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The 1970s: Exploring Abstraction

By the start of the 1970s, Richter's career and international reputation were gathering momentum, although it may not necessarily have seemed that way to Richter at the time. It was to be a difficult but significant decade. In spring 1970 he exhibited at Konrad Fischer's gallery for the first time. Fischer had been becoming increasingly powerful1 and his gallery's emphasis on Minimalism, Conceptualism and Formalism (including Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Fred Sandback, On Kawara, Richard Long and Sol LeWitt) ensured Richter was in close contact with the latest developments in international contemporary art at a time when painting was considered by many to be outdated.2 As Robert Storr asserts: "Richter felt more at home with much of this new work than he did with that of other painters then on the rise […]".3 Richter, for his part, was busy addressing the quandary in which painting presently found itself – a quandary that was inextricably interwoven with the development of his own practice at this time.

One of the first things he did as the decade commenced was to organise his source and reference materials in earnest. Elger explains: "Since the late 1960s Richter had felt the need to vet and organize the mass of visual material he had accumulated and to make it presentable".4 An exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen in the autumn of 1970 offered an opportunity for him to present some of the photographs, sketches, and newspaper and magazine cuttings he had amassed – an undertaking that was the precursor to Richter establishing his Atlas. Presented on cardboard panels and grouped in themes in relation to the development of his works, Atlas has been exhibited a number of times5 – including as part of documenta X, 1997 – and has the status of a work of art in its own right, perhaps in part influenced by Richter's early affinity for Fluxus as well as his desire to rigorously maintain documentation of his practice.

Having first engaged with geometric abstraction by means of his colour chart works in 1966, he returned to these in 1971, now introducing the element of chance into the selection of colours rather than referring directly to industrial paint colour charts, and pursuing grids containing higher numbers of colours than the 1966 works (with the exception of 192 Colours [CR: 136] which was in many ways his re-departure point). Richter produced grids comprising a variety of numbers of squares, from 4 Colours [CR: 353-1] to series of works using 1024 [1024 Colours] and 1025 squares [1025 Colours] and even as many as 4096 squares in 4096 Colours [CR: 359]. After 1974, Richter did not return again to grid paintings until 2007.

As well as the Colour Charts, 1966 had been the year in which Richter began exploring a diverse range of grey monochromes, broadly referred to as the Grey Paintings. The catalogue raisonné records that Richter continued to make Grey Paintings in 1967, 68 and 69, and that in 1970 considerably more were created. It was to become a significant aspect of his work, and one that continued until 1976 and occasionally since.

Richter had not set aside figurative painting in the early 1970s, however, producing a substantial number of landscapes and skies with cloud formations, along with portraits and nudes. The most significant body of figurative work Richter produced at this time was 48 Portraits [CR: 324/1-48], 1971/72, which he produced when invited to represent Germany at the 36th Venice Biennale in 1972. One of the highest accolades that can be bestowed on an artist, this marked his arrival at the forefront of art in Germany, and was reinforced by his inclusion for the first time at documenta that same summer.

48 Portraits took the form of 48 black-and-white canvases depicting famous western men from the previous two centuries, including scientists, composers, philosophers and writers. Presenting close-ups of their faces only, and against plain grey backgrounds, the series offers a curious portrayal of manhood and intellectual achievement that carries both gravitas and humour, their greatness gently undermined by the characteristics or idiosyncrasies of their physiognomies, rendered with sincerity but with an element of caricature that accumulates throughout the series. Cropped as if passport photographs, similar to his paintings of Schmela [CR: 37/1-3] from 1964, Richter perhaps allows a mock-heroic element into his otherwise deadpan portrayal of distinguished figures from history and into the history of formal portraiture.6

Producing 48 Portraits took up a significant proportion of Richter's time in late 1971 and throughout the winter and spring of 1972. Apart from this, virtually all of his other paintings from 1972 were abstract. As part of his then ongoing series of Grey Paintings, in this year Richter produced what he referred to as Vermalung, or 'Inpainting'. In general, these are works that might have started out as figurative images, but which Richter has reworked or 'painted into' to such a degree that any original imagery is virtually or entirely obliterated.

The genesis of this technique perhaps lies in Richter's interest in Art Informel, for which he had had an affinity since his student years. Unlike the soft blurring of his photo paintings, the Inpaintings have more of a painterly impasto, the sweeping, swirling path of the brushmarks clearly visible. Several bodies of Richter's work fed into the evolution of the Inpaintings, including the townscapes and streak paintings of 1968-69, the Constellation paintings of 1969, and a significant number of works that specifically set out to explore mark making or the borders of figuration and abstraction, such as Two Women at Table [CR: 196-2], 1968, Untitled (Grey) [CR: 194-6], 1969, Grey [CR: 247-13], 1970, and Untitled (Evening) [CR: 293-3], 1971. A series of works, Untitled (Green) [CR: 313-319] from 1971 perhaps most clearly demonstrate Richter's logic as he moved from a figurative work, Park Piece [CR: 310], 1971, into abstraction, and were a steppingstone to the brown, grey, and red-blue-yellow series of Inpaintings of 1972. Elger remarks: "The application of paint in the grey and the red-blue-yellow inpaintings is gestural without being expressive. Richter pulls the paint in emotionless paths over the canvas […]".7

Another way in which Richter was removing expression, and one which drew attention both to the fact that he was doing so and to the nature of the painterly gesture, was through his Photo-Enlargement paintings. Storr explains: "Interspersed with Richter's landscapes of 1970-71, and recurring on a grand scale in 1973 and 1979, were paintings based on photo-enlargements of brushstrokes or whirling pools of mottled pigment."8 Richter was zooming in on the very act of painting as a vehicle for mining abstraction. Driven by a desire for objectivity and yet perhaps with more than a hint of Richter's dry, rationalist wit, the Photo-Enlargements propose that all painting is abstract if one looks closely enough.

The Colour Charts, Grey Paintings, Inpaintings and Photo-Enlargements represent both Richter's considerable commitment to exploring abstraction and the strategies with which he was attempting to dismantle the machinery of figurative painting.9 Alongside his American peers, including Elsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, Richter was doing much of the hard work needed to come to terms with the visual nature of, and possibilities offered by, abstraction and minimalism. As Storr succinctly explains, "From 1968 through 1976 the monochrome preoccupied him, but by the latter part of the decade it became apparent to him that there was no way he could paint himself out of the gray corner he had been led into by the example of minimalism and his own anti-expressive inclinations."10

The 1970s were not the happiest years in Richter's private life, with his marriage to Ema becoming increasingly strained and gradually coming to an end. This was undoubtedly reflected in his work, not least by the bleak monochromes and grisaille Inpaintings, but also in figurative works such as a series of images from 1975 entitled Seascape [CR: 375-378] of icy arctic waters based on photographs he took during a trip to Greenland, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich's The Wreck of Hope.11 Described by Storr as a 'gray corner' and by Elger as an 'artistic cul-de-sac',12 the point that Richter had reached by 1976 was seemingly a dead end, either floating in cloudy skies, icy waters or abstract fields of grey. His unhappiness of this time was compounded by the unexpected and premature death of Richter's friend Blinky Palermo during a holiday on Kurumba island in the Maldives.

Richter found two main routes forward in 1977. The first perhaps marked a satisfactory conclusion to the inward logic of the monochrome and took the form of two sculptural pieces made of panes of glass and painted grey on one side (Pane of Glass [CR: 415/1-2] and Double Pane of Glass [CR: 416], 1977). It was glass, or more specifically, reflection, which allowed the painting to project outwards again, into the world, rather than spiraling inwards into itself and into the artist's own mind, and was a medium he had first explored back in 1967 with 4 Panes of Glass [CR: 160]. It was also conceivably Richter's own way of resolving his battle between painting as a traditional medium and the trajectory of contemporary art established by Marcel Duchamp.

Having conceptually reconciled his thoughts about painting with his own practice, Richter's second breakthrough of 1977 was the development of a substantial number of colourful abstract works he described simply as Abstraktes Bild [Abstract Painting].13 Gone – at least for a while – were the grey and brown, welcoming in bold and bright colours in a riot of patterns, textures, surfaces and techniques. These offered an energetic investigation into optics and perception, planes, depth, space, shape, form, colour and light, suggestive of everything from microscopic studies of matter through to scales evocative of the geological and cosmological. There is something primal and primordial about these works, as if Richter was working through the building blocks of the universe as he ventured further into the language of abstraction. It was to be a significant phase of his practice that continued well into the early 1980s and laid the foundations for future bodies of work including Sinbad [CR: 905/1-100], 2008, and Aladdin [CR: 913 and 915], 2010.

In the spring of 1979, Richter and Ema became formally separated and so the end of a difficult decade also marked the start of a new chapter. A decade that began with grey could not have ended with more colour and the struggle to map out and come to terms with the possibilities of abstraction was paying off.




1 Elger asserts: 'Fischer was now highly successful, with ventures far and wide and an expanding business' Elger, A Life in Painting, p.180.
2 "I was out of fashion for a long time after the early 1960s work, and painting itself was unfashionable too," he told an interviewer in the 1990s. [Cork, "A Divided Germany", in Apollo, January 1992, p.49, cited in Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.54].
3 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.46.
4 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.191.
5 Atlas was acquired by the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich in 1996. Elger, A Life in Painting, p.193.
6 The literature about 48 Portraits has tended to focus on the cultural politics of the work. Robert Storr asserts: "The fact that they are all dead white males has exposed Richter's selection to criticism from several quarters. His less-than-satisfying justification has been that in the 1960s feminist – or for that matter multicultural – awareness was not so developed, and that in any case the inclusion of women – Virginia Woolf or Marie Curie, for example – would have broken the formal compositional unity of his parade of men in dark suits. The more obvious explanation is that the cultural legacy of the West is or, until recently, has been overwhelming if not overbearingly patriarchal, and aside from the fact that Richter is not a reformer, his purpose was to represent that heritage." Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.63.
7 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.211.
8 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.53.
9 It was a challenge he had set himself in his own writings back in 1965. Referring to his figurative works, he wrote, "All that interests me is the gray areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts." Richter, Notes, 1964-1965, Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press; London: Anthony D'Offay Gallery, 1995, p37. Cited in Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.55.
10 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.68.
11 Elger asserts: "What Richter saw reflected in the painting […] was his own state of mind. His marriage was in crisis, and the photographs he took in Greenland were visual analogues for his own failed hopes. He was exhausted by the struggle to find his own way as a husband and father, and felt that his dream of domestic happiness had, as a consequence, been wrecked." Elger, A Life in Painting, p.203.
12 Ibid., p.229.
13 These are sometimes referred to as 'soft abstracts' as they often employ blurring techniques. E.g. Elger, Ibid., p.232.