GR: I always hated those artists who were so consistent and had this sort of unified development; I thought it was terrible. I never worked at painting as if it were a job; it was always out of interest or for fun, a desire to try something. Other artists might paint pictures for a show. They say, "I still need large paintings." When I was struggling financially, when I had trouble with Heiner Friedrich, I couldn't be with the gallery any longer, and I had to leave. At that time, I became a teacher. I would do different jobs. I didn't want to have to make paintings I would be paid for, nor did I want to have to be nice to a dealer-although I am very nice. [Laughter] But if you force me to do something, I can't do it.
RS: And so teaching was a way to have the freedom to‑.‑.‑.‑
GR: ‑To paint. I was never a good teacher.
RS: In this country, even though many, many painters teach, there is always the impression that if you are teaching, it's because you are not really successful as an artist. It's striking that in Germany in particular almost all of the really interesting artists have taught, and many of them have taught for a very long time.
GR: That has to do with the system, the civil service. You are immediately guaranteed a lifelong salary and have a certain status as a professor. Germans are still a bit crazy with the title "professor." All the artists are professors.
RS: And they are not afraid that being in the academy makes them academic?
GR: No, you don't get better or worse. It's just a job, an extremely easy job. It's almost immoral. I have five months of vacation. And the rest, the other seven months, professors hardly need to show up. But I did; I was always very proper. It's awful!
RS: Did you have close associations with students? Did you find that teaching actually fed your work in some way or reinforced what you were doing?
GR: Thomas Schütte became a friend. He visits us with his family, and we always encourage each other. That is an exception.
RS: But you didn't have the kind of relationship with students that Beuys had, for example.
GR: No, never. Because I had no teacher, I could never imagine that students would want to hear something from me. I came into the classroom and said, "Excuse me, I don't want to disturb you."
RS: You've mentioned that you did not want father figures, that you did not have a strong father yourself . . .
GR: And so it was impossible for me to think that students would want me as a father. Ultimately, I learned they might.
RS: Aside from the economic security that it gave you, did the teaching have an effect on how you thought about art? Do you in fact think that art is something that can be taught?
GR: In the first few years, yes, I thought there was something I could maybe communicate, or somehow, with my strange manner, show some opposition and some kind of partiality. There was a need for that.
RS: On your part?
GR: Yes. The academy was so bad and the teachers so corrupt, I thought I should do something.
RS: How do you mean bad and corrupt?
GR: In this system, you become corrupt. They were only unsuccessful artists, except Beuys, for a short time. And what they taught was truly horrible. It was so modern, the students never did what I did. I started with still lifes, and they thought it was reactionary. But I thought this an important foundation, to learn to draw and to understand what color is.
RS: And that's how you taught?
GR: Yes, it was good in the beginning. But after the times went so strange, the events of 1968 and so on, Icouldn't get my position across; I couldn't offer still-life painting anymore. They refused it. And of course for some students there was no need to make a still life. Thomas Schütte, who was one of the best, or Isa Genzken, never painted a still life. We discussed.
RS: Do you take it as a challenge to paint subjects that other people think can't be painted, for example a still life, even a still life of flowers, as you've recently done?
GR: Not consciously. But perhaps unconsciously it could be a motivation. Who knows? On the other hand, I remember that when I painted my first landscape, Corsica, in 1969, it was really not for the public. I thought, "I'll do it just for fun, for me." And I didn't expect that it would be possible to show it.
RS: There are some very interesting parallels between the way you talk about your work and the way de Kooning talked about his. He was operating at a time when it seemed to many people-artists as well as critics-that there were certain things you could do and certain things you couldn't. And he always said, "The minute it's obvious you cannot do something, you have to do it." [Laughter] When it was no longer possible to paint the figure, he said, "Fine, then I will have to paint women, because obviously it is impossible to do." And I wonder if there isn't an element of this in your thinking as well.
GR: When I started the landscapes, I thought you could already sort of do what you wanted, although Minimalism and Conceptual art were still dominant. But 10 years later it was more in fashion to do different things. Martin Kippenberger did everything. [Laughter]
RS: Tacking against the wind. To go back a little earlier in our conversation, we were talking about when you took a job at the academy and didn't want to be in a position of having to make work that was consistent for the sake of the market. I wonder if art history had special importance for you, in terms of how you approached your own work, or whether you were willing simply to step aside and do what you were compelled to do while art history took care of itself?
GR: I am definitely inside of art history; it's my domain, my home.
RS: And where are you inside that domain?
GR: In the art, the painters' culture.
RS: The culture of painters?
RS: But not necessarily inside an avant-garde that defines art history according to a precept?
GR: No. That's very foreign to me.
RS: How do artists make art history?
GR: They never do, they never make art history. They do their job, and then after 10 years it's art history. [Laughter]
RS: There is another recent body of work which is perhaps even more surprising than the landscapes in certain ways-the paintings you made in 1995 of your wife and young child. These are very unexpected pictures.
GR: Maybe because there are so many of them.
RS: Both the number and the subject.
GR: The subject? Because there are children in the painting?
GR: I can't quite understand why this should be so extraordinary.
RS: It's unexpected because it seems to be very private.‑
GR: Very private, yes. The only difference is that I have become more shameless. I am not as ashamedanymore, and I am not afraid anymore. My fears have abated somewhat. I don't feel that I have to behave properly. Somehow I finally understood that I am allowed to do what I want.
RS: Since 1988, when you painted the cycle of paintings about the Baader-Meinhof group, "18. Oktober 1977," there seems to have been a decided shift in your work. The color has changed, and the subject matter appears to be more personal. I'm thinking, for example, about the painting of your daughter, Betty, which was made at the same time as the Baader-Meinhof series. It's as if two sides of your mind are always working in tension with each other. How has that happened?
GR: I don't know what I should say to this! It has to do with age, perhaps. Or with time. Time necessitates it.
RS: You once said that the "Oktober" paintings were a leave-taking.
GR: But seen like that, every painting is a leave-taking. Betty, of course, was a leave-taking, as were the mother-child paintings.
RS: How so?
GR: They declare that it's over-this time, this short time.
RS: Can paintings hold time? Is this the point of making paintings?
GR: This is not the reason I make paintings, but yes, they can hold time a bit. That's why they are so attractive for us.
RS: In discussing the difference between the paintings you made from snapshots and the snapshots themselves, you referred to snapshots as devotional pictures and said the paintings were different. Where does that difference lie when you begin to paint your own life in this way?
GR: That's a real intellectual problem. Snapshots are like little devotional pieces that people have in their environment and look at. The paintings are like that a little too, but they are less private. That may be our deepest desire, not to be private. To be public, open to the world.
RS: When you speak about being open to the world in this way, I am struck by the fact that the paintings you made about the Baader-Meinhof group concern public events which prompted a deep response in you, whereas the paintings of Sabina with your child are personal in a different, intensely intimate way.
GR: Like "18. Oktober 1977," the mother-and-child paintings also provoked a lot of reactions and were very severely criticized.
RS: Really? Why?
GR: There was a crazy feminist writer in one of our best newspapers who wrote a very tough article about them. And then a paper in Basel published an answer that was very interesting about the paintings and beauty. One writer claimed that if I had painted sex and violence it would have been okay, but one isn't allowed to paint anything beautiful, whole or ideal. That's part of why people were outraged by the subject matter.
RS: They see it as sentimental or kitschy?
RS: It is, in fact; that's why I said they are unusual paintings, because I don't know the last time that I saw an artist paint what amounts to a nativity.
GR: They are not even that beautiful. They are a little damaged, in the way I was describing before. Again I couldn't quite hold it; they are not as beautiful as Vermeer.
RS: So you went after them? Attacked them?
GR: Yes. I had no choice. I had to. I didn't want to. But I really want to make beautiful paintings.
RS: In The Daily Practice of Painting, many of the notes seem incredibly negative, about the futility of painting, the corruption of the art world. Is the painting actually connected to those ideas, or do you think about those ideas after the painting is done? Does the painting have its own logic, its own status?
GR: Painting is the only positive thing I have. Even if I see everything else negatively, at least in the pictures I can communicate some kind of hope. I can at least carry on.
Gerhard Richter recently showed a selection of paintings from the last five years at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York [Sept. 14-Oct. 27, 2001]. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. A retrospective exhibition curated by the interviewer, "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting," will appear later this winter and spring at the Museum of Modern Art, New York [Feb. 14-May 21]. It will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago [June 22-Sept. 15]; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [Oct. 11, 2002-Jan. 14, 2003]; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. [Feb. 12-May 11, 2003]; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta [May-July 2003].
Interviewer: Robert Storr is a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.