s, he started exploring abstract painting with a series of colour chart works. They were collections of individual squares of solid colors. After his monumental 4096 Colours in 1974, he did not return to colour chart painting until 2007. 

In the late 1960s, Gerhard Richter began creating what was referred to as grey paintings. They were abstract works in shades of grey. He continued to produce grey paintings into the mid-1970s and occasionally since.

In 1976, Richter began his series of paintings that he called Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Pictures). They start when he brushes wide swaths of bright colors onto the canvas. Then he uses blurring and scraping of the paint to expose underlying layers and blend the colors. In the mid-1980s, Richter began using a homemade squeegee in his process.

Among Gerhard Richter's later abstract explorations were a cycle of 99 overpainted photographs, photographs of details from his abstract paintings combined with texts about the Iraq War, and a series created with ink on wet paper taking advantage of the material's bleeding and spreading across and through the paper.

Glass Sculpture

Cologne Cathedral Windows
Cologne Cathedral Windows. Ralf Juergens / Getty Images

Gerhard Richter first began working with glass in the late 1960s when he created the 1967 work Four Panes of Glass. He continued to return to working with glass throughout his career periodically. Among the most celebrated pieces were 1989's Spiegel I (MIrror I) and Spiegel II (Mirror II). As part of the work, multiple parallel panes of glass refract light and images of the outside world that alters the experience of the exhibition space for visitors.

Perhaps Richter's most monumental work was his 2002 commission to design a stained glass window for the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. He unveiled the finished work in 2007. It is 1,220 square feet in size and is an abstract collection 11,500 squares in 72 different colors. A computer randomly arranged them with some attention to symmetry. Some observers referred to it as a "Symphony of Light"  because of the effects achieved when the sun shines through the window.

Personal Life

Gerhard Richter
Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Gerhard Richter married Marianne Eufinger, his first wife, in 1957. They had one daughter, and their relationship ended in separation in 1979. As his first marriage disintegrated, Richter began a relationship with sculptor Isa Genzken. They first met in the early 1970s, but they did not start a romantic association until late in the decade. Richter married Genzken in 1982, and they moved to Cologne in 1983. The relationship ended in separation in 1993.

As his second marriage came to an end, Gerhard Richter met painter Sabine Moritz. They were married in 1995 and had two sons and a daughter together. They remain married.

Legacy and Influence

Gerhard Richter abstract color chart
Horizontal strip paintings. Andrew Holbrooke / Corbis News / Getty Images

By the early 1990s, Gerhard Richter was one of the most celebrated living artists in the world. His work was introduced widely to U.S. audiences in 1990 with an exhibition put together by the Saint Louis Art Museum titled Baader-Meinhof (18 October 1977). In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City put together a major 40-year Gerhard Richter retrospective that traveled to San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Richter has influenced a generation of German artists both through his work and as an instructor. After the 2002 retrospective, many observers named Gerhard Richter as the world's best living painter. He is celebrated for his wide-ranging explorations of the medium of painting.

In October 2012, Richter set a new record for the highest price for a piece by a living artist when Abstraktes Bild (809-4) sold for $34 million. He broke that record twice more with his current record placed at $46.3 million for Abstraktes Bild (599) sold in February 2015.

Gerhard Richter Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Gerhard Richter
  • Occupation: Artist
  • Born: February 9, 1932, in Germany
  • Education: Dresden Art Academy, Kunstakademie Dusseldorf
  • Selected Works: 48 Portraits (1971-1972), 4096 Colours (1974), Cologne Cathedral stained glass window (2007) 
  • Key Accomplishment: Sale of Abstraktes Bild (599) for $46.3 million.
  • Famous Quote: "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."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Elger, Dietmar. Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Storr, Robert, and Gerhard Richter. Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. Museum of Modern Art, 2002.