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Richter in the 21st Century: Real and Tangible Accomplishments

'Well, after this century of grand proclamations and terrible illusions, I hope for an era in which real and tangible accomplishments, and not grand proclamations, are the only things that count.'75 


At the turn of the century, Richter remained focused on his Abstract Paintings - three paintings of his young son Moritz being the most notable exception [CR: 863/1-3]. Eight Grey [CR: 874/1-8] of 2001 heralded a number of works that continued the experimentation with glass. Works such as Pane of Glass [CR: 876-1], 4 Standing Panes [CR: 877-1] and 7 Standing Panes [CR: 879-1] demonstrated an interest in pushing wall-based works into the realm of the sculptural. Themes that the artist had worked with for a long time - transparency, translucency, opacity and reflection - took centre stage.


In 2002, MoMA in New York held a major retrospective of Richter's work, titled Forty Years of Painting. Curated by Robert Storr, the exhibition featured 190 works and was one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Richter's oeuvre to date. It was also the exhibition that confirmed his status as one of the leading artists in the world. His introduction to the United States was described by Storr as 'long overdue'76 in the catalogue.


Richter continued to draw inspiration from current events, as he had done in the 1960s. A series of large paintings titled Silicate [CR: 885/1-4] were inspired by an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 12 March 2003 about new possibilities of microscopic vision. These paintings are the most biomorphic of the abstract works in Richter's oeuvre, depicting cell formations and genetic sequences as seen under the microscope.77


A more overt political reference was to be seen in the work September [CR: 891-5] from 2005, in many ways a stylistic departure at the time, which depicted the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001. In a 2010 publication about the painting Storr wrote: 'What is the meaning of a single, small, almost abstract depiction of one of the most consequential occurrences in recent world history?'78 The painting shows the two towers against a blue sky, but the point of the impact has been erased by gestures akin of those in the Inpaintings. Through this act of withdrawal, the enormity and significance of the event is shared with viewers through their knowledge of it, much like with the October 18, 1977 cycle. September was described by critic Bryan Appleyard of The Sunday Times as 'the closest you will get to a great 9/11 work,'79 because 'it reclaim[ed] the day, leaving it exactly where it was, exactly when it happened.'80


2006 saw the creation of a dedicated cycle of Abstract Paintings entitled Cage [CR: 897/1- 6]. These six large-scale canvases, described by Nicholas Serota as 'magisterial,'81 were named after the American avant-garde composer John Cage, whose work Richter felt had a deep resonance with his own. In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richter said that he had been listening to the music of Cage whilst working in his studio at the time. To Jan Thorn-Prikker he stated: 'That's roughly how Cage put it: 'I have nothing to say and I am saying it.' I have always thought that was a wonderful quote. It's the best chance we have to be able to keep on going.'82 The concluding line in Storr's 2009 publication devoted to the series, Cage – Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, references the Cage quote, stating: 'In his own idiom, and for his own reasons, [the Cage paintings] are Richter's beautiful way of saying nothing, and as such, of once more declaring his uncompromising independence.'83 In 2008 the Cage paintings were shown alongside the Bach paintings at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, after which they were acquired by Tate Modern, London where they are on permanent display.


In 2007, Richter completed another commission - a large stained-glass window for Cologne Cathedral to replace one that had been destroyed during the Second World War. He had been invited to undertake the commission back in 2002 and devoted considerable time to the project during the five years. In notes prepared for a conference in July 2006, Richter wrote:


“In early 2002, the master builder of the cathedral suggested that I develop a glass design for the southern window. The guiding principle was the representation of six martyrs, in keeping with the period. I was, of course, very touched to have such an honour bestowed upon me, but I soon realised I wasn't at all qualified for the task. After several unsuccessful attempts to get to grips with the subject, and prepared to finally concede failure, I happened upon a large representation of my painting with 4096 colours. I put the template for the design of the window over it and saw that this was the only possibility.”84


In Richter's design, 11,000 mouth-blown squares, each measuring 94 x 94 mm, were used, with half of these selected randomly by a computer programme and the other half mirroring the first. As well as an evolution of his Colour Charts from the 1960s and 70s, the Cologne Cathedral Window [CR: 900] was also informed by Glass Window, 625 Colours [CR: 703] of 1989. The process of working with the design for the Cathedral has been documented extensively in a film by Corinna Belz released in 2007.85


In 2008, Richter embarked on a significant body of colourful abstract work entitled Sinbad [CR: 905]. Consisting of 100 small paintings in enamel on the back of glass, Sinbad is the first series of works by Richter to allude to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). Sinbad was followed in 2010 by Aladdin [CR: 913, 915]. That the artist was clearly thinking a lot about the Middle East is illustrated by the related series Baghdad [CR: 914], 2010 and Abdallah [CR: 917], 2010. As his Abstract Paintings of the 2000s had grown more sombre, these works picked up the brighter palettes that Richter had engaged in the abstract works of the late 1970s and early 80s.


The first decade in the new millennium also saw Richter use digital technology in his practice. In the works entitled Strip [CR: 920-921] from 2011, digital prints mounted between aluminium and acrylic glass, with long horizontal stripes of varying thickness, span a length of 3 meters. The colour of each stripe is based on a digital manipulation of an earlier Abstract Painting, creating another layer to Richter's experimentation with the painterly gesture, photography, and representation, akin to that of the photo-enlargement paintings of the 1970s.


The 2010s has been a decade of consolidation for Richter. Successful retrospectives and exhibitions have been curated across the globe, including Gerhard Richter: Panorama in London, Berlin and Paris; Gerhard Richter: Survey in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico; and Gerhard Richter: Painting 1992-2017 in Tokyo – alongside exhibitions dedicated to his Atlas, Overpainted Photographs and editions. Being considered one of the most influential living artists of our time, he increasingly participates in the art world dialogue, discussing topics like the future and purpose of art. Turning 80 in 2012 has done little to slow down Richter's productivity, and he continues to take his practice in new directions.


75 Interview with Stefan Koldehoff, 1999. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.353.

76 Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.13.

77 Dietmar Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.348.

78 Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2010, p.43.

79 Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, Culture, 28.08.11, p.11.

80 Ibid., p.11.

81 Nicholas Serota in the foreword to Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing: London, 2009, p.6.

82 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.478.

83 Storr, Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, 2009, p.86.

84 Gerhard Richter, Notes for a press conference, 28 July 2006, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.518. 85 The film is entitled Das Kölner Domfenster (The Cologne Cathedral Window). In German with English and French subtitles, the film is produced by WDR/arte and zero one film, distributed by Buchhandlung Walther König.