Gerhard Richter interview

Gerhard Richter and Sir Nicholas Serota, 2011 Gerhard Richter and Sir Nicholas Serota, 2011 - © Photo Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Oct 10 2011

Tate Modern is staging a major retrospective of painter Gerhard Richter, considered one of the world's greatest living artists. Here, curator and Tate director Nicholas Serota talks to him about the enduring power of his work

Nicholas Serota: Over äfty years, you have worked in sculpture, in drawing, in photographs, by painting over photographs, but you have always remained very loyal to painting. Of course you are known as a painter, but in the contemporary world such loyalty to painting is quite unusual.

Gerhard Richter: A lot of people änd other mediums more attractive - put a screen in a museum and nobody wants to look at the paintings any more.

But painting is my profession, because it has always been the thing that interested me most. And now I'm of a certain age, I come from a different tradition and, in any case, I can't do anything else. I'm still very sure that painting is one of the most basic human capacities, like dancing and singing, that make sense, that stay with us, as something human.

NS: Are you always thinking about how to make a timeless object?

GR: It's not that I'm always thinking about how to make something timeless, it's more of a desire to maintain a certain artistic quality that moves us, that goes beyond what we are, and that is, in that sense, timeless.

NS: Do you think this comes, in part, from an early training that was respectful of craft?

GR: Yes, but it's not about skill, the so-called craft, that's a given, and virtuosity alone has nothing to do with art. I don't how I can describe the quality that is only found in art (be it music, literature, painting, or whatever), this quality, it's just there, and it endures.

NS: So it still speaks to us.

GR: Yes.

NS: What was the motivation when you made the '4 Panes of Glass' (1967)?

GR: I wanted to show the glass itself. It was a fairly naive attempt to show that you can also touch these panes. That's why they were revolvable … but at the same time you then also see that being able to touch them isn't actually any help, you still can't understand them. And, yes, it does also faintly have something to do with Duchamp. It was a polemic against Duchamp. He scratched such mysterious little ägures into the dust …

NS: So you wanted to tackle Duchamp?

GR: Yes, a bit, similar to 'Ema' [an image of Richter's naked wife painted in 1966]. I remember his 'Nude Descending a Staircase' was thought of as the end of painting.

NS: So you wanted to show that painting was still possible in spite of Duchamp?

GR: Yes, and without abandoning representational painting. I wanted what you might call 'retina art' - painterly, beautiful, and if needs be, even sentimental. That wasn't 'in' back then - it was kitsch.

NS: So you were interested in emotion even in the mid-1960s?

GR: Yes, without really being aware of what I was doing. In those days people didn't see it like that, paintings after photographs of tragic events were a source of amusement, were seen as insolent and provocative, stunts. Which wasn't that far off the mark.

NS: So you wanted painting to be capable of dealing with human emotion, and therefore in a way not the language of international abstraction.

GR: Yes.

NS: So you are sceptical about ideologies, but does painting still have a moral purpose? Let's deal with ideologies ärst.

GR: That's easy - if you grow up ärst in a Nazi system and then under a Communist system. And then there were other reasons too. It was a generation without fathers, and that went for me too. That's enough to make anyone sceptical.

NS: Yes, you were without a father metaphorically, but almost without a father literally.

Yes, I had neither: neither a role-model father nor the resistance of a father. A father draws boundaries and calls a halt, whenever necessary. As I didn't have that, I was able to stay childishly naÔve that much longer - so I did what I liked, because there was nobody stopping me, even when I got it wrong. That somewhat undisciplined behaviour was not unlike what [Sigmar] Polke was doing, too.

NS: So, if you are sceptical about ideology, where do you änd your faith? Not in the Church.

GR: Not in the Church, not literally, but in other ways, yes, also in Church. It's an old tradition and we can't exist without some form of belief in things. We need it.

NS: Has your belief developed as you have grown older?

GR: No, I've always believed.

NS: It's how you construct your world?

GR: It's our culture, Christian history, that's what formed me. Even as an atheist, I believe. We're just built that way.

NS: Yes, everyone has to develop their own value system, but for a painter, sometimes, this value system is also expressed in work, so for Rothko there might be an expression in the paintings of a belief in a transcendent world.

GR: I can relate to that. And art is the ideal medium for making contact with the transcendental, or at least for getting close to it

NS: So how would you describe yourself? I don't mean in political terms, I mean … I think you said that you don't believe in religion.

GR: I don't believe in God.

NS: If you don't believe in God, what do you believe in?

GR: Well, in the ärst place, I believe that you always have to believe. It's the only way; after all we both believe that we will do this exhibition. But I can't believe in God, as such, he's either too big or too small for me, and always incomprehensible, unbelievable.

NS: So what is the purpose of art?

GR: For surviving this world. One of many, many … like bread, like love.

NS: And what does it give you?

GR: [laughs] Well, certainly something you can hold on to … it has the measure of all the infathomable, senseless things, the incessant ruthlessness of our world. And art shows us how to see things that are constructive and good, and to be an active part of that.

NS: So it gives a structure to the world?

GR: Yes, comfort, hope, so it makes sense to be part of that.

NS: But that participation is not through religion?

GR: Not for me, nevertheless 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.

NS: Are there subjects that you cannot paint?

GR: Well, I don't believe there are subjects that can't be painted, but there are a lot of things that I personally can't paint.

NS: Many of your paintings touch upon the history of your life and the history of Germany in the post-war period, but you have never made a painting based on the Holocaust.

GR: Not directly no. I made a few attempts, and Konrad Fischer [fellow painter, later gallery owner] and I planned an exhibition at one time. I can't come up with a suitable form, can't änd a way of presenting it so that it's bearable and not just spectacular. That theme … it's like a cudgel.

NS: Was that the reason why you stopped working on the subject?

GR: Yes … I've still got a photograph, on a wall. But there's no point talking about it, you have to see it.

NS: What is it of?

GR: It is from a book by Georges Didi-Huberman, a French art historian. I think it's called 'Images in Spite of All', and it has a lot of terrible pictures in it. Didi-Huberman maintains that these pictures, these dreadful photographs are part of our collective fund of images. It's a stunning book - you see a concentration camp yard, with people walking around in it quite calmly, moving corpses - except you only see that when you look more closely. Like nice gardeners … there's an appalling contrast between the contents and the look of the picture. But if I did anything with that, it would just be too spectacular. I have something of a reputation these days, and then it would be, 'Woah, look what he's doing now!' It's already gets on my nerves with the Baader-Meinhof paintings (1988). They get so much attention - which they wouldn't if someone else had done them. I don't even like showing them any more. The press love them. Dreadful!

NS: Did you consider, nevertheless, making a painting from this image?

GR: Yes, often.

NS: Did you begin?

GR: No, it has a huge impact as a small, framed photograph. I couldn't add anything to it; if I turned it into a much larger painting, it would probably only be to its detriment.

NS: When did you discover this photograph?

GR: About four years ago.

NS: So it is still possible that you could make such a painting because when you made 'September' (2005) you made the image four or äve years after the event.

GR: I am slow, that's true, but it's highly unlikely.

NS: Why are you slow?

GR: I often need a long time to understand things, to imagine a painting I might make.

NS: With 'September' did you think about the possibility of making a painting on the subject in 2001 or did it come much later?

GR: Four years later, actually. Although of course I was very struck by the images in the papers, I didn't think you could paint that moment - and certainly not the way some people did, taking the inane view that this most awful act was some kind of an amazing Happening, and celebrating it as a mega work of art.

NS: So you tried to änd a way of dealing with the subject without making it spectacular?

GR: Yes, concentrating on its incomprehensible cruelty, and its awful fascination —

NS: — visual fascination —

GR: — yes, but it's not a work of art by Bin Laden.

NS: When did you do the drawings for this work? Just before the painting or much earlier?

GR: Possibly a year earlier, I don't know.

NS: And the drawings are much larger than the painting.

GR: Those are two different drawings. I didn't realise that they had to do with this theme.

NS: You didn't realise they had to do with this theme?

No. It was Benjamin Buchloh [art historian and author on Richter] who saw the connection. As far as I was concerned, they were just two completely abstract drawings.

NS: He recognised a connection between the two?

GR: Yes, and then I saw it, too. I've got this way of shutting things out of my mind, which works so well that sometimes I don't even know what I'm doing. In the past there were sometimes photographs of terrible events and murderers or victims that I had completely forgotten, although I had actually painted them. Maybe there's a good side to that, too.

NS: Because even if you do have a very strong subject, at a certain moment it has to develop its own life as a painting.

GR: A painting, yes, but not a spectacle and not an illustration.

NS: Let's turn to the difference between precision and chance. You are very precise, you like everything to be ordered.

GR: Pretty neurotic.

NS: When you are making the realistic paintings, do you have to be very precise?

GR: Yes, in the widest sense of the word.

NS: What are you trying to achieve with these realistic images?

GR: I'm trying to paint a picture of what I have seen and what moved me, as well as I can. That's all.

NS: You talked about the fact that sometimes you don't paint. You have periods when you are not painting. Is this because you are looking for a subject or because you have doubt?

GR: Yes, I'm in one of those phases at the moment, and I'm not sure if I'm just looking for distractions, working on exhibitions and so on, so that I have an excuse not to be painting just now. Or whether I'm looking for these distractions because I haven't any ideas any more. No doubt it's a bit of both. There are nicer situations.

NS: Sometimes you need the distraction to get through the day.

GR: Yes. You can't always work properly. The only really disturbing thing is the fear that it might already all be over. Every time. That nothing more will come.

The full conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota appears in 'Gerhard Richter: Panorama', edited by Mark Godfrey and Nicholas Serota (Tate Publishing, 2011). © Tate 2011. The exhibition, 'Gerhard Richter: Panorama', continues at Tate Modern until Jan 6 2012