Towards the end of his studies at the Düsseldorf Academy, Richter had laid the foundations for his practice, setting up an interchange between photography and painting that was to be equally important for him as for later art-historical accounts of the Post-War period. Just before the end of term in 1964, Munich-based gallerist Heiner Friedrich invited Richter to feature in an exhibition alongside Peter Klasen. This proved to be a fruitful relationship over the next eight years, involving several exhibitions that increased Richter’s visibility outside Düsseldorf. Alfred Schmela and René Block were other important gallerists that supported Richter early on: in September 1964, Schmela gave Richter his first solo exhibition and Block featured Richter's work in a show titled Neo-Dada, Pop, Décollage, Capitalist Realism. Richter was dissatisfied with the "capitalist realism" label that followed him from his student exhibitions but had established a good relationship with Block and so agreed to a solo exhibition in November 1964. In the same month, he was also shown alongside Lueg and Polke at "Galerie Parnass" in Wuppertal.43
Within six months of leaving art school, Richter was exhibiting with several commercial galleries and collectors had started to show interest. While he continued to supplement his income over the next few years through various jobs, including teaching, this was a successful start to his career as an artist.
Working from photographs liberated Richter from conventional painterly subjects: "Stags, aircraft, kings, secretaries. Not having to invent anything anymore, forgetting everything you meant by painting – colour, composition, space – and all the things you previously knew and thought. Suddenly, none of this was a prior necessity for art."44
Richter was interested in the dialectic between objectivity and subjectivity that he felt painting from photographs engendered. "When I paint from a photograph, conscious thinking is eliminated,"45 Richter mused in his personal writings of 1964-65. "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."46
Despite the eclecticism of Richter's early practice, he was manifestly drawn to certain subjects – affinities that were to become more apparent over the course of the coming years. Military aircraft, family portraits (of his own family and 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]. Images found in newspapers and magazines recurred as source material for these paintings. Robert Storr has commented on an overarching theme: "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."47 This became overt in works such as Dead [CR: 9], which depicts the body of a man crushed under a large block of ice, Coffin Bearers [CR: 5], and Woman with Umbrella [CR: 29], which reproduces a photograph of Jackie Kennedy crying in the street after her husband's assassination.
In 1965, Richter painted Uncle Rudi [CR: 85], showing his maternal uncle who served as a Wehrmacht (German army) officer until his death in 1944. He also depicted another family member that had been lost in the war in Aunt Marianne [CR: 87], his mother’s sister who had died though the Nazi eugenics programme. It is presumably no coincidence that Richter painted Mr. Heyde [CR: 100] shortly after, a psychiatrist who had been deeply involved with this programme. The themes of death and murder continued the following year in Helga Matura [CR: 124], relating to a murdered sex worker, and in Eight Student Nurses [CR: 130], the portraits of eight young women that had recently been murdered in Chicago.
1966 proved to be a significant year for Richter, with further exhibitions at Friedrich's and Block's galleries and opportunities to exhibit abroad, notably at "Galleria La Tartaruga" in Rome and "City-Galerie Bruno Bischofberger" in Zurich. He painted one of his most celebrated works, Ema (Nude on a Staircase) [CR: 134] and introduced the element of geometric abstraction to his practice through the Colour Charts [CR: 135-144]. When asked by Benjamin Buchloh in 1986 whether this departure had been 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 [...]."48 This investigation of colour and tone continued into the 1970s and paved the way for Richter's future abstract works. The geometric element has remained a persistent influence in Richter's oeuvre, re-emerging, for example, in the design for Cologne Cathedral's stained-glass window [CR: 900], realised in 2007.
Beginning with Ema (Nude on a Staircase), works featuring women, particularly nudes and erotic images, were common in Richter's work during 1967. In 1968, his attention was drawn towards aerial views of towns and cities, another route into increasingly abstract territory. Cathedral Square, Milan [CR: 169] was followed by views of Madrid, Paris and other cities, indicative of a looser, more gestural type of painting. Storr has made 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."49
The townscapes of 1968 were joined by a substantial number of works depicting mountain ranges. This marked a new foray into landscape, another lasting genre of Richter's, signaling a desire to move away from the human figure and manmade environments.50
Between 1968 and 1969, he painted several images of Corsica, where he had been on holiday with his wife Ema and first daughter Betty.51 These artworks were beginning to show Richter's growing and complicated relationship with romanticism and coincided with further explorations of abstractions, ranging from the grisaille "Shadow Pictures" to grey monochromes, from the "Corrugated Iron" series to the "Colour Streak" paintings.52 1968 was a year that demonstrated Richter's urge to push his practice forward, to experiment and to establish his own artistic voice.
By the end of the 1960s, Richter had established himself as a successful contemporary artist. There were further solo exhibitions with Block and the "Galleria del Naviglio" in Milan as well as his first dedicated solo exhibition in a public institution, the "Gegenverkehr e.V. – Zentrum für aktuelle Kunst", Aachen, in the spring of 1969. He was featured in group exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, Tokyo and New York – the "Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum" included him in a show called Nine Young Artists. Despite this success, however, Richter was feeling uncertain about the future. He had opened many potential avenues for exploration and was searching for a direction. The 1970s would begin with an extensive series of grey paintings as Richter started experimenting seriously with abstraction as a means for questioning the limits of representation.
43 Elger's detailed research into Richter's early exhibitions includes an 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, 2009, pp.78-80.
44 Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, p.31, cited in Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, 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, 2009, p.54.
45 Richter, Notes 1964-65, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p. 29.
46 Ibid., pp. 29-30.
47 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.38.
48 Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.169.
49 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.42.
50 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, 2009, p.158.
51 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, 2002, p.52.
52 "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." Conversation with Paolo Vagheggi, 1999, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.348.