As his relationship with Ema had been coming to an end in the late 1970s, Richter became close with artist Isa Genzken.1 He had first been introduced to her in the early 1970s when she was a student, and became reacquainted with her in the late 1970s when she was established as a successful young artist.2 By the early 1980s, Genzken and Richter were living together in Düsseldorf, and they were married in 1982. The following year they were offered a large studio space in a former factory in Bismarckstraße in Cologne by Richter's gallerist Rudolf Zwirner, which they accepted, leaving Düsseldorf and Richter's studio in Brückenstraße behind.3
In decent spirits, Richter was continuing his exploration of abstraction with energy and enthusiasm, and it was the Abstract Paintings that were to continue to dominate his practice until 1987. In the early 1980s, painting had come back into vogue within certain circuits of the art world, with neo-expressionism (or Neue Wilde as it was sometimes referred to in Germany) at its centre. In the US, figures such as Philip Guston and Julian Schnabel were among its leading exponents, and in Germany Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer were the most prominent. An exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in early 1981 entitled A New Spirit in Painting brought many of these artists together, including Richter. As Storr comments: "Richter's engagement with expressionist-type painting antedates this movement by several years, but he was doubtless aware of this current as it began to well up around him and as he was lumped together with its exponents in a number of exhibitions as the tendency crested."4 The exhibition certainly helped to cement Richter as a key figure in contemporary painting on the international stage, and alongside a simultaneous exhibition entitled German Art Today at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and a solo show in Munich, the decade had begun well and everything was in place for Richter's career to move forward to the next level.
Whilst in a very positive flow with his abstract work, the question now was what his next move would be as regards his figurative work. The answer came the following year with a discrete series of works created between 1982 and 1983 with candles as their primary subject. Although they received surprisingly little attention when first exhibited in Germany5 these have come to be regarded as some of Richter's most iconic works and have perhaps endeared him to the general public as much as to arts professionals. Painted with a muted but complex palette ranging from earthy browns and coppers through dusty greys, shadowy blues, dim greens and musty beiges, the candles – often a single candle though occasionally two or three per image – are depicted against minimal backgrounds comprising bare walls, plain table tops and dark doorways. Charged with chiaroscuro and using his blurring techniques with both virtuosity and elegance, the Candle paintings offered a fresh approach to Photo-Painting that also served to distinguish him from the neo-expressionist fashions of the time.
Landscapes were also to be a recurring theme in Richter's Photo Paintings of the 1980s. Ever since his Corsica paintings [CR: 199-201, 211, 212] of the late 1960s, Richter would periodically return to the subject of landscape and take it a step further. While the Davos paintings [CR: 468/1-3, 469-1] of 1981, depicting ice-covered mountain tops with the sun buried behind clouds and fog, and the Iceberg paintings [CR: 496/1-2], 1982, extended Richter's ongoing interest in the sublime and German Romanticism, Richter's landscape paintings of 1983 and 1984 were preoccupied by something more down-to-earth and closer-to-home, picturing rural farmland and the Rhineland, exemplified by works such as Barn [CR: 549-1], 1983, Meadow [CR: 549-2], 1983, Barn [CR: 550-1], 1984, and Rhinescape [CR: 550-3], 1984. Abstract works [CR: 551/1-9] in Richter's catalogue raisonné for 1984 that follow on from these landscapes show how closely Richter was thinking about his Photo Paintings in terms of abstraction at this time, with blue skies and horizons serving to anchor otherwise entirely abstract marks. In 1985 Richter produced a number of landscapes including Staubach [CR: 572-1], Troisdorf [CR: 572-2] and Buschdorf [CR:572-5] that were more subdued and set the tone for his future landscapes, which Elger observes "culminated in 1987 with twenty-three field and meadow pieces."6
But it was another series of photo-paintings from the following year that was to prove to be his most significant body of work of the decade, and indeed, one of the most important of Richter's career. Entitled October 18, 1977 [CR: 667-674], 1988, the cycle of fifteen paintings relates to the day on which the saga of the Red Army Faction (RAF) came to an end with the suicide in prison of two of Germany's most notorious terrorists, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. The RAF was a group of what Robert Storr describes as "student radicals turned armed revolutionaries"7 who had terrorized the German Federal Republic throughout much of the 1970s with a campaign of activism and violence. Their deaths, as with several of their accomplices, were treated as suicide though the unusual circumstances of their deaths raised suspicions that they might have been killed by agents of the state. Richter's series of blurred, grisaille paintings depicted selected key moments from the events leading up to and surrounding their deaths, including the arrest of three members of the group on the morning of 1st June 1972, Ensslin hanging in her cell on October 18, 1977, and the funeral of three RAF members at Dornhalden cemetery on October 27, 1977.
This was undoubtedly Richter's most politically provocative body of work to date, and even though the work was made more than ten years after the events of October 18, 1977, it was still a subject that divided opinion and touched a raw nerve among the German public as it opened up complex debates about Germany's post-World War II status quo and the "[…] disaffected generation, a generation for the most part born after the war and at odds with that of their parents who had acquiesced to, if not supported, Hitler."8 Richter's works crystallised this debate, though he has always resisted being dragged into the debate himself. His subject here was how political ideology turns into terrorism and how the State, media and public address this.9 Speaking about the RAF in 1989, Richter asserted that the thing he found most inexplicable was that humans "produce ideas, which are almost always not only utterly wrong and nonsensical but above all dangerous."10
Another work produced in 1988 has proved to be one of Richter's most popular works of all time, and could not have been more different to the October cycle. Betty [CR: 663-5] is a portrait of Richter's daughter Betty from his first marriage when she was still a girl (by the time of the painting she was a young adult). She sits close to the camera lens and picture plane, wearing a red and white floral hooded cardigan or dressing gown, facing away from the viewer, seemingly into a dark grey void – a void which is actually one of Richter's grey abstract canvases.
By now, at the end of the 1980s, Richter was among the most prominent painters in both Germany and the world. Since the mid 1980s he had been selling consistently within the international markets and his first major retrospective, which started in 1986 at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf before travelling to Berlin, Bern and Vienna, was greeted with critical acclaim.11 His gallery representation was shifting too, with Marian Goodman in New York and Anthony d'Offay in London taking on the lead role for Richter's representation. The 1980s had been a highly successful decade, seeing both his abstract works and Photo Paintings reach a point of achievement that was now clearly matched by his status and reputation.
1 At this time, Genzken was herself just at the end of a relationship with Benjamin Buchloh. See Elger, A Life in Painting, p.240.
2 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.69.
3 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.262.
4 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.71.
5 Ibid., p.74.
6 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.273. It was Elger who curated the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to Richter's landscape works, presented at the Sprengel Museum Hannover in 1998.
7 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.74.
9 Already controversial when they were first shown in 1989 at the Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen in Rotterdam, Richter's October cycle became increasingly controversial when shown in New York shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. The entire cycle had been purchased by MoMA, New York, in 1995. The debate is discussed in Robert Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2009, pp.37-43.
10 Richter in Conversation with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 1989, Gerhard Richter: Text, p. 231. Cited in Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2010, p.38.
11 Elger, A Life in Painting, pp.263-4.