Challenging Control: Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter is often referred to as the "artist beyond -isms". It is indeed hard to define Richter's practice differently. Although most of his practice is frequently segmented into movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Photorealism and Realism, Richter keeps stating that there is no such thing as style in his work. 

"I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings. (Because style is violent, and I am not violent.)"

-     Gerhard Richter, Notes, 1964-65


Even though his practice floats between multiple styles, there is one thing that is prominent in most of his paintings: abstraction. And we believe there is a prominent reason for this tendency. 

Richter (b. 1932) grew up in the shadow of Abstract Expressionism that emerged during the early '40s. Abstract Expressionism started in New York and achieved recognition worldwide later in the '50s. It appeared as a post-war art style in response to trauma and anxiety that individuals faced during Cold War politics and cultural conservatism. Abstract Expressionism was a movement that celebrated spontaneity, bold gestures and self-expression. It primed for breaking the boundaries of the canvas. Painting became a mix of performance (action painting) and sculpture. Indeed, some paintings within this movement had so many layers of unusual materials that the image would achieve a three dimensional effect and pop out of the frame.


Richter’s background fits with this movement's motivations. The German artist was born during the rise of the Nazi Party. The trauma suffered throughout this early period of his life has massively influenced his practice. By feeling so constrained and controlled while growing up, Richter opted for a technique that freed his state of mind from political or religious suppressions. This being the reason why Richter keeps using abstraction throughout his work: to challenge control. 

"With a brush you have control. The paint goes on the brush and you make the mark. From experience you know exactly what will happen. With the squeegee you lose control. Not all control, but some control. It depends on the angle, the pressure and the particular paint I am using."

- I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying it, Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011


This idea of loss of control is very contradictory to the traditional painting foundations. Instead of being the master of the medium, Richter embraced what other artists would call mistakes by letting the medium find its way through the tools used (squeegee). 

Although he neglected the Social Realist style,  Richter kept finding himself dragged into realism even if he did not quite fit into it. During his mature period (circa 1960), Richter developed a fascination with photography in which he created some of his most famous paintings today. Instead of embracing the subject as other realist artists, Richter used the subject as an expressive statement against reality by neglecting it.

"If, while I'm painting, I distort or destroy a motif, it is not a planned or conscious act (…) I see the motif, the way I painted it, is somehow ugly or unbearable. Then I try to follow my feelings and make it attractive. And that means a process of painting, changing or destroying – for however long it takes – until I think it has improved."

-Interview with Astrid Kaspar, 2000


Focused on the composition, colour scheme and technique, the German artist conquered his way to be one of the most admired post-war artists ever. His technique is unique, and we, as viewers, can see and feel the disconnection from the subject. Richter paintings exist as ethereal objects, positioned as a parallel truth to reality. 

Although it is almost inevitable not to be assigned into a specific category, Richter is one of those artists that makes us question the boundaries of our own segmentations and expectations. And in this sense, Gerhard Richter really freed himself from being controlled. 

We leave you with one last quote from the artist that we think is key to Richter's practice:

"Life is not what is said but the saying of it, not the picture but the picturing"

A Gerhard Richter’s exhibition can be seen at Gasosian, NY until the 18th of August 2021. More information here

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