Reflecting on Gerhard Richter

Martin Germann

Gerhard Richter has long been regarded as one of the greatest artists of our time. Working in a wide range of styles he has created both abstract and realistic paintings, photographs, overpainted photographs and glass sculptures. This film gives us an insight into his works and thinking, as presented by one of Belgium’s most innovative galleries for contemporary art.

Curator Martin Germann invites us to contemplate how Richter has responded to both material and social change across the decades. With works ranging from the 1960s to new paintings never previously shown, the 2017/2018 About Painting exhibition at S.M.A.K. offered a window to reflect.

Structured around a spine of glass sculptures, we can see the interplay between figuration and abstraction, illusion and reality as new works echo the themes of old. Germann highlights how an awareness of an artist’s process can inform how we view their product. With the additional presence of the viewer reflected in glass and mirrors we see that art might never capture a single reality. From this understanding we can appreciate the true richness of Richter’s work.

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The exhibition in Ghent has the title About PaintingOver Schilderen, which is Flemish and means ‘Over Painting’, so it carries two notions: the conceptual notion that the painting as such is reflected but also the simple gesture of overpainting something. What might be particular about our exhibition of Gerhard Richter here in Ghent is also that it is built along one string of his activities. It’s namely the glass works, which in a way build the architecture of the three exhibition areas.

So, the first work is called 4 Panes of Glass and it is located also in Ghent at the collection of Anton Herbert. These four panes of glass are, which are suggestively usable by the visitors, which are interactive or participatory. It was done in the sixties, in four years or five years after he arrived in West Germany, in the time of a growing economy. So, you might think of the windows as shopping windows, there are many associations possible.

This creates the entrance room of this exhibition. These works, with which Richter wanted to ask, ‘How are pictures constructed?’ And this particular point of departure we mirrored with the present times, because for us, Gerhard Richter is a contemporary artist. We also wanted to show that in this exhibition.

So, we could mirror basically this first room of the sixties with a larger space, the so called House of Cards (7 Panes of Glass) by works he did in the last 14 years, where all the themes from the beginning come back. But this is actually the starting point of a work that culminated at that moment in the 7 Panes of Glass. And at the time in the 2000s, a time when the internet is dominating the world, when we are every day in the social media, in virtual worlds, where images are treated completely differently. The 7 Panes of Glass reflect our way of dealing with images as such, the kind of global circulation of images which is part of our daily routines these days. But, in a completely different way than in the sixties.

And also, the ‘Silicate’ works are also a reflection on ‘What are images today?’ How, with which technologies do we produce? Which are the technologies which carry our lives? The work in the sixties is still a reflection on minimalism and 7 Panes of Glass is the most recent architectural construction is in opposite to the 4 Panes of Glass. It’s freestanding, it’s holding itself. It’s very precarious. You get the feeling that it might collapse, and it’s held by its own weight. And, it’s also mirroring its surroundings and not only those paintings which are installed around it, but also the visitors which are fragmented and mirrored by that work in everchanging constellations.

Between these two large spaces there is a little in-between space. The function of this space in this gallery and the exhibition is to show in which direction his work in the sixties actually developed and how his oeuvre succeedingly unfolded. There’s one particular wall in that room where you see on the left side the so-called Blanket. It is a work where Richter overpainted, literally with a squeegee, a work out of the RAF cycle. I think behind the blanket, the white blanket of colour, one might guess Gudrun Ensslin and you see still a little angle of that window shimmering through. That’s on the left side that work.

Then in the middle you have Squatter’s House, which depicts actually Richter’s studio, the artist’s studio. Or, it shows the view out of his studio, where it becomes unclear do we talk about who’s actually the squatter?

And on the right side we have a painting called Torso which shows a cropped nude, sitting in the bathtub from 1997. It’s one of the painted photographs from the Atlas of Richter and it depicts his third wife Sabine Moritz. And, it’s not only a reference to photography in the cropping of the picture, it’s very extreme, it’s also maybe an illusion to how the picture tries to refuse the gaze of the viewer and how it has its internal analogic.

And actually, what we have in this panorama is a view from Richter’s attitude towards politics, then it goes into the interference of the private and the politics which is actually happening in the artist’s studio and then we have a work from his private background.

Because you should not forget that on the left of that a mirror is installed, which sits in the middle of the show and it mirrors the empty wall on the opposite, but also the viewer. This is basically the centre of the show. That’s where we deliberately placed these three paintings.

The exhibition has a very small vocabulary of figurations. What we see here are windows, houses, forests. So, it’s really basic and that’s deliberate, to keep the number of figurations as low as possible. There’s Torso which shows us Gerhard Richter’s third wife Sabine Moritz.

On the opposite is installed Portrait Dieter Kreutz, it was done in the seventies, and also like Torso it comes from the Atlas and it is showing us a portrait of a collector of Gerhard Richter. The human figure is almost not perceivable anymore. In this exhibition of course, it is another example of how figuration and abstraction merge into their particularly own imagery field.

I think first and foremost, it’s important that for him there is no difference between abstraction or figuration. These are just outer descriptions. For him they don’t make sense. He paints with the same intention. He always departs from his practice and this is in both cases the same. So, he approaches images just as matter or materialisations of illusion. Because this is basically this fear where the artist is working, it’s this fear of illusion and from here he is departing.

Richter takes even pars pro toto as one gesture that every picture, or every painting is disguising as such because a painting is never able to represent reality. And this same gesture, you find in a lot of his works but in very different executions. And Richter was also interested in delivering or in reflecting both on tradition and history and culture, but also maybe, basically, on technology. As something which without, everything else is impossible.

The new works which we were glad to premier here in Ghent, are a little bit more diffused. They are rather soft, or soft is maybe the wrong word. The grey comes back. It’s incredible. They are very slow, you need even more time for them as for others, because they are really stunning in their complexity. In a way they are also quite unique, in the way that the grey comes back and plays a very important role in the first space. And I think, one particular point about the way we installed them, is that we installed the smaller works exactly how they were placed in the studio. Because, he said he liked it like that and so we thought as a museum which is more interested in artists’ practices rather than artists’ products, it would be an interesting way to exhibit at least this one row like that. Also, our audience learns then how Richter works, that he has this Catalogue Raisonné with the numbers and ciphers. I think this almost serial execution, what he criticised in his work at the beginning, later became his production itself. I think that all the other intentions, impulses are sitting in these abstractions in the meantime.

His work, his painting, goes from the material but also certain ideologies of image making where painting is connected as a referential system. Then we, of course, leave the field of the brush and the canvas and we land in architecture, we land in sculpture, we land in other areas he’s touching. Richter’s work of course, goes far beyond the realm of only painting. Richter is, amongst other things, a conceptual painter. I think it’s in his certain idea to analyse and dissect everything which creates the medium of painting including his culture, his material culture, his semantic culture, then it’s logical that he also ends up with producing objects, that he produces works not executed with paint in the classical way.

With thanks to

Martin Germann and the staff of S.M.A.K., Ghent



4 Panes of Glass
Gerhard Richter, 1967
Herbert Foundation, Ghent, Belgium
© Gerhard Richter 2019


7 Panes (House of Cards)
Gerhard Richter, 2013
© Gerhard Richter 2019


Gerhard Richter, 1988
Neues Museum Staatliches Museum für Kunst und Design, Nuremberg, Germany (permanent loan from Böckmann Collection)
© Gerhard Richter 2019


Squatters’ House
Gerhard Richter, 1989
© Gerhard Richter 2019


Gerhard Richter, 1997
© Gerhard Richter 2019


Portrait Dieter Kreutz
Gerhard Richter, 1971
Kunst aus Nordrhein-Westfalen, former Reichsabrei Aachen-Kornelimünster, Aaschen, Germany
© Gerhard Richter 2019



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