Born in Dresden in 1932, Gerhard Richter came of age after World War II. In the villages of Reichenau and Waltersdorf, where his father taught school before being mobilized, Richter had a provincial childhood that mixed Tom Sawyer escapades in the forests of Saxony with compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth and a catch-as-catch-can education. His mother, the daughter of a gifted pianist and a bookseller prior to her marriage, read Goethe, Nietzsche and the classics of German literature, listened avidly to the great 18th- and 19th-century composers and encouraged her son's interest in drawing and painting.
Upon leaving grammar school at age 15, Richter found a series of temporary jobs-assisting a local photographer, decorating banners for the East German Communist regime and painting sets for a theater in the small city of Zitau. In 1952, after failing at his first try, he was admitted to the Art Academy in Dresden. During his five-year stint at the academy, Richter received a thorough but traditional studio training under the tutelage of Heinz Lothmar, a former Surrealist and dedicated Communist who supervised the mural painting department. Paradoxically, this department permitted students the greatest freedom to experiment formally, since mural painting was assumed to be a "decorative" form by otherwise strict enforcers of the prevailing Socialist Realist esthetic. Upon graduation, Richter executed several mural commissions that were well received by officials and the public. In addition to attracting a degree of recognition and assuring him a steady income, this success allowed Richter the opportunity to travel to the West.
On the second of these trips, in 1959, he visited Documenta II in Kassel. The exhibition was one of a series of surveys of international modern and contemporary art intended to fill in the blanks in German cultural history created by the 12-year blackout of the Third Reich and to present vanguard painting and sculpture condemned by authorities in the Communist Bloc. There, for the first time, Richter saw many artists about whom he had heard and many altogether unknown to him. Among those who impressed him most were Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock. Two years later, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected, Richter abandoned his secure and "promising" future in Dresden and slipped over the border to West Berlin. On the advice of a friend who had made the move ahead of him, Richter enrolled in the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf.
That same year, Joseph Beuys was named professor of monumental sculpture at the academy, and though Richter always kept his distance from him, Beuys was henceforth an increasingly important presence in the burgeoning art worlds of Düsseldorf and Cologne. When Richter himself was appointed a professor at the academy in 1971, Beuys became a faculty colleague. Richter's own professor in Düsseldorf was the informel or gesture painter Karl Otto Götz, and for a brief period the younger artist worked in a physically aggressive manner influenced by Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier and Fontana, in effect starting over again and unlearning all that he had been taught at the conservative Dresden Academy.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Düsseldorf, Richter fell in with three other students, Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo, also refugees from the East, and Konrad Lueg, who later changed his name and became the art dealer Konrad Fischer. With Lueg and Polke, Richter shared an active interest in Pop art, which was then brand new and which they did not consider an exclusively American or British domain. Indeed, when Richter and Lueg traveled to Paris in 1963, they introduced themselves to the dealer Ileana Sonnabend as German Pop artists. Later that year, Richter and Lueg mounted two exhibitions/ demonstrations of their own work, the first one also involving the collaboration of Polke and another friend, Manfred Kuttner. These were the first occasions on which Richter showed his photo-based paintings. The exhibitions inaugurated a singularly protean, 40-year career which was to encompass many surprising changes in his work.
The following interview was recorded Oct. 17 and 18, 1996. Overall, the exchange was more conversational than interrogative and was punctuated by more laughter than is mentioned here, for by nature Richter is as playful in his speech as he is precise. He was teasing in his answers to some questions, at times startlingly blunt in response to others. Assisting at the interview was Isabelle Moffat, who acted as skillful interpreter when the conversation shifted into German and who transcribed and, where necessary, translated the audiotape. The interview covered many topics; the parts published here-with the editorial contribution of Sue Taylor-deal with aspects of Richter's early years that are not generally known, and with issues raised by his recent work. -R.S.
Robert Storr: How it is that you first began to make paintings?
Gerhard Richter: When I was a child, at 15 or 16, I made watercolors, landscapes and self-portraits. I remember doing a watercolor of a group of people dancing. It was quite a nice one.
RS: Why does it stand out in your memory?
GR: Because I was so negative when I was young. We had moved to a new village, and automatically I wasan outsider. I couldn't speak the dialect and so on. I was at a club, watching the others dance, and I was jealous and bitter and annoyed. So in the watercolor all this anger is included, at 16. It was the same with the poems I was writing-very romantic, but bitter and nihilistic, like Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse.
RS: Did your family support your making art, or was it all on the side-private?
GR: On the side. Maybe my mother approved. She was a bit crazy, so she thought this boy might be a genius.
RS: So she encouraged you?
GR: She did nothing against my efforts.
RS: That's a lot.
GR: That's a lot. That's true.
RS: And when did you decide to pursue this activity professionally?
GR: When I was 17. I had to find a job at some point; that's when I did poster painting, lettering onbanners-"Der Sozialismus lebt." That's a strange sentence, "Socialism lives."
RS: In your case, it was also a matter of "Socialism is a living."
GR: Good! And then I worked in theater, painting scenery, for half a year. It was a city theater, in Zitau, a small town about 100 kilometers from Dresden, where I lived in a dormitory for apprentices.
RS: And so it was coming out of those experiences-your poems and watercolors and your work in theater-that you decided to go to the academy?
GR: Yes. From the age of maybe 16 I had the feeling it would be right for me.
RS: And what kind of a future did you imagine as an artist, at that point?
GR: I had no idea. I just wanted to paint, to make pictures.
RS: Did you think you were going to be a painter for public occasions or for private collectors of paintings?
GR: A painter like all the others, like Lovis Corinth and Raphael and so on. A famous painter. [Laughter]
RS: But didn't you do a mural commission just after graduation from the academy?
GR: When I left the academy, at the end, yes, I painted a large mural on the theme of health and happiness in a Socialist paradise.
RS: But you didn't see yourself continuing to make paintings of that sort, big public paintings?
GR: Maybe for some short moment I thought this could be a future for me, making big paintings, public paintings.
RS: I know from Ilya Kabakov, Eric Bulatov and other artists from the former Soviet Union that in the Eastern Bloc one could have a job as an official artist, a book designer, for example, and then be an unofficial artist in private. I wonder if you envisioned this kind of a double life, or if you expected just to paint pictures?