Gerhard Richter’s Abstract Paintings

Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter is a German artist, and those who consider him amongst the greatest living painters are correct.

To be fair, it’s not like that’s an obscure opinion, given that his prowess on the canvas is highly prized; every year since 2011 has seen at least one of Richter’s works go for a minimum of $20 million at auction (there were six instances of this in 2014!) But how much an artwork sells for is a poor way to determine whether it’s any good, so we’ll be evaluating his art with our eyes.

Richter started out as many talented painters do, transcribing what he saw in his corner of the world. Richter’s earliest style was that of photo-realism (making paintings of photographs), and much of it can be viewed as biographical to Richter himself. Throughout his career Richter has made many terrific pieces in this style featuring things like family and longing, and in a roundabout way these paintings prove his bona fides for the transition to the portion of his work I like most: his abstracts.

Phantom Abfangjäger (Phantom Interceptors) 50, 1964 (in the Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany)

Richter explained his turn toward abstract work as “letting a thing come, rather than creating it.” While in theory this may sound easy enough, changing an entire artistic process is tremendously difficult, and that’s before taking into account whether the new work is any good! But venturing into the unknown is the mark of a true artist, and Richter is nothing if not that.

And this is where things get good. The best way I can describe the first time I saw Richter’s abstracts, it felt like a jolt of electricity rippling through my brain, and the paralyzation prevented me from peeling my eyes away. I felt what I saw.

Stuhl (Chair) 575-3, 1985 (Last auctioned @ Sotheby’s, London, UK on June 21st, 2007. Sold For: $4,245,059 (incl. buyer’s premium).

To make these distinctive abstract marks, Gerhard frequently employs a squeegee, which creates a streak effect that lends the artwork its vigor. When he does use a paintbrush, it’s either an oversized one, or one with an extremely long handle so that he can add to the image while maintaining both literal and figurative distance from control.

In a 2011 documentary called Gerhard Richter Painting, the film followed the artist as he reflected on his career while attempting to finish some pieces of abstract art. I adore peeling back the curtain to get a peak into a person’s creative process, and to see Richter long into his professional career still struggling with knowing what he’s doing and whether his work is good enough is some of the most cathartic humanity I’ve ever seen on screen. As of this writing the documentary is streaming on Kanopy, which can be used for free by signing up for the service using a library card.

Abstract art isn’t for everyone, and even those who like it will often disagree on which pieces they like. In a way, that’s where the appeal is, because it’s a singular method for understanding the types of stimuli that your brain responds to (or doesn’t!) For me, I love something that looks perfectly random, and given Richter’s taste and keen eye for composition, setting him against the challenge of finishing something out of nothing is an ideal situation. Richter explains it well:

I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture… I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things I can think out for myself.”

Phew. Okay enough talking, more showing. Here are some of my favorite Richter abstracts, with strays of accompanying information that happened to be available.

Wolken (Clouds) 514-1, 1982

In the collection of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, USA.

Pavillion 489-1, 1982

In the collection of Neues Museum, Staatliches Museum für Kunst und Design, Nuremberg, Germany.

Athen (Athens) 573-3, 1985

In the collection of FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais, Dunkirk, France.

Ziege (554-4), 1984

Last auctioned @ Sotheby’s, New York, USA on November 17th, 2016.

Sold For: $8,986,000 (incl. buyer’s premium).

In a Private Collection.

Marian 544-2, 1983

In the collection of Maria Rosa Sandretto.

Sulphur 573-1, 1985

Last auctioned @ Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, China on April 19th, 2021.

Sold For: $15,213,700 (incl. buyer’s premium).

Dienstag (Tuesday), 1983

Last auctioned @ Sotheby’s, New York, USA on May 15th, 2013.

Sold For: $605,000 (incl. buyer’s premium).

Rot-Blau-Gelb (Red-Blue-Yellow) 330, 1972

In the Di Bennardo Collection.

Rot-Blau-Gelb (Red-Blue-Yellow) 339-2, 1973

Last auctioned @ Sotheby’s, London, UK on October 12th, 2012.

Sold For: $867,948 (incl. buyer’s premium).

One final note:

As I assembled this collection over the course of a few days, I noticed that the more I studied the pictures, the less impact they were having on me. I suspect that, like listening to your favorite song over and over, it’s all too easy to lose the overwhelming sensation of beauty through overconsumption.

I’m glad I’ve assembled this selection of works in one place (and I might even add to it in the future), but I’ll be measured with how frequently I return to stare at them so that I can preserve their immense impact.


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