In becoming fascinated by, and immersed in, relationships between painting and photographic sources whilst at the Düsseldorf Academy, Richter had pioneered an approach to painting that was to prove fundamental not only to his practice and career but to the discourse of post-WWII painting. As is the case for most artists after leaving art school, two things were now vital for Richter's career development – exhibition opportunities and representation by dynamic commercial galleries. Richter found both, proving as adept with his navigation of the art world as with his chosen medium.
Following a recommendation from Kasper König, the Munich-based gallerist Heiner Friedrich invited Richter to feature in a two-person exhibition (together with Peter Klasen) at his gallery (Galerie Friedrich & Dahlem) during his final weeks at the Academy in the summer of 1964. As Elger observes, the relationship between Richter and Friedrich was to be a successful one that would continue for the next eight years.1 Two months later, during September 1964, Düsseldorf-based gallerist Alfred Schmela gave Richter his first solo exhibition. That same month, René Block opened his gallery in Berlin with a group show featuring Richter's work, entitled Neodada, Pop, Décollage, Kapitalistischer Realismus. Despite Richter not being happy about the Capitalist Realism tag being associated with his ongoing painting practice, he clearly got on with Block, consenting to the title of the show and agreeing to a solo exhibition at his gallery just a few weeks later, in November 1964.
Richter's flying start in the commercial art world continued unabated, with a group show alongside Lueg and Polke opening that same month at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal.2 Within six months of leaving art school, Richter was showing with several commercial galleries, and while he continued to supplement his income during the coming years through various jobs, including teaching, his works were already beginning to be collected by noteworthy figures.
Working from photographs and liberated from outdated ideas of what painting should be, Richter felt free to pick whatever subjects he liked: "Stags, aircraft, kings, secretaries. Not having to invent anything any more, forgetting everything you meant by painting – color, composition, space – and all the things you previously knew and thought. Suddenly, none of this was a prior necessity for art."3 Along with this sense of being free from restraints, Richter was interested in the dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity that painting from photographs engenders. "When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated," Richter mused in his personal writings of 1964-5. "The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source."4
While Richter enjoyed painting eclectic subjects and was aware of the many issues involved in selecting them, he was naturally drawn to certain topics more than others – affinities that were only to become apparent over the course of the coming years. Military aircraft, family portraits (both his own family and those of others) and groups of people were characteristic of Richter's works from this time, including The Liechti Family [CR: 117], Meeting [CR: 119] and Hunting Party [CR: 121]. News story images found in newspapers and magazines were also among the recurring motifs and themes. Storr identifies that: "Throughout Richter's early career […] consciousness of death is, explicitly or implicitly, the defining characteristic of numerous works. Like Warhol did in his Disaster paintings, Richter picked up on the public's horrid fascination with suffering and the media's exploitation of it."5 This was clear from early works such as Dead [CR: 9], 1963, which depicts the body of a man under a large block of ice; Coffin Bearers [CR: 5], 1962, and Woman with Umbrella [CR: 29], 1964, which shows an image of Jackie Kennedy captured by paparazzi after the assassination of her husband, crying in the street.
In 1965, Richter painted Uncle Rudi [CR: 85], his own maternal uncle, who died in the last year of the war. That same year, Richter depicted another family member who died as a result of the Third Reich, Aunt Marianne [CR: 87], his maternal aunt who was institutionalized with mental health problems and left to die as part of the Nazi's eugenics program. It is presumably no coincidence that also this year, Richter painted Mr. Heyde [CR: 100], a psychiatrist who assisted the Nazis with this program and hence was complicit in the murder of Richter's aunt. The themes of death and murder were continued the following year in Helga Matura [CR: 124], 1966, depicting a murdered sex worker, and in Eight Student Nurses [CR: 130], 1966, representing portraits of eight young women murdered by spree killer Richard Speck in Chicago one night in July 1966.
Indeed, 1966 proved to be a significant year for Richter's practice, with further exhibitions at both Friedrich's and Block's galleries, and increasing opportunities to exhibit abroad, notably in Rome at Galleria la Tartaruga, and in Zurich at City-Galerie Bruno Bischofberger. It was a year that not only yielded one of his most celebrated works, Ema (Nude on a Staircase) [CR: 134], 1966, but also witnessed the introduction of a surprising new weapon to his painterly arsenal – geometric abstraction. When asked by Benjamin Buchloh in 1986 whether this departure was in part influenced by the work of Blinky Palermo, Richter explained: "Yes, it certainly did have something to do with Palermo and his interests, and later with Minimal art as well; but when I painted my first colour charts in 1966, that had more to do with Pop Art. They were copies of paint sample cards […]."6 It was an investigation into colour and tone that continued into the 1970s and has informed later works, including his designs for the stained glass window of Cologne Cathedral [CR: 900], 2007, as well as paved a way for his other abstract works, which would prove to be a significant part of his practice.
Following the epiphany of Ema (Nude on a Staircase), works featuring women, particularly nudes and erotic images, dominated Richter's production during 1967, while the next year his attention was drawn to aerial views of towns and cities. Beginning with Cathedral Square, Milan [CR: 169], 1968, and followed by views of Madrid, Paris and others, Richter used the subject matter to explore a looser, more gestural type of painting. Storr makes the connection between Richter's townscapes and pre-war and post-war Europe: "[…] they and others like them – as well as the earlier Administrative Building [CR: 39] of 1964, – are reflections on the new face of Europe and on the other surviving remnants of the old one."7
The townscapes of 1968 were joined by a substantial number of works depicting mountain ranges, signaling a desire on Richter's part not only to move away from the human figure, for a while at least, but also to go beyond the manmade towards the natural world.8 This shift coincided with his need to explore abstraction more, with experiments ranging from the delicate grisaille Shadow Pictures to the Grey monochromes, from the Window paintings or corrugated iron works to the Colour Streak paintings. It was a year that demonstrates Richter's relentless urge to push painting forward, to experiment and find new vocabularies to mine.
Following the mountain ranges of 1968, Richter also painted a number of images of Corsica between 1968 and 1969 based on a family holiday with Ema and his first daughter, Betty, heralding the introduction of landscapes and seascapes into his practice in earnest,9 and asserting Richter's complicated relationship with romanticism in his œuvre.10
The 1960s ended well for Richter in many respects. Despite having some concerns about his practice to date and its future direction, he had his first solo exhibition in a public institution in the spring of 1969 at Gegenverkehr e.V. Zentrum für aktuelle Kunst in Aachen, and along with solo shows with René Block and at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan, he featured in group exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, Tokyo, and in New York, where he showed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – his first exhibition in the USA.
1 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.72.
2 Elger's detailed research into Richter's early exhibitions includes a charming account of how the young artists convinced the owner of the gallery, Rudolf Jährling, to let them have a show with him, turning up in a van and arranging their paintings on the drive outside the gallery. Elger, A Life in Painting, pp.78-80.
3 Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, p.31, cited in Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.42. In an interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst from 1970, when asked about his choice of subjects in the preceding years, Richter replied: "I was trying to avoid everything that touched on well-known issues – or any issues at all, whether painterly, social or aesthetic. I tried to find nothing too explicit, hence all the banal subjects; and then, again, I tried to avoid letting the banal turn into my issue and my trademark. So it's all evasive action, in a way." Richter, Interview with Rolf-Gunter Dienst, 1970, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.54.
4 Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, Ibid., pp.29-30.
5 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.38.
6 Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.169.
7 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.42.
8 Elger asserts: "These cityscapes represent yet a further attempt by Richter to free himself from the bondage of photo-painting, his primary project between 1963 and 1967." Elger, A Life in Painting, p.158.
9 Storr states: "There had been intimations of Richter's affinity for landscape before – for example, Egyptian Landscape [CR: 53] of 1964, and the mountain paintings and two moonscapes [CR: 190, 191], 1968, but nothing quite like these delicately brushed, overtly picturesque scenes had thus far appeared. They were the seeds of what later was to become a dominant strain in Richter's output." Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.52.
10 "I find the Romantic period extraordinarily interesting. My landscapes have connections with Romanticism: at times I feel a real desire for, an attraction to, this period, and some of my pictures are a homage to Caspar David Friedrich." GR, Conversation with Paolo Vagheggi, 1999, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.348.