On defecting to West Germany, Richter was considering moving to Munich, but made the significant decision to set up his new life in Düsseldorf following advice from Reinhard Graner, a friend already living in the city and with whom he stayed for the first few weeks.1 The city's art academy [Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf] was a hive of activity and progressive in its outlook, and despite having already completed his studies in Dresden, Richter decided to apply to study there, in part to become better informed about the current trends in the western art world, but also to find fellow artists with whom he could really engage. As a student, he was also guaranteed a stipend, which was vital for his survival during these first years in the west. Beginning his course in October 1961, he painted intensely (as he had done all summer): "I tried out everything I could".2 Starting off in the class of Ferdinand Macketanz, Richter later described his work of the time as "varying in style between Dubuffet, Giacometti, Tàpies, and many others."3 While he was unhappy with many of his paintings – and subsequently destroyed the majority of them – it was an important process of experimentation that demonstrated both his enthusiasm and commitment to his work, and certainly helped to establish his presence within the Academy.
After his first semester Richter moved into the class of Karl Otto Götz, who was attracting some of the most interesting students at the Academy. Richter had recently met fellow student Konrad Fischer [known as Konrad Lueg at that time], who also transferred into the class of Götz.4 It was to be an important association. "I was incredibly lucky to find the right friends at the Academy: Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer and [Blinky] Palermo."5 In addition to being a bastion of Informel painting, the Academy was soon to become a hub for Fluxus, with Joseph Beuys appointed a professor soon after Richter's arrival. The art scene extended well beyond the walls of the Academy, with a vibrant community of artists, exhibitions and events around the city and in nearby Cologne, energized not least by Group ZERO, founded by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in 1957.
Richter's first exhibition outside the Academy was a two-person show with Manfred Kuttner at the Junge Kunst (Young Art) gallery in Fulda, a town in the centre of Germany not far from the border with the GDR.6 Richter, Lueg, Polke and Kuttner exhibited together in May 1963 at an empty shop in Düsseldorf's old town center that they rented from the local civic administration, and in October of that year, Richter and Lueg organized an exhibition and event at a furniture store in the city. Entitled Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, the initiative involved presenting a number of their paintings around the showroom along with a happening that witnessed the artists performing as living sculptures, television footage, a variety of props and homemade effigies of (the then living) John F. Kennedy and the Düsseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela. Also featured was an installation in a cupboard by Beuys, suggesting the influence Fluxus had on Richter and his circle. "I was very impressed with Fluxus. It was so absurd and destructive," Richter has commented.7 The furniture store exhibition generated a considerable amount of interest and was characteristic of the energy, curiosity, humour and spirit shared by Richter and his peers at the time.
The young men were highly competitive but also incredibly supportive of one another, all keen to move art forward and make their names by doing so. As well as keeping abreast of developments in Germany, they were also paying close attention to the Pop Art movement that was coming into being across the Atlantic, each absorbing different elements into their own thinking and practice, and to some degree – even whilst students – making their own contributions to the European development of the movement.
Richter's own interest in current affairs, consumer society, the media and popular culture began to manifest itself increasingly in his paintings, with early examples including Party [Catalogue Raisonné: 2-1], 1963,8 depicting a male television presenter accompanied by four glamorous women during a New Year's party on a German variety show typical of the time; Table [CR: 1], 1962, based on a reproduction of a modern table published in the Italian design magazine Domus; President Johnson consoles Mrs. Kennedy [CR: 11-2], 1963, inspired by a newspaper cutting; and Folding Dryer [CR: 4], 1962, depicting an advert – replete with text – for a clothes airer from a magazine. These works were the beginning of Richter's professional œuvre and it was the use of photographic images – something that had previously been inconceivable to him and to academic painting – that marked the pivotal breakthrough.
Having found an inroad into his practice, he set about exploring the relationships between the photographic image and painting, producing some of his first works to use techniques of blurring in 1963, including Pedestrians [CR: 6] and Alster [CR: 10]. He began a series of paintings of military jets that continued into 1964, along with an increasing number of portraits, primarily in black and white, based on media images and found photographs, including some of his own family. By the time Richter left the Academy in the summer of 1964, he was already in his stride and ready to begin his career in earnest.
1 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.472; Elger, A Life in Painting, p.32.
2 GR, Statement, 10 October 1973, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.84.
3 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.472.
4 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.37.
5 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.473.
6 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.37.
7 Interview with Dorothea Dietrich, 1985. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.157.
8 Richter's catalogue raisonné is described by Elger as follows: "[In 1969 he began to devise] the first version of the catalogue raisonné, introducing the numbering system that he still uses today. Not every artwork is included. […] The catalogue raisonné is thus conceived not as an exhaustive record of everything he has painted but as a corpus of works established by the artist himself." Elger, A Life in Painting, p.169. Robert Storr asserts that the catalogue raisonné is "less a literal history of his production than an empirical narrative construct internally adjusted to account for the importance paintings had for him after he had studied them in the context of others of their generation." Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.29.