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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."1

At the turn of the millennium, Richter was increasingly focussed on his Abstract Paintings, with three paintings of his young son Moritz [CR: 863/1-3] notable exceptions to this trend. Transparency, translucency, opacity and reflection were still clearly subjects with which the artist was engaging at this time, almost a decade since his last concerted period to have addressed them. Eight Grey [CR: 874/1-8] in 2001 heralded a number of works the following year that brought glass to centre stage. 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.

2002 was also a significant year for Richter due to his major retrospective exhibition Forty Years of Painting at MoMA in New York. Curated by Robert Storr, the exhibition featured 190 works, and accompanied by a seminal catalogue, was one of the most comprehensive exhibitions of Richter's works of his career. It was also the exhibition that confirmed Richter's status as one of the leading artists in the world, and was described by Storr in his introduction as "long overdue" in the United States.2

In 2003 Richter embarked on a small but substantially sized series of paintings entitled Silicate [CR: 885/1-4] inspired by an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 12 March 2003 about the shimmering qualities of certain insects' bodies.3 The resulting four large paintings are perhaps the most overtly biological of the abstract works in Richter's oeuvre, suggestive of cell formations and genetic sequences seen under the microscope.

Richter's next significant – and in some ways unexpected – departure came in the form of a single work depicting the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York of September 11, 2001, entitled simply September [CR: 891-5], 2005. In a 2010 publication about the painting written by Robert Storr, the author asks: "what is the meaning of a single, small, almost abstract depiction of one of the most consequential occurrences in recent world history?"4 Depicting the explosion of United Airlines Flight 175 as it hit the South Tower, Storr's essay describes how Richter's painting raises and encapsulates many of the complex geo-political issues that the attacks provoked, as well as the horrendous realities of those whose lives were taken away or affected by them. The painting, whilst it carries an overwhelming sense of the enormity and significance of the event, avoids spectacularizing it, instead evoking an existential numbness, sadness and incomprehension. Described by critic Bryan Appleyard for The Sunday Times as "the closest you will get to a great 9/11 work" he goes on to assert that "It reclaims the day, leaving it exactly where it was, exactly when it happened."5

The following year, 2006, saw the creation of one of Richter's most significant cycles of Abstract Paintings, Cage [CR: 897/1-6]. These six, large-scale canvases, described by Sir Nicholas Serota as "magisterial"6 were named after the American avant-garde composer John Cage, whom Richter had never personally met but whose work had long held a resonance with his own. In a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist – one of the leading interlocutors of Richter's work since the 1990s – Richter said that he had been listening to the music of Cage whilst working in his studio at the time.7 In an interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker in 2004, Richter 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."8 The concluding line in Robert 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."9 Having been shown alongside the Bach paintings at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, in 2008, the Cage paintings have since been exhibited at Tate Modern, London.

In 2007 Richter completed arguably his largest commission – a major stained glass window for Cologne Cathedral to replace a window that had been destroyed during World War II. He had been invited to undertake the commission back in 2002 and had devoted considerable time to developing and completing the project in the following 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.10




Several months later, Richter began work on a model with test patterns and a number of design concepts. He settled on a design in which 11,000 mouth-blown squares measuring 94 x 94 millimetres each were to be used, with half of these selected randomly by a computer programme, and the other half a mirror image of these. As well as an evolution of his Colour Charts and Colour works of the 1960s and 70s, the Cologne Cathedral Window [CR: 900] was also informed by his Glass Window, 625 Colours [CR: 703] of 1989. The resulting window is a remarkable accomplishment, both real and tangible, and has been documented extensively in a film by Corinna Belz released in 2007.11

In 2008, Richter embarked on a significant body of colourful abstract work entitled Sinbad [CR: 905]. Comprising 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) and 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. Taking up some of the brighter palettes he had explored in the abstract works of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sinbad is a rich, joyous journey through colour and abstraction.

One of Richter's most recent new avenues for the exploration of abstraction and colour takes the form of stripes. A work entitled Strip [CR: 920], 2011, consisting of a digital print on paper mounted between aluminium and Perspex, presents dozens of long horizontal stripes of varying thickness spanning a width of three metres. It is a tantalising taste of what is still to come from one of the world's most prolific and respected living artists, whose insatiable desire to explore the languages and possibilities of painting and image-making continues to keep him at the forefront of developments in contemporary art today. To coincide with Richter's 80th birthday, in October 2011 a major retrospective entitled Gerhard Richter: Panorama opened at Tate Modern, London, before touring to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2012.

Prepared for by Matt Price with assistance from Carina Krause, 2010-11. The text would not have been possible without the scholarship and guidance of Dietmar Elger.


1 Interview with Stefan Koldehoff, 1999. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.353.
2 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.13.
3 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.348.
4 Robert Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2010, p.43.
5 Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, Culture, 28.08.11, p.11.
6 Sir Nicholas Serota in the foreword to Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2009, p.6.
7 Robert Storr, Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2009, p.54.
8 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.478.
9 Storr, Cage: Six Paintings by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2009, p.86.
10 Gerhard Richter, Notes for a press conference, 28 July 2006, Gerhard Richter: Text, p.518.
11 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.