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The 1970s: Exploring Abstraction

As the 1970s began, Richter's career was gathering momentum and his international reputation had started to rise. In the spring of 1970 he exhibited with Konrad Fischer, who, since their time together at the Düsseldorf Academy, had become a successful gallerist.53 Fischer's gallery was at the cutting edge of contemporary art during this time, focusing on Minimalism, Conceptualism and Formalism (exhibiting artists like Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Fred Sandback, On Kawara, Richard Long and Sol LeWitt). This provided Richter with a new context for painting at a time when it was considered by many to be outdated.54 Robert Storr has said that "Richter felt more at home with much of this new work than he did with that of other painters then on the rise."55 It allowed Richter to address painting outside of its traditions and to develop methods that related to the issues art was facing at the time. Questioning painting in this way was fundamental to Richter’s practice as it developed throughout the 1970s.

An exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen in the autumn of 1970 offered Richter the opportunity to present some of the photographs, sketches and newspaper and magazine cuttings he had amassed since the 1960s. He had slowly started organising such material earlier that year – an undertaking that was the precursor to Richter establishing his Atlas. 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."56 Presented on cardboard panels and grouped in themes relating to the development of works, Atlas has since been exhibited many times – including as part of documenta X in 1997.57 It has acquired the status of an artwork in its own right and signaled a new generation of artists whose practices were not confined within one medium.
In 1971, Richter returned to the geometric abstractions as first seen in the Colour Charts. This time he introduced the element of chance in the selection of colours rather than referring directly to industrial paint charts as he had done in 1966. The grids and colours became more varied, from 4 Colours [CR: 353-1], 1024 Colours [CR: 351], using as many as 4096 squares in 4096 Colours [CR: 359]. After 1974, Richter did not create any grid paintings until 2007, pursuing abstraction in other directions instead. The Grey paintings, for example, would become increasingly prominent in Richter's practice throughout the decade. They were rooted in experiments from 1967, ‘68 and ‘69, and became part of a considerable effort to push the limits of painting as a representative medium. In 1974, 31 Grey paintings were shown at the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach.
A few years before this breakthrough in abstraction, Richter was invited to represent Germany at the 36th Venice Biennale. This, followed by his inclusion in documenta 5, cemented his reputation as an important contemporary artist. For the Biennale Richter created 48 Portraits [CR: 324/1-48]. The series consist of 48 canvases depicting famous men from the previous two centuries, including scientists, composers, philosophers and writers. Using a reductive grey-scale, these figures are presented in close- up, using encyclopedia photographs as source material. Although similar to some earlier portraits, like Portrait Schmela [CR: 37/1-3], this impersonal portrayal of distinguished historical figures delves into the history of formal portraiture on a much grander scale. The 48 Portraits have been interpreted in many ways since their first presentation.58
48 Portraits took up a significant proportion of Richter's time in late 1971 and early 1972. Richter's output in 1972 mainly consisted of abstract works. As part of his ongoing series of Grey paintings, he started producing what he referred to as Vermalung, or Inpaintings. In general, these are works that might have started out as figurative images, but which Richter reworked or 'painted into' to such a degree that any original imagery is virtually or entirely obliterated.
These paintings point to Richter's interest as a student in Art Informel. Unlike the soft and calculated blurring of his photo paintings, the Inpaintings are distinguished by gestural impasto, with the sweeping, swirling path of the brush marks clearly visible. This method could be detected in a number of earlier works: the townscapes and streak paintings of 1968-69, the Constellation paintings of 1969 and several individual pieces such as Two Women at a Table [CR: 196-2], Untitled (Grey) [CR: 194-6], Grey [CR: 247-13] and Untitled (Evening) [CR: 293-3]. The group Untitled (Green) [CR: 313-319] demonstrates the logic of the inpaintings; based in the figuration of Park Piece [CR: 310] they move into the increasing abstraction of the brown, grey, and red-blue-yellow series of 1972. Elger has commented that "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."59
For Richter, the Inpaintings were another means of removing expression as a driving force in painting. He used this erasure to draw attention to the painterly gesture – another example being the photo-enlargement paintings. Storr has aligned these with Richter's practice at the time: "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."60 Capturing individual brush strokes of other paintings, the photo-enlargement paintings zoomed in on the very act of painting as a vehicle for miming abstraction.
The Colour Charts, Grey paintings, Inpaintings and photo-enlargements represent Richter's growing commitment to abstraction as a counter-model to figurative painting.61 Alongside his American peers, including Elsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, Richter was working to come to terms with the possibilities offered by abstraction and minimalism. As Storr 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 grey corner he had been led into by the example of minimalism and his own anti-expressive inclinations."62
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 reflected in his work, as demonstrated by the bleak monochromes and grisaille Inpaintings. Figurative work such as the 1975 series entitled Seascape [CR: 375-378], depicting a desolate arctic sea, also carries a melancholy, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich's "The Wreck of Hope".63 Described by Elger as an "artistic cul-de-sac",64 the point that Richter had reached by 1976 seemed like a dead end Richter's unhappiness was compounded by the unexpected and premature death of his friend Blinky Palermo during a holiday on Kurumba Island in the Maldives.
1977 saw a breakthrough in two directions. Richter created two sculptural pieces made of panes of glass painted in grey: Pane of Glass [CR: 415/1-2] and Double Pane of Glass [CR: 416]. The grey surface was altered through the intervention of glass, or more specifically, reflection, something Richter would explore further in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There was also the development of a substantial number of colourful abstract works described simply as Abstraktes Bild [Abstract Painting]. Gone – at least for a while – were the greys and browns, substituted with bold and bright colours in different patterns, textures, surfaces and techniques. These offered an energetic investigation into optics and perception, planes, depth, space, shape, form, colour and light. 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 formally separated. But 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. The struggle to map out and come to terms with the possibilities of abstraction was paying off.
53 Dietmar Elger asserts: “Fischer was now highly successful, with ventures far and wide and an expanding business.” Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.180.
54 "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 Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.54].
55 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.46.
56 Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.191.
57 The Atlas was acquired by the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich in 1996. Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.193.
58 The literature about 48 Portraits has tended to focus on the cultural politics of the work. 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, 2002, p.63.
59 Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.211.
60 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.53.
61 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 grey 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, 2002, p.55.
62 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.68.
63 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, 2009, p.203.
64 Ibid., p.229