And then the work bears a strong sense of leave-taking for me personally. It ends the work I began in the 1960s (paintings from black-and-white photographs), with a compressed summation that precludes any possible continuation. And so it is a leave-taking from thoughts and feelings of my own on a very basic level. Not that this is a deliberate act, of course; it is a quasi-automatic sequence of disintegration and reformation which I can perceive, as always, only in retrospect.
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Of course, pictures of objects also have this transcendental side to them. Every object, being part of an ultimately incomprehensible world, also embodies that world; when represented in a picture, the object conveys this mystery all the more powerfully, the less of a 'function' the picture has. Hence, for instance, the growing fascination of many beautiful old portraits.
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There was no special event that made me decide. I had collected some photos and the idea was in the back of my mind for a long time. It was growing and growing, so finally I said, 'I must paint this.' I come from East Germany and am not a Marxist, so of course at the time I had no sympathy for the ideas, or for the ideology that these people represented. I couldn't understand, but I was still impressed. Like everyone, I was touched. It was an exceptional moment for Germany.
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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. After a while, some sheets in the Atlas acquired another value, after all - that is, it seemed to me that they could stand on their own terms, not only under the protection of the Atlas.
I began in 1976, with small abstract paintings that allowed me to do what I had never let myself do: put something down at random. And then, of course, I realized that it never can be random. It was all a way of opening a door for me. If I don't know what's coming - that is, if I have no hard-and-fast image, as I have with a photographic original - then arbitrary choice and chance play an important part.
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Unlike the photography and prints, I never catalogued, kept track of or exhibited the sketches. I sold some occasionally, but never saw myself as a graphic artist. They became more important to me thanks to the exhibition, however, and I realized that these drawings were quite interesting after all.
The grey is certainly inspired by the photo-paintings, and, of course, it's related to the fact that I think grey is an important colour - the ideal colour for indifference, fence-sitting, keeping quiet, despair. In other words, for states of being and situations that affect one, and for which one would like to find a visual expression.
Painting is traditional but for me that doesn't mean the academy. I felt a need to paint; I love painting. It was something natural - as is listening to music or playing an instrument for some people. For this reason I searched for themes of my era and my generation. Photography offered this, so I chose it as a medium for painting.
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Above all, it's never blind chance: it's a chance that is always planned, but also always surprising. And I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I've worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I'm often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am.
As a matter of fact, it was only through the dealer Fred Jahn that I succeeded in overcoming my reservation about the works on paper and exhibiting them. Added to this, of course, was the fact that after ten years I could see the watercolours in a different light, and in conjunction with pictures painted afterwards, they had at least become more comprehensible to me.
When I first painted a number of canvases grey all over (about eight years ago), I did so because I did not know what to paint, or what there might be to paint: so wretched a start could lead to nothing meaningful. As time went on, however, I observed differences of quality among the grey surfaces - and also that these betrayed nothing of the destructive motivation that lay behind them. The pictures began to teach me. By generalizing a personal dilemma, they resolved it.
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My method is related to an attempt to do something that might be understood by today's world, or that could at least provide understanding. In other words, doing something I understand and that everyone understands. This natural desire for communication is also found in other domains, like reading and discourse, etc. I also hate repeating myself; it gives me no pleasure whatsoever. Once I've understood something, I need to start off on new ground.
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As I see it, all of them - Tachists, Action Painters, Informel artists, and the rest - are only part of an Informel movement that covers a lot of other things as well. I think there's an Informel element in Beuys, as well; but it all began with Duchamp and chance, or with Mondrian, or with the Impressionists. The Informel is the opposite of the constructional quality of classicism - the age of kings, or clearly formed hierarchies.
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Based on mixtures of the three primary colours, along with black and white, I come up with a certain number of possible colours and, by multiplying these by two or four, I obtain a definite number of colour fields that I multiply yet again by two, etc. But the complete realization of this project demands a great deal of time and work.
My pictures are devoid of objects; like objects, they are themselves objects. This means that they are devoid of content, significance or meaning, like objects or trees, animals, people or days, all of which are there without a reason, without a function and without a purpose. This is the quality that counts. Even so, there are good and bad pictures.
That was a piece I did in 1963 with Konrad Lueg in a department store, in the furniture department. It was announced in some papers as an exhibition opening, but the people who came didn't know that it was to be a sort of Happening. I don't think it is quite right that it has become so famous anyhow. It was just a lot of fun, and the word itself, Capitalist Realism, hit just right. But it wasn't such a big deal.
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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.
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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. That's how the Atlas came to be, and I exhibited it a few times.
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But I would like to reach the point where I could cut up an illustrated magazine at random and see to it that the parts would each become a painting. I cannot properly explain it right now. Already now I am searching for the most boring and irrelevant photo material that I can find. And I would like to get to the point soon where this determined irrelevance could be retained, in favor of something that would be covered up otherwise by artifice.
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I remember that I felt I had to avoid all these sensational photos, the hanged woman, the man who shot himself, and so forth. I collected a great deal of material, including a number of banal, irrelevant photos, and then in the course of my work I came back to the very pictures I had actually wanted to avoid, which summed up the various stories.
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I've never found anything to be lacking in a blurry canvas. Quite the contrary: you can see many more things in it than in a sharply focused image. A landscape painted with exactness forces you to see a determined number of clearly differentiated trees, while in a blurry canvas you can perceive as many trees as you want. The painting is more open.
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I was a student, and as such you generally rely on prior models of how to make art, but these were not satisfying. Then I discovered in photos what had been missing in paintings; namely that they make a terrific variety of statements and have great substance. That is what I wanted to convey to paintings and apply to it.
A work of art is itself an object, first of all, and so manipulation is unavoidable: it's a prerequisite. But I needed the greater objectivity of the photograph in order to correct my own way of seeing: for instance, if I draw an object from nature, I start to stylize and to change it in accordance with my personal vision and my training. But if I paint from a photograph, I can forget all the criteria that I get from these sources. I can paint against my will, as it were. And that, to me, felt like an enrichment.
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I first came up with the idea for the colour-chart pictures back in 1966, and my preoccupation with the topic culminated in 1974 with a painting that consisted of 4,096 colour fields. Initially I was attracted by the typical Pop Art aestheticism of using standard colour-sample cards; I preferred the unartistic, tasteful and secular illustration of the different tones to the paintings of Albers, Bill, Calderara, Lohse, etc.
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Architecture was, or is, a kind of hobby, an inclination I have to fiddling around and building things. Putting up shelves or cupboards, or making tools, or designing houses ... it always has a functional or social motivation. If social changes are in the air, I am gripped immediately by the desire to build, and I think that I accelerate or anticipate changes in my life by doing so, at least in draft. In the case of my house, that was anticipation: in other words, first build, then change one's life.
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Turning to the colour-classification methodology: The starting point are the four pure colours red, yellow, green and blue; their in-between shades and scales of brightness result in colour schemes containing 16, 64, 256 and 1,024 shades. More colours would be pointless because it wouldn't be possible to distinguish between them clearly.
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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.'
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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.
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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.
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I didn't actually know what the protesters in the West really wanted. It was fantastic here, so much freedom, and that was what they were calling musty, middle-class, and fascistic, a bleak period. Bleak was what the GDR was, and it alone had adopted, almost unchanged, Nazi Germany's methods of intimidation and ideas about propaganda and the use of force.
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I started doing 'figures', then, one day, all of a sudden, I started doing abstraction. And then I started doing both. But it was never really a conscious decision. It was simply a question of desire. In fact, I really prefer making figurative work, but the figure is difficult. So to work around the difficulty I take a break and paint abstractly. Which I really like, by the way, because it allows me to make beautiful paintings.
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Perhaps the choice is a negative one, in that I was trying to avoid everything that touched on well-known issues - or any issues at all, whether painterly, social or aesthetic. I tried to find nothing too explicit, hence all the banal subjects; and then, again, I tried to avoid letting the banal turn into my issue and my trademark. So it's all evasive action, in a way.
... landscapes or still-lifes I paint in between the abstract works; they constitute about one-tenth of my production. On the one hand they are useful, because I like to work from nature - although I do use a photograph - because I think that any detail from nature has a logic I would like to see in abstraction as well.
The grey paintings, for example, a painted grey surface, completely monochromatic - they come from a motivation, or result from a state, that was very negative. It has a lot to do with hopelessness, depression and such things. But it has to be turned on its head in the end, and has to come to a form where these paintings possess beauty. And in this case, it's not a carefree beauty, but rather a serious one.
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Well, the beginning is actually quite easy, because I can still be quite free about the way I handle things - colours, shapes. And so a picture emerges that may look quite good for a while, so airy and colourful and new. But that will only last for a day at most, at which point it starts to look cheap and fake. And then the real work begins - changing, eradicating, starting again, and so on, until it's done.
I am thankful that the church exists, thankful that it has done such great things, giving us laws, for instance - 'thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not', and established Goodness and Evil. That's what all religions do, and as soon as we try to replace them, worldly religions like fascism and communism take over.
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 - and especially the collaboration with Lueg and Polke - matters a lot to me: it is part of the input that I need.
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Grey. It makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make 'nothing' visible.
These pictures possibly give rise to questions of political content or historical truth. Neither interests me in this instance. And although even my motivation for painting them is probably of no significance, I am trying to put a name to it here, as an articulation, parallel to the pictures, as it were, of my disquiet and of my opinion.
But I have a problem with the term 'light'. I never in my life knew what to do with that. I know that people have mentioned on some occasions that 'Richter is all about light', and that 'the paintings have a special light', and I never knew what they were talking about. I was never interested in light. Light is there and you turn it on or you turn it off, with sun or without sun. I don't know what the 'problematic of light' is. I take it as a metaphor for a different quality, which is similarly difficult to describe. Good.
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It was not possible for us to produce the same optimism and the same kind of humour or irony. Actually, it was not irony. Lichtenstein is not ironic but he does have a special kind of humour. That's how I could describe it: humour and optimism. For Polke and me, everything was more fragmented. But how it was broken up is hard to describe.
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.
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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.
Photography has almost no reality; it is almost a hundred per cent picture. And painting always has reality: you can touch the paint; it has presence; but it always yields a picture - no matter whether good or bad. That's all the theory. It's no good. I once took some small photographs and then smeared them with paint. That partly resolved the problem, and it's really good - better than anything I could ever say on the subject.
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I see the bomber pictures as an anti-war statement... which they aren't - at all. Pictures like that don't do anything to combat war. They only show one tiny aspect of the subject of war - maybe only my own childish feelings of fear and fascination with war and with weapons of that kind.
My landscapes are not only beautiful, or nostalgic, with a Romantic or classical suggestion of lost Paradises, but above all 'untruthful.' By 'untruthful,' I mean the glorifying way we look at Nature. 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.
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A student researching into my work has actually traced the newspapers and magazines where I found theses images and has found out that many of them illustrate a collection of gruesome stories, murders and suicides which contrast with the images used. There is a contrast between the message carried by the text and that suppressed by the illustration.
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As far as the surface is concerned - oil on canvas, conventionally applied - my pictures have little to do with the original photograph. They are totally painting (whatever that may mean). On the other hand, they are so like the photograph that the thing that distinguished the photograph from all other pictures remains intact.
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.
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Only about one per cent of my paintings show family members. Do they help me deal with problems? It's likely that these problems can only be depicted. But photographs, private ones and others, keep appearing that fascinate me so much that I want to paint them. And sometimes the real meaning these images have for me only becomes apparent later.
The truth... 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.
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