- Birthday, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Gerhard Richter on Art, Painting, Nature, Meaning, and More


Happy birthday, Gerhard Richter! 88, today! Here are some paintings by and quotes from the artist.


“Art is the highest form of hope.”


“To be alive is to engage in a daily struggle for form and for survival.”


“Art serves to establish community. It links us with others and with the things around us, in a shared vision and effort.”


“The idea that art copies nature is a fatal misconception. Art has always operated against nature and for reason.”


“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: ‘binding back,’ ‘binding’ to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being). But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real⁠—and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.”


richter 1
Betty (1988)


“To talk about paintings is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. Painting is another form of thinking.”


richter 2
September (2005)


“The first impulse towards painting, or toward art in general, stems from the need to communicate, the effort to fix one’s own vision, to deal with appearances (which are alien and must be given names and meanings.) Without this, all work would be pointless and unjustified, like Art for Art’s Sake.”


“Every word, every line, every thought is prompted by the age we live in, with all its circumstances, its ties, its efforts, its past and present. It is impossible to act or think independently and arbitrarily. This is comforting in a way. To the individual, the collective experience of the age represents a bondand also, in a sense, security; there will always be possibilities even in disaster.”


richter 3
Man Shot Down I (1988)


“Every word, every line, every thought is prompted by the age we live in, with all its circumstances, its ties, its efforts, its past and present. It is impossible to act or think independently and arbitrarily. This is comforting in a way. To the individual, the collective experience of the age represents a bond—and also, in a sense, security; there will always be possibilities even in disaster.”

“I would like to try to understand what is. We know very little, and I am trying to do it by creating analogies. Almost every work of art is an analogy. When I make a representation of something, this too is an analogy to what exists; I make an effort to get a grip on the thing by depicting it. I prefer to steer clear of anything aesthetic, so as not to set obstacles in my own way and not to have the problem of people saying: ‘Ah, yes, that’s how he sees the world, that’s his interpretation.”


“Art’s means of representing a thingstyle, technique and the object representedare circumstances of art, just as the artist’s individual qualities (way of life, abilities, environment and so on) are circumstances of art. Art can just as well be made in harmony with the circumstances of its making as in defiance of them. In itself art is neither visible nor definable: all that is visible and imitable is its circumstances, which are easily mistaken for the art itself.”


richter 4.jpg
Abstract Painting (726) (1990)


“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God.”


“Since there is no such thing as absolute rightness and truth, we always pursue the artificial, leading, human truth. We judge and make a truth that excludes other truths. Art plays a formative part in this manufacture of truth.”


“I am primarily painting from photographs these days (from illustrated magazines but also from family photos), in a sense this is a stylistic problem, the form is naturalistic, even though the photograph is not nature at all but a prefabricated product (the “second-hand world” in which we live), I do not have to intervene artistically with style, since the stylization (deformation in form and color) contributes only under very particular circumstances toward clarifying and intensifying an object or a subject (generally stylization becomes the central problem which obscures everything else (object, subject), it leads to an unmotivated artificiality, an untouchable formalist taboo.”


“Contact with like-minded painters⁠—a group means a great deal to me: nothing comes in isolation. We have worked out our ideas largely by talking them through. Shutting myself away in the country, for instance, would do nothing for me. One depends on one’s surroundings. And so the exchange with other artists⁠…matters a lot to me: it is part of the input that I need.”


“Composition is a side issue. Its role in my selection of photographs is a negative one at best. By which I mean that the fascination of a photograph is not in its eccentric composition but in what it has to say: its information content. And, on the other hand, composition always also has its own fortuitous rightness.”


“I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.”


“This superficial blurring has something to do with the incapacity I have just mentioned. I can make no statement about reality clearer than my own relationship to reality; and this has a great deal to do with imprecision, uncertainty, transience, incompleteness, or whatever. But this doesn’t explain the pictures. At best it explains what led to their being painted.”


“Pictures are the idea in visual or pictorial form; and the idea has to be legible, both in the individual picture and in the collective context⁠—which presupposes, of course, that words are used to convey information about the idea and the context. However, none of this means that pictures function as illustrations of an idea: ultimately, they are the idea. Nor is the verbal formulation of the idea a translation of the visual: it simply bears a certain resemblance to the meaning of the idea. It is an interpretation, literally a reflection.”


“To me, grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference, noncommitment, absence of opinion, absence of shape. But grey, like formlessness and the rest, can be real only as an idea, and so all I can do is create a colour nuance that means grey but is not it. The painting is then a mixture of grey as a fiction and grey as a visible, designated area of colour.”


“When we describe a process, or make out an invoice, or photograph a tree, we create models; without them we would know nothing of reality and would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”


“When I paint an abstract picture (the problem is very much the same in other cases), I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings⁠—like that of a person who possesses a given set of tools, materials and abilities and has the urgent desire to build something useful which is not allowed to be a house or a chair or anything else that has a name; who therefore hacks away in the vague hope that by working in a proper, professional way he will ultimately turn out something proper and meaningful.”


“Of course I constantly despair at my own incapacity, at the impossibility of ever accomplishing anything, of painting a valid, true picture or even knowing what such a thing ought to look like. But then I always have the hope that, if I persevere, it might one day happen. And this hope is nurtured every time something appears, a scattered, partial, initial hint of something which reminds me of what I long for, or which conveys a hint of it⁠—although often enough I have been fooled by a momentary glimpse that then vanishes, leaving behind only the usual thing.”


“The truth [is in his paintings]…When they have a similar structure to and are organized in as truthful a way as nature. When I look out of the window, then truth for me is the way nature shows itself in its various tones, colours and proportions. That’s a truth and has its own correctness. This little slice of nature, and in fact any given piece of nature, represents to me an ongoing challenge, and is a model for my paintings.”


“I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colours fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.”


“Chance as a theme and as method. A method of allowing something objective to come into being; a theme for creating a simile (picture) of our survival strategy:
(1) The living method, which not only processes conditions, qualities and events as they chance to happen, but exists solely as that non-static ‘process’, and in no other way.
(2) Ideological: denial of the planning, the opinion and the world-view whereby social projects, and subsequently ‘big pictures’, are created. So what I have often seen as a deficiency on my part⁠—the fact that I’ve never been in a position to ‘form a picture’ of something – is not incapacity at all but an instinctive effort to get at a more modern truth: one that we are already living out in our lives (life is not what is said but the saying of it, not the picture but the picturing).”


“I don’t have a specific picture in my mind’s eye. 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. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a ready-made) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.”


“But my motivation was more a matter of wanting to create order⁠—to keep track of things. All those boxes full of photographs and sketches weigh you down, because they have something unfinished, incomplete, about them. So it’s better to present the usable material in an orderly fashion and throw the other stuff away.”


“In the beginning I tried to accommodate everything there that was somewhere between art and garbage and that somehow seemed important to me and a pity to throw away.”


“If, while I’m painting, I distort or destroy a motif, it is not a planned or conscious act, but rather it has a different justification: 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. And I don’t demand an explanation from myself as to why this is so.”


“The urge to break with a tradition is only appropriate when you’re dealing with an outdated, troublesome tradition: I never really thought about that because I take the old-fashioned approach of equating tradition with value (which may be a failing). But whatever the case, positive tradition can also provoke opposition if it’s too powerful, too overwhelming, too demanding. That would basically be about the human side of wanting to hold your own.”


“By nature I am a skeptic. I don’t dare to think my paintings are great. I can’t understand the arrogance of someone saying, ‘I have created a big, important work.’ I want to reject this pathetic behavior, this notion of the heroic artist. Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate…On the other hand, you do need feelings like they had to some extent. So I am afraid there must be a side of me close to those feelings. Those absurd feelings.”


“I have always been structured. What has changed is the proportions. Now it is eight hours of paperwork and one of painting. I go to the studio every day, but I don’t paint every day. I love playing with my architectural models. I love making plans. I could spend my life arranging things. Weeks go by, and I don’t paint until finally I can’t stand it any longer. I get fed up. I almost don’t want to talk about it, because I don’t want to become self-conscious about it, but perhaps I create these little crises as a kind of a secret strategy to push myself. It is a danger to wait around for an idea to occur to you. You have to find the idea.”


“Idiots can do what I do. ”


“The abstracts are the opposite to work on. That process is more like walking, step by step, without an intention, until you discover where you are going. When I paint a landscape from a photograph or an image like this one, I can see the end point before I start, although in fact it always turns out slightly different than I imagined. What I have is not facility, because this really doesn’t take skill. I have an eye. I couldn’t make a drawing of you sitting here right now. I would love to have that ability, in the same way that I would love to play the piano. Virtuosity is a precondition for pianists, but in addition you have to be good. These are not the same thing.”


“I was surprised by photography, which we all use so massively every day. Suddenly, I saw it in a new way, as a picture that offered me a new view, free of all the conventional criteria I had always associated with art. It had no style, no composition, no judgment. It freed me from personal experience. For the first time, there was nothing to it: it was pure picture. That’s why I wanted to have it, to show it – not use it as a means to painting, but use painting as a means to photography.”


“My works are not just rhetorical, except in the sense that all art is rhetorical. I believe in beauty.”


“I can’t say what they [his abstract paintings] are about. I don’t think they are expressionistic. I don’t know why people say that. Why not say they are like Chinese paintings or like batik? People also talk about the quality of light in the paintings. ‘Ah, the light!’ Or ‘Ah, the space!’ It’s phony reverence. It’s ridiculous.”


“It is instinctive to search for something. Abstract art is inherently about the search⁠—and about not finding anything. My gray monochromes have the same illusionistic implications as my landscapes. I want them to be seen as narratives⁠—even if they are narratives of nothingness. Nothing is something. You might say they are like photographs of nothing.”


“Materialists, I would call them⁠—writers who said there was no god, no spirit, that freedom is an illusion. That affected me deeply.”


“But artists are valued today in terms of money, auctions. I wish society would need art more, but it doesn’t. So I feel very lonely in this culture.”


“You no longer apprehend but see and make (without design) what you have not apprehended. And when you don’t know what you are making, you don’t know, either, what to alter or distort.”


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


“I pursue no objectives, no systems, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no direction. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.”


“Do you know what was great? Finding out that a stupid, ridiculous thing like copying a postcard could lead to a picture. And then the freedom to paint whatever you felt like. Stags, aircraft, kings, secretaries. Not having to invent anything anymore, forgetting everything you meant by painting⁠—color, composition, space⁠—and all of the things you previously knew and thought. Suddenly none of this was a prior necessity for art.”


“I don’t mistrust reality, of which I know next to nothing. I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed. Our eyes have evolved for survival purposes. The fact that they can also see the stars is pure accident.”


“I believe that art has a kind of Rightness, as in music, when we hear whether or not a note is false. And that’s why classical paintings, which are right in their own terms, are so necessary for me. In addition to that there’s nature, which also has this rightness.”


“Nature, which in all its forms is always against us, because it knows no meaning, no pity, no sympathy, because it knows nothing and is absolutely mindless: the total antithesis of ourselves.”

“To defend painting: One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is pure idiocy.”


“It makes no sense to expect or claim to ‘make the invisible visible’, or the unknown known, or the unthinkable thinkable. We can draw conclusions about the invisible; we can postulate its existence with relative certainty. But all we can represent is an analogy, which stands for the invisible but is not it.”


“There is no excuse whatever for uncritically accepting what one takes over from others. For no thing is good or bad in itself, only as it relates to specific circumstances and to our own intentions. This fact means that there is nothing guaranteed or absolute about conventions; it gives us the daily responsibility of distinguishing good from bad.”


“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense. It is like the religious search for God. We are well aware that making sense and picturing are artificial, like illusion; but we can never give them up. For belief (thinking out and interpreting the present and the future) is our most important characteristic.”


“As soon as artistic activity turns into an ‘ism,’ it ceases to be artistic activity. To be alive is to engage in a daily struggle for form and for survival. (By way of analogy: social concern is a form and a method that is currently seen as appropriate and right. But where it elevates itself into Socialism, an order and a dogma, then it loses its best and truest qualities and may turn criminal.)”


“Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is languagerecord-keepingand has to take place before and after. Einstein did not think when he was calculating: he calculatedproducing the next equation in reaction to the one that went beforejust as in painting one form is a response to another and so on.”


“Art serves to establish community. It links us with others and with the things around us, in a shared vision and effort.”


“My concern is never art, but always what art can be used for.”


“Since there is no such thing as absolute rightness and truth, we always pursue the artificial, leading, human truth. We judge and make a truth that excludes other truths. Art plays a formative part in this manufacture of truth.”

” But the sheer unimagined vastness of the explicable has now made the inexplicable into such a monstrous thing that our heads spin, and the old images burst like bubbles. The thought of the totally inexplicable (as when we look at the starry sky), and the impossibility of reading any sense into this monstrous vastness, so affect us that we need ignorance to survive.”


“Strange though this may sound, not knowing where one is goingbeing lost, being a loserreveals the greatest possible faith and optimism, as against collective security and collective significance. To believe, one must have lost God; to paint, one must have lost art.”


  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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