Dietmar Elger’s Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting charts Richter’s life from his Dresden days as mural painter to early experiments in painting and photo painting, his move to West Germany in 1961 and the impact Documenta 2 would have on his future work. Black and white photographs of Richter and of his art works are dispersed generously throughout the book. We follow the artist’s maturation from being named winner of the Art Prize of the Young West in 1967 to participation in Documenta and in the Venice Biennale (multiple times), representation by the Marian Goodman Gallery of New York and finally to the production of a commissioned piece for a window at the Cologne Cathedral, 2007.
What comes through in Elger’s expertly written book is that even though the artist was constantly casting himself anew he had been deeply affected by early criticism of his work such that he vowed never to bring emotion into his work. So much has he wanted to break away from his art produced in Dresden that he curates what goes into his catalogue raisonné. Although attempting to “pursu[e] no objectives,” Richter’s work in the last few decades has not only engaged with colour and material, but in the content of the work he has addressed everything from the domestic and the personal to national and international states of crises. As early as 1966, Richter was interested in painting something of the horror of Nazi Germany. However, the closest he came to engaging with that violent chapter in German history is through the 1988 Baader-Meinhof photo painting cycle. His 2005 Forest series obliquely refer to the events of 9/11. For the artist who has wanted to do away with ‘well-known’ subjects, Elger’s book ends on a subject of monumental proportions: the Catholic cathedral.
Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting is not only about Richter painting but in the spirit of a “lifelong campaign to explore facts, problems and possibilities of abstraction” it shows Richter taking up almost every imaginable art form possible. What is most charming in this book is our introduction to young Richter and his sense of experimentation. With his contemporaries, Konrad Fischer-Lueg, Sigmar Polke, Joseph Beuys and later Blinky Palermo, Richter engaged in experiments with text, sound and performance art. Some of these were inspired by the Fluxus and Happenings movements of the 1960s. The focus on text selection and re-use extended into Richter’s painting process as the choice of source photographs selected for paintings became significant in his later art practice. The 2012 movie Gerhard Richter Painting doesn’t give to us the sense of experimentation and joy which Elger is able to bring forth. The movie being reflective of a more mature and assured master craftsman introduces us to the Richter I imagine has painted large scale monochromatics and Strokes.
Highly informative, anecdotal in parts, this book provides critical appreciation of Richter’s art works and biographical details about the artist’s life. It is a must read for art lovers of any genre. Praise must be given not only to Elger but also to Elizabeth M. Solaro, the book’s translator, for rendering an excellent translation of the text from German to English such that we are able to see Richter as “a broadly philosophical painter, more than a strictly conceptual one” (Robert Storr, MoMA).
Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting. Dietmar Elger (Author), Elizabeth M. Solaro (Translator). Hardcover, 408 pages. Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (February 15, 2010).
Zarmina Rafi (B.A., M.A., English Literature) is a poet and short fiction writer. She lives in Toronto.