gerhard richter

Sabine Schütz: About a year ago you created a great stir with your painting cycle "18. Oktober 1977." This group of fifteen paintings, done in the black & white blurred photographic style of your earlier work grapples with the death of the RFA [Red Army Faction] terrorists in the Stammheim prison and unleashed a controversial and emotional discussion which went far beyond a purely artistic debate. Were you pursuing with these paintings a direct political concern?

Gerhard Richter: No direct political concern, especially not in the sense of political painting which has always been understood as politically left, as art which exclusively criticized the so-called bourgeois-capitalistic conditions — that was not my concern.

Schütz: But the subject has not only been highly explosive but it was also expressly politically left . . .

Richter: . . . which now can be considered completely laid to rest . . .

Schütz: . . . exactly, and it is also already history. One could ask now why you came forward with these paintings in 1989 and not already ten years ago?

Richter: This time distance was probably necessary. But I cannot exactly explain the reasons for making something at this or at that point in time; something like that does not proceed by plan but rather unconsciously. It seems important to me that the paintings now, with the breakdown of the socialist systems, obtain another, more general component which they did not have so evidently a year ago. On the other side, I shun to talk about the concerns or statements of the paintings. I do not want to narrow them down through interpretation.

Schütz: Do you see the terrorists today as victims of a false idea which was inevitably doomed to failure?

Richter: Definitely. Nevertheless I also feel a certain sympathy for these people and for their desperate desire for change. I can understand very well if one cannot find this world acceptable at all. Furthermore, they were also part of a corrective which we will first be missing in the future. We will find other attempts at criticism eventually which will be less sentimental or superstitious and more realistic and therefore more effective — I hope.

Schütz: This cycle has been described as a resuscitation of historical painting which has been largely ignored by modern and contemporary art. Would you agree to this categorization?

Richter: This does not interest me that much. Even when it occurred to me, while painting, that these pictures could be regarded as historical paintings, that is, as something reactionary, it didn't make any difference to me. This is more a problem for theoreticians.

Schütz: In your journal you once said that it shouldn't actually be possible to paint the way you paint: without subject matter. Was it different with this cycle? Was there a subject matter?

Richter: Yes, there was. But this "black" note referred more to the abstract paintings and beyond that to the general helplessness and powerlessness which then of course can itself become a subject matter. But on the other hand, one has sometimes enough motivation which renders questions such as these abstract — one then just paints.

Schütz: When you begin a painting, do you always know from the start what you want to paint? Could one say that you are a conceptual artist?

Richter: No, that I am not, and I don't always know what I should paint or how the painting should look in the end. Even with the Oktober cycle I did not know what kind of painting would come out of it. I had an enormous selection of photographs and I also had quite different ideas. Everything should have been much more comprehensive, much more to do with the life of the depicted, and at the end there was this small selection: nine subjects and very much focused towards death, almost against my intention.

Schütz: One would not necessarily have expected from a painter who twenty-five years ago already once painted toilet paper, to confront a subject so rich in content. Even the record player is in itself a banal object. However, the relation to the pictorial subject seems to have changed considerably since that time.

Richter: Not considerably, because a toilet-paper roll is not necessarily a funny picture. Neither is it true that I am now old enough to paint only sad things. But the record player painting is of course a very loaded painting, since the viewer knows that it is the record player of Andreas Baader, that in it was hidden the deathly weapon, etc. That doesn't make it a better painting, but it obtains first more attention, because one can attach more of a narrative to it.

Schütz: There is quite evidently a decisive change of consciousness behind the fact that earlier it was about a toilet-paper roll or a clothes-drying rack, and today it is about a record player with a very concrete political significance.

Richter: Of course. I was younger then and part of a very different Zeitgeist, and seen in this light the paintings could have been even more different. But now I am noticing rather the resemblance — that not so much has changed. It is the same apparent indifference and emptiness in terms of statements. The toilet-paper roll and the clothes-drying rack are, just like the record player, sort of "poor person's pictures," like many other vague, banal subjects.

Schütz: A varying rank is attributed in the different paintings to the subject. For example, in 18. Oktober 1977 the subject is of entirely different content than in most earlier works. Could one say that each body of work possesses its own individual relationship to the pictorial subject and to reality?

Richter: That is certainly the case, only all the different paintings from different periods do have one established basis: that is, my attitude, my concern, which I articulate in different ways but never change essentially. The difference is therefore rather on the exterior and the statements I made on my lack of style and lack of opinion were in part a polemic against timely trends which I rejected. Or they were protective statements to procure a climate in which I can paint what I want.

Schütz: But haven't you also demonstrated that it doesn't have to matter what one paints? With the clothes-drying rack, the stag, or the housewife you have shown that it makes no difference.

Richter: But one can see that also as thematically connected, and then it does make a difference. These subjects: a clothes-drying rack, a family on the couch, a stag — they are also very selective.

Schütz: Wasn't there also an ironic note?

Richter: I myself never think that way. If I allowed claims of irony then it was just to be left in peace. Somewhere of course I had been attached to the subject matters. I did not find the clothes-dryer ironic; there was something rather tragic about it, because it thematicizes life in public housing, where you cannot hang out your laundry. That was my clothes-drying rack which I rediscovered in a newspaper, quasi-objectified.
Or the families — I often knew them personally. And if I didn't, they bore at least a resemblance with the families and fates that I did know.

Schütz: What interests you in the subject matter of the stag? After all, one surely cannot paint a stag today without the association of the "bellowing stag" — without kitsch?

Richter: It is not the stag's fault if he is painted badly, let's say, as a bellowing stag above the couch. He is a beautiful animal like any other. Of course the stag has also symbolic character — especially for us Germans with our pronounced relationship to the forest. I myself wanted to become a forest ranger in my youth, and I once was totally enthusiastic when I discovered and photographed a real-life stag in the forest. Later I painted him, and the painting then was less romantic than the photographs of my youth.

Schütz: Also Castle Neuschwanstein with its pastry-cook architecture inevitably awakens the association with kitsch.

Richter: In reality this castle is really ugly, horrible. But then it has also this other, seductive side, that of the most beautiful fairy-tale, the dream of nobility, salvation, and beatitude. And that is the actual dangerous side — and therefore really a special example of kitsch.

Schütz: In the bomber paintings I see a critical commentary on the subject of war . . .

Richter: . . .which it is certainly not. Such paintings cannot accomplish anything against war. They also show only a very small aspect of the subject of war — perhaps only my childish feelings of anxiety and fascination with such weapons.

Schütz: Many years ago you called painting a "moral act." What did you mean by that?

Richter: That was then already a helpless attempt to express that it is not a matter of painting beautiful pictures. It was also a claim for the significance of art, its enormous importance, which I conferred upon it. And that art is being made and consumed today in never before known quantities, shows also already an entirely irrational desire for art, an almost religious longing. And if art were able to satisfy this longing completely, it would be a great advantage. It would be something like "pure belief" which would keep us from falling for misbeliefs, religions and ideologies.

Schütz: You always emphasize your anti-ideological stance. What does ideology mean for you?

Richter: A current example is the ideology of socialism in East Germany. People believe in it against all common sense — making themselves and others unhappy. This is a kind of mental disease, and, as it seems, an incurable one. Wouldn't it be much more important to recognize, to see, how we are, what we are capable of, why we murder, why we are good, and first of all, what can be done? Instead we believe. That is a luxury which we can no longer afford on this endangered globe.

Schütz: Don't those who have the perspective and who proclaim the doctrines of salvation actually know that they are lying?

Richter: Surely not, because ideology controls the brain so thoroughly that there is no possibility to see the facts objectively; and the more the facts turn against the ideology, the more relentlessly it exerts control. Only in behavior that is totally unconscious and instinctivecan one escape it. Also: when Honnecker wears cashmere, he is quite natural, then he forgets his belief or twists it a little.

Schütz: There is a film about your work that is called My Paintings Are Smarter Than Me. How so?

Richter: They should, by all means, be smarter than me. I no longer have to be able to follow them completely. They have to be something that I no longer understand entirely. As long as I comprehend them theoretically, they are boring.

Schütz: You have been described early on as "inconsequent," because you have again and again changed clothes in regard to style. You have described yourself as insecure. Or is it more a matter of proving to yourself and others that you can do everything?

Richter: No, that is not so! Anybody can learn how to paint from a photograph. And there is so much that is conceivable as creative expression that I have not done. I am actually relatively limited and also a bit one-sided: always only oil paintings. Inconse-quence is only an aftereffect of insecurity, from which I may be suffering, but which I also consider unavoidable and necessary.

Schütz: So perhaps insecurity is the general theme?

Richter: Maybe. In any case, it belongs to me, as a prerequisite. Here we also have objectively no reason to feel secure. Only the stupid are secure, or those who lie.

Schütz: And the paintings don't lie?

Richter: No, they don't claim anything — they make no statement, they cannot fool us. They are as mendacious as a tree, but often less interesting.

Schütz: Stylistic changes, stylistic breaks, quotations and perhaps also irony — these are all phenomena which have been called "postmodern." Do confront these issues? Do you consider yourself a postmodern pioneer?

Richter: I don't believe so, it has not interested me that much. But in a certain sense you could call me so; because I never had that consciousness of belonging to the avant-garde, and it also was never a concern of mine. Avant-garde — I find that usually too dogmatic and aggressive.

Schütz: You started in 1976 to paint abstract paintings, to do something whose appearance you could not imagine beforehand. For that you have developed a totally new method. Was that an experiment?

Richter: Yes, it started in 1976 with small abstract paintings which allowed me to do all that which I had forbidden myself before: to put something down at random, and then to realize that it can never be random. This happened to open a door for me. If I don't know what is emerging, that is, if I don't have a fixed image, like with the photographs which I paint from, then randomness and chance play an important role.

Schütz: How do you manage to control chance so that a particular painting with a particular statement emerges, which, after all, is your declared concern?

Richter: I really don't have a very particular image in front of my eyes. Rather I would like to obtain in the end a picture which I had not planned at all. Also, this method of working with randomness, chance, sudden inspiration, and destruction lets a particular type of picture emerge but never a predetermined one. The individual picture should therefore develop out of a painterly or visual logic which happens out of necessity. And by not planning the result I hope to be able to realize rather a correctness and objectivity which any piece of nature (or a ready-made) always possesses. Surely this is also a method to put into action unconscious efforts, as much as possible — after all, I would like to get to something more interesting than what I can think of myself.

Schütz: Jürgen Harten has written that your paintings are "Painting about painting," so quasi a painted commentary on painting.

Richter: No, that is not correct. When I hear Bach, I can also say, that is music about music, because it is in a tradition which is in accord with itself, and where every note relates only to the next. That means at the end that it doesn't want or say anything, like a game of chess. For whom should that be good?

Schütz: For many artists the act of painting, the process, stays in the foreground of the work. . .

Richter: . . . it is always only a matter of seeing. The physical act is unavoidable and certainly there is sometimes also a necessity to paint with the whole body — but these actionists [Aktionisten] — one can quite see what comes out of that!

Schütz: In a catalogue published twenty years ago Klaus Honneff wrote that "bonne peinture" is not a matter close to your heart. What rank has painting in your work?

Richter: Much earlier, at the academy, I would have liked to paint as well as the painters which I then esteemed: Bonnard, Cézanne, or Velasquez. But I could never do that. And later I recognized that it is good not to be able to achieve that, because painting is about something totally different — that is, I guess, what "bonne peinture" refers to. I no longer know what that is, probably something like pure painting.

Schütz: So painting which is only about itself and its own conditions is not the point?

Richter: As a basis there is first of all one concern: to make yourself a picture of the world. And for those pictures, painting is always only a means. That's why one can never say about a bad picture that it is painted well. Nevertheless painting, the painterly means, is of elementary importance. One can see that in many paintings with high demands on content that mean well but remain totally unpalatable. This palatableness has nothing to do with luxury, it is something entirely existential.

Schütz: Has "palatableness" very concretely to do with colors, brush work, technique?

Richter: More with seeing, I believe. The rest goes easy, that is no problem. One can paint anything. To see whether what one does is good or not, is more difficult. But it is the only important question. Duchamp has demonstrated that also: that it is not a matter of working with your own hands. It is not about being able to do something but that one sees what it is. Seeing is the decisive act that lastly equates the producer and the viewer.

Schütz: Many of your paintings have a different medium — photography — inserted between them. . .

Richter: . . . which is not different but essentially the same. Of course, in the beginning, a painting was for me only then a painting when it was painted. Later I was surprised to see that I could regard a photograph as a painting — and in my enthusiasm often as the better painting. It also functions the same way: it gives the appearance of something which it is not — and it does it faster and more precisely. That has certainly influenced my point of view, and also my conception of production: that it is, for example, quite insignificant who took the photograph.

Schütz: Especially in the black and white photographic paintings it is emphasized that they are photographs, that they are clearly paintings from photographs.

Richter: I wanted to bring exactly this resemblance with photographs into the paintings because of the credibility alone, which especially black and white photos convey. They have something documentary about them, one believes them more than other pictures.

Schütz: Isn't that a false belief?

Richter: This may be, of course.

(Januuary 15, 1990). Translated from the German by Klaus Ottmann.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.