Gerhard Richter was born in 1932 in Dresden, where he grew up under National Socialism and then lived under East German Communism. He attended the Dresden Art Academy from 1951 to 1956, and then worked for a few years as a mural painter before his focus shifted to the Abstract Expressionist and Informel (“art without form”) work he saw on occasional trips to West Germany. In 1961, a few months prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall, he manged to flee to Düsseldorf, where he began new studies with Informel painter Karl Otto Götz.
During the early sixties, Richter met and began to work with artists such as Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer-Lueg, and Georg Baselitz. Together with Polke and Fischer-Lueg, Richter formed a group called the Capitalist Realists. At their very first exhibition in 1963, he presented his gray “photo-paintings,” which still remain some of his most groundbreaking (and well-known) work. Fascinated by the rivalry between traditionalist painting techniques and mass media imagery — as well as the ability of each medium to represent and interpret reality — he would project found photographs onto canvas, tracing the images and then blurring the paint with a soft brush or squeegee. He also started to create colorful figurative works at this time, producing entire series of city views, clouds, and mountains.
In the mid-sixties, Richter began to paint his Color Charts and Grey Paintings, both experiments with chance and technique; in 1972, he represented Germany at the Venice Biennale with a series called 48 Portraits, images of intellectuals that he selected from an encyclopedia. As varied as these projects were, it wasn’t until 1976 that he first gave the title “Abstract Painting” to one of his works; in the hundreds of abstract works that followed over the next 30 years, he has used various techniques and tools to build up cumulative layers of color, eschewing composition in favor of a decisive element of chance. (He once described his process by saying: “When I paint an abstract, I do not know what it is going to look like beforehand, nor do I know where I want to go when I’m painting.”)
At the same time, Richter has always continued working on figurative paintings, including photo-realist portraits of his family members, his 1982 (now iconic) Candles series, and 1988’s “October 18, 1977,” based on press photographs of the Baader-Meinhof group. He has lived and worked in Cologne since 1983, and was made an honorary citizen of the city in 2007, the same year he created a new stained glass window (consisting of 11,500 pixel-like squares) for the famed Cologne Cathedral.
In his forward to the catalog of a 2002 retrospective of Richter’s work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the museum, wrote: “No artist of the postwar era…has placed more intriguing and rigorous demands upon specialists, interpreters, followers, and average viewers alike — nor upon himself. In Richter’s work…there is a demonstration of the way in which painting’s resources are constantly replenished by the very problems it seems to pose, both for the painter and the viewer. Nobody in our time has posed them better or solved them more inventively than Richter.”