As the 1990s began, Richter was busy with his Abstract Paintings, to which he dedicated himself almost exclusively for the first year. After a hectic couple of years in terms of his exhibitions schedule and increasing demands from the art world, he was keen to try to keep things manageable, postponing several exhibitions to which he had been committed.1 Richter's consistently formidable productivity and prolific output can often mask the sheer volume of administration, travel and communication needed to maintain a top-flight career in the art world, not to mention the need for space to think and to develop new ideas.
In 1991 he returned to the medium of mirrors, which he had first explored a decade earlier in four pieces [CR: 470/1-2, 485/1-2]. These had developed out of the glass works first executed back in 1967 [4 Panes of Glass, CR: 160] and in 1977 [Pane of Glass, CR: 415/1-2 and Double Pane of Glass, CR: 416]. A private commission in 1989, which had seen Richter bring together his colour chart works with his interest in glass, resulted in a sizeable domestic stained glass window made up of many squares of colours [Glass Window, 625 Colours, CR: 703]. The combination of glass, mirror and colour was something that still offered fertile terrain for Richter to exploit, and the works of 1991 provided an opportunity to present the culmination of his thinking about minimalist abstraction. According to the catalogue raisonné, three rectangular works entitled Mirror, Grey [CR: 735/1-3] were produced first, using glass coated with grey pigment. The grey works were immediately followed by eight works entitled Mirror, Blood Red [CR: 736/1-8] and then by two pairs intended to be sited in the corner of a room: Corner Mirror, Brown-Blue [CR: 737-1] and Corner Mirror, Green-Red [CR: 737-2]. Almost 20 more grey mirrors then followed before the end of 1992.
In his Abstract Paintings of 1992, stripes and grids were to dominate. Dozens of related canvases produced in a relatively short period of time suggested that Richter was experimenting but looking for something specific. What he was looking for he had touched upon at various points throughout his career, but as is often the case with Richter, his painterly research often results in things that only come to make sense to him much later on, at which point he takes them up again in order to develop them.2 Several Abstract Paintings of 1987 such as CR: 621 and CR: 643/1-5 had sown the seeds for what Richter was striving for in 1992, in which horizontal and vertical striations could be unified within the complex dimensional planes of an abstract composition and the flatbed picture plane. The challenge equally seemed to involve unifying bright colours with the more muted, melancholy palette to which Richter is periodically drawn. It was a subject he had addressed back in 1972 with his Red-Blue-Yellow works [CR: 327-339] in which he had investigated the processes and stages of the muddying of primary colours through the mixing of paint. Coming back to this topic with the experience of over twenty years of abstract painting now under his belt, Richter's first significant works to really synthesise these elements in this way was a cycle of four paintings he titled Bach [CR: 785-788], 1992. Each canvas was three by three metres and while he had worked on even larger canvases in the past, these were in many ways the new benchmark for Richter's Abstract Paintings, paving the way for future major cycles, and in particular, the Cage paintings [CR: 897/1-6] of 2006, alongside which they were displayed at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2008.
Apart from being the year of another major touring retrospective exhibition, this time starting with the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1993 was a year in which Richter's private world was undergoing considerable change once again. His marriage to Isa Genzken was coming to an end. A sequence of paintings from that year in which she posed for Richter as a model as if in a life-drawing class are strangely bleak and detached, suggesting the emotional distance that had grown between them [CR: 790/1-5]. A year later, Richter met the artist Sabine Moritz, fell in love with her and settled down for good. The warmth and affection he has for Sabine Moritz was immediately apparent in two of just a handful of photo-paintings Richter made in 1994, both entitled Reader [CR: 799-1, 804]. With a charm and joyfulness comparable to his painting Betty of 1988, the paintings depict Sabine Moritz in profile, illuminated from behind, reading a German magazine. A series of eight paintings from 1995 of Sabine Moritz with newborn baby son Moritz [CR: 827/1-8] are among the most intimate and personal of Richter's oeuvre, described by Storr as having "an almost palpable tenderness"3 and by Elger as depicting "domestic bliss".4 With daughter Ella Maria born a year after Moritz, in the summer of 1996 the family moved into their newly built home in Hahnwald in the south of Cologne.5
Richter continued primarily producing abstract works interspersed with the occasional photo painting throughout the late 1990s. Speaking about this in 1999, Richter commented, "I love figurative painting and find it very interesting. I've not done a lot of figurative work because I lack subjects. Abstract is something everyday for me, as natural as walking or breathing".6 Photo-painting highlights of the last years of the decade included the site at Hahnwald on which their house had been built [Hahnwald, CR: 840-1], 1997, Orchid [CR: 848-9], Seascape [CR: 852-1], 1998, and Summer Day [CR: 859-1], 1999. Richter's output during this time was lower than usual due to the artist having suffered a stroke in late summer of 1998, from which he made a swift recovery.7
Since at least as early as 1986, Richter had been developing another medium within his practice, namely painting over the top of photographs. The earliest recorded is Untitled 23.3.86, 1986. From looking at this and the subsequent image, it would be difficult to discern that there was a photographic image buried beneath the otherwise abstract oil painting, but this was soon to change with Untitled Toronto from 1987, in which the photographed cityscape was left clearly visible. He has since produced in excess of 700 Overpainted Photographs, including a substantial series produced in 2000 entitled Firenze, which consisted of 100 parts. These works offer another way for Richter to negotiate the languages of figuration, abstraction and the photograph, often with considerable impact and striking effect.
One significant commission at the end of the millennium came from the German government, which was in the process of commissioning works by a number of German artists for its new buildings in Berlin. Richter and Polke were invited to devise works for the entrance hall of the Reichstag building. Elger's account documents Richter's original hope to address the subject of the Holocaust with this commission, but the artist eventually decided that something more apolitical would be more appropriate, opting to make a work based on the German national colours of black, red and gold.8 The final work [Black, Red and Gold, CR: 856, 1999], took the form of six large, thin rectangular glass panels, coloured with black, red and gold enamel. Two black panels were on the top, two red panels were in the middle, and two gold panels were at the bottom, as if the flag in the format of a long vertical strip. The combined length of the panels was over 20 metres. A natural evolution of his mirror works with which he had begun the decade, this simple concept was a perfect response to both the commission and its architectural context.
1 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.310.
2 In an interview with Bruno Corà in 2000, about the development of ideas in painting, Richter stated "It's the same experience as with writing; you have an idea but then it takes time to develop." Gerhard Richter: Text, p.357.
3 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, p.80.
4 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.322.
5 Richter hired Cologne-based architect Thies Marwede, who had also worked on his studio in Bismarckstraße. Cited in ibid., p.319.
6 Conversation with Paolo Vagheggi, 1999. Gerhard Richter: Text, p.347.
7 Elger, A Life in Painting, p.338.
8 Ibid., p.333.