Overpainted photographs by Gerhard Richter

9 April - 8 June 2019

Gagosian Gallery, London.


Throughout his long and eminent career, Richter has expanded the potential of image making through a dialogue between old and new media. He began painting over photographs in the mid-1980s, at the very moment when New York Neo-Conceptual artists were engaging with questions of image appropriation and reproduction, and the German Neo-Expressionists were focusing rather on the sheer emotionality of paint. Richter has continued to bridge these two lines of inquiry into the present day, probing their tensions as photographic technologies become increasingly pervasive. Unlike his photo paintings of the 1960s (in which he translated found and personal photographs into arrestingly lifelike, out-of-focus paintings), the works in this exhibition retain their status as printed photographs—made with light rather than the artist’s hand—yet they are complicated by the application of paint, which merges photographic reproduction with abstract materiality.

Included in the exhibition are works from Museum Visit (2011), Richter’s largest series of overpainted photographs, comprising over two hundred individual images. Taken during a visit to Tate Modern in London during the run-up to Panorama, his retrospective at the museum in 2011–12, the photographs capture the flux of visitors throughout a single day in a handful of specific locations. Richter narrates the increasing flow of visitors with different paint colors, obscuring areas with the squeegees he uses for his distinctive smeared abstractions. Screens of white communicate when there are few people in the galleries, and bright and bold colors indicate when the crowds and subsequent activity grow.

In other series, such as Urban Landscapes (1989–2016), Rural Landscapes (1988–2016), and Firenze (2000), Richter likewise obscures and reveals specific details of natural vistas and city streets. The Firenze works comprise three photographs that Richter took in 1999 on the banks of the Arno River in Florence. Buildings, water, bridge, and sky are alternately covered and exposed, challenging the viewer to hone in on visual moments that might have otherwise escaped notice. Together, the overpainted photographs attest to the infinite variations in perception that exist from one person to another, and from one moment to the next—a reality that photography denies through its mechanical process, but one that Richter reintroduces with his applications of paint. Thus, in the overpainted photographs, two oppositional aspects of his process—a narrowing-in on the specific and an embrace of ambiguity—are united.

Gerhard Richter, MV. 92, 2011 © Gerhard Richter 2019 (15032019)


Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden in 1932 to a middle class family. Like many Germans of his generation, his relatives were involved in the Nazi movement. Rigorous ideology and death have haunted Richter since he was just a child, perhaps causing his strong dislike for ideology of any kind and underpinning the attraction that nature, as an indiscriminate force, holds for him. Support from his mother encouraged him to become an artist during his mid-teens and he embarked on a classical education at the Dresden Art Academy in Communist East Germany. From 1961 to 1964, Richter studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Karl Otto Gotz. During the early sixties Richter met and began to work with artists such as Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer-Lueg and Georg Baselitz. Richter's beliefs are credited with refreshing art and rejuvenating painting as a medium during a period when many artists chose performance and ready-made media.

Together with Polke and Fischer-Lueg, Richter formed a group called the Capitalist Realists. The Capitalist Realists were satirical, often deriving subject matter from print media. Richter began to see art as something that had to be separated from art history; he believed that paintings should focus on the image rather than the reference, the visual rather than the statement. He wanted to find a new way of painting that would not be constricting. Richter emerged from the group to become one of the most sought after contemporary artists in the world. Richter is known for his blurred paintings, modernising traditional art through technique, and using photography as his source of material. These blurred paintings of photographs are close to reality but also contain a nostalgic distance, because the eye can never precisely capture the image being viewed. With his photo-based paintings of regular images, Richter has tried to subvert the hierarchy. His surprisingly diverse range of work has received prolonged discussion from critics, especially due to Richter's disregard for "traditional" stylistic progression and his use of photographs. 

Colour Charts paintings and Grey Paintings also characterize Richter's works. In 1967 Richter won the Junger Westen Prize and in 1972 he was chosen to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale. That same year, he exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, where he showed again in 1977, 1982 and 1987. At Documenta in 1982 Richter was awarded the Arnold Bode Prize and in 1985 in Vienna, the Oskar Kokoschka Prize. Richter's first exhibition in the U.S. took place at the Reinhard Onnasch Gallery in 1973. Fifteen years later, in 1988, he was given his first North American retrospective organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. In 2001, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a retrospective of Richter's paintings called "Forty Years of Painting," curated by Robert Storr. Richter, a resident of the cathedral city since the early 1980s, was made an honorary citizen of Cologne in April 2007.


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