Interactive timeline

The 1990s: Consolidation and Evolution

As the 1990s began, Richter was busy with Abstract Paintings, which he devoted his time to almost exclusively for the first year. After a hectic couple of years with both production and exhibitions, Richter needed some time to settle down in the studio and he postponed several exhibitions to which he had been committed.


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]. In 1989 Richter had the chance to work with glass and colour for a private commission [Stained-Glass Window, 625 Colours, [703]]. The combination offered a fertile terrain for Richter, and 1991 saw him complete an array of works that drew on this dormant interest in minimalist abstraction. According to the official catalogue raisonné of Richter’s work, 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 with complementary colour schemes, 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.


His Abstract Paintings also leant toward the more structured and minimalist end of abstraction. Stripes and grids dominated. The close resemblance of these abstractions suggested that Richter was experimenting but looking for something specific, following a route of 'painterly research.'71 Several Abstract Paintings of 1987 [CR: 621, 643/1-5] had sown the seeds for what Richter was striving for in 1992, working with horizontal and vertical striations to counteract the depth and flatness of the picture plane. The challenge equally seemed to involve unifying bright colours with the more muted, melancholy palette to which Richter was 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. Returning to this theme 20 years later, Richter's first significant works to synthesise these elements was a cycle of four paintings titled Bach [CR: 785-788], 1992. Each canvas measures 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 cycles - in particular the Cage paintings [CR: 897/1-6] of 2006, alongside which they were displayed at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2008.


In 1993, Richter created a series of paintings of his wife, Isa Genzken, in which she poses with her back to the artist [CR: 790/1-5]. Some commentators have suggested that the tone of the paintings is one of detachment. Shortly after, the couple separated. A year later, Richter met the artist Sabine Moritz and they soon got married. A comparable series of paintings of Sabine shows her facing the viewer. With a warm tone comparable to his painting Betty from 1988, Reader [CR: 799-1, 804] depicts her in profile, illuminated from behind, reading a magazine. A series of eight paintings from 1995 of Sabine with newborn son Moritz [CR: 827/1-8] are among the most intimate and personal of Richter's oeuvre, described by Robert Storr as having 'an almost palpable tenderness'72 and by Dietmar Elger as depicting 'domestic bliss.'73 With daughter Ella Maria born a year after Moritz, in the summer of 1996 the family moved into their newly built home in Hahnwald, south of Cologne.


Richter continued primarily producing abstract works in the 1990s, only occasionally interspersing them with a photo painting. 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.'74 The photo paintings produced continued to show personal and intimate subjects, including [Hahnwald, CR: 840-1], Orchid [CR: 848-9], Seascape [CR: 852-1],

and Summer Day [CR: 859-1]. 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.


Another genre in Richter's oeuvre which would grow to become more noticeable in the 1990s was the Overpainted Photographs, which he had been working on since c.1986. Currently, Sils-Maria from 1987 counts as the earliest Overpainted Photograph. Since the mid 1980s, Richter has produced over 2,000 Overpainted Photographs, including the edition Firenze (2000), which consists of almost 120 works – or Museum Visit (2011) comprising 234 works. These works offer another way for Richter to negotiate the languages of figuration, abstraction and the photograph, often with considerable impact and striking effect.


Towards the end of the millennium, Richter received an important commission from the German government. Richter and Sigmar Polke were invited to create works for the entrance hall of the Reichstag building in Berlin. Elger's account documents Richter's original hope to address the subject of the Holocaust with this commission, but the artist eventually decided on something more apolitical, opting to make a work based on the German national colours black, red and gold. Ultimately, Black, Red and Gold [CR: 856] took the form of six large, thin rectangular glass panels, coloured with black, red and gold enamel; two panels per colour – the German flag in the format of a long vertical strip. The combined length of the panels came to over 20 metres. Richter had envisaged monumental works for a long time, evident from drawings in the Atlas, and so this commission would see a new aspect realised - alongside the canonisation of Richter as a national artist.


71 In an interview with Bruno Corà in 2000 Richter stated about the development of ideas in painting: 'It's the same experience as with writing; you have an idea but then it takes time to develop.' Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.357.

72 Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.80.

73 Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.322.

74 Conversation with Paolo Vagheggi, 1999. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.347.