by Gerhard Richter

The first impulse towards painting, or towards 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. —1962

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. —1962

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.) —1962

All that interests me is the gray areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the object as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts. —1964–1965

Arbitrariness has always seemed the central problem in both abstract and representational painting. What reason is there, other than some stupid system or the rules of a game, for placing one thing next to another in any particular format, any particular color, with any particular outline, with any particular likeness—and next to that something else again, no matter what? —1977

At the moment—for quite a time—for about two years, I have been working on a different idea. Different from the Gray Pictures that I was painting before. After those strictly monochromatic or non-chromatic paintings it was rather difficult just to keep going. Even if such a thing had been possible, I had no desire to produce variations on that theme. So I set out in totally the opposite direction. On small canvases I put random, illogical colors and forms—mostly with long pauses in between, which made sure that these paintings—if you can all them that— became more and more heterogeneous. Ugly sketches is what they are: the total antithesis of the purist Gray Pictures. Colorful, sentimental, associative, anachronistic, random, polysemic, almost like pseudo-psychograms, except that they are not legible, because they are devoid of meaning or logic—if such a thing is possible, which is a fascinating point in itself, if not the most important of all, though I still know too little about it. An exciting business, at all events, as if a new door had opened for me. —1977

The composition of different forms, colors, structures, proportions, harmonies,n etc. comes out as an abstract system analogous to music. It is thus an artificial construct, as logical in its own terms as any natural one, except that it is not objective. This system draws its life from analogies with the appearance of nature, but it would instantly be destroyed if any object were identifiably represented within it. Not because the latter would make it too narrative, but because its explicitness would narrow the expression of content and reduce everything around it to mere staffage. —1981

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. We denote this reality in negative terms: the unknown, the incomprehensible, the infinite. And for thousands of years we have been depicting it through surrogate images such as heaven and hell, gods and devils. In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible; because abstract painting deploys the utmost visual immediacy—all the resources of art, in fact—in order to depict ‘nothing’. Accustomed to pictures in which we recognize something real, we rightly refuse to regard mere color (however multifarious) as the thing visualized. Instead we accept that we are seeing the unvisualizable: that which has never been seen before and is not visible. This is not some abstruse game but a matter of sheer necessity: the unknown simultaneously alarms us and fills us with hope, and so we accept the pictures as a possible way to make the inexplicable more explicable, or at all events more accessible. 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.

So, in dealing with this inexplicable reality, the lovelier, cleverer, madder, extremer, more visual and more incomprehensible the analogy, the better the picture. Art is the highest form of hope. —1982

Art has always been basically about agony, desperation and helplessness (I am thinking of Crucifixion narratives, from the Middle Ages to Grünewald; but also of Renaissance portraits, Mondrian and Rembrandt, Donatello and Pollock). We often neglect this side of things by concentrating on the formal, aesthetic side in isolation. Then we no longer see content in form, but form as embracing content, added to it (beauty and artistic skill slapped on)—this is worth examining. The fact is that content does not have a form (like a dress that you can change): it is form (which cannot be changed). Agony, desperation and helplessness cannot be represented except aesthetically, because their source is the wounding of beauty (Perfection). —1982

Of course I constantly despair at my own incapacity, at the impossibility of ever accomplishing anything, of painting a valid, true picture or even of 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. —1985

The way I paint, one can’t really paint, because the basic prerequisite is lacking: the certainty of what is to be painted, i.e. the Theme. Whether I mention the name of Raphael or of Newman, or lesser lights such as Rothko or Lichtenstein, or anyone else, down to the ultimate provincial artist—all of them have a theme that they pursue, a ‘picture’ that they are always striving to attain. 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. So I am as blind as Nature, who acts as she can, in accordance with the conditions that hinder or help her. Viewed in this light, anything is possible in my pictures; any form, added at will, changes the picture but does not make it wrong. Anything goes; so why do I often spend weeks over adding one thing? What am I making that I want? What picture of what? —1985

No ideology. No religion, no belief, no meaning, no imagination, no invention, no creativity, no hope—but painting like Nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, thusness; without an aim, and just as right, logical, perfect and incomprehensible (as Mozart, Schönberg, Velázquez, Bach, Raphael, etc.). We can identify the causes of a natural formation, up to a point; the same causes have led to me and, in due course, to my paintings, whose immediate
cause is my inner state, my happiness, my pain, in all possible forms and intensities, until that cause no longer exists. —1985

I am a materialist on principle. Mind and spirit, soul, volition, feeling, instinctive surmise, etc., have their material causes (mechanical, chemical, electronic, etc.); and they vanish when their physical base vanishes, just as the work done by a computer vanishes when it is destroyed or switched off. Art is based on these material preconditions. It is a special mode of our daily intercourse with phenomena, in which we apprehend ourselves and everything around us. Art is therefore the pleasure taken in the production of phenomena that are analogous to those of reality, because they bear a greater or lesser degree of resemblance to them. It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia. —1986

This plausible theory, that my abstract paintings evolve their motifs as the work proceeds, is a timely one, because there is no central image of the world (world view) any longer: we must work out everything for ourselves, exposed as we are on a kind of refuse heap, with no center and no meaning; we must cope with the advance of a previously undreamt-of freedom. It also conforms to a general principle of Nature; for Nature, too, does not develop an organism in accordance with an idea: Nature lets its forms and modifications come, within the framework of its given facts and with the help of chance. And this theory is no less useless than ludicrous, if I paint bad pictures. —1986

Then there is the relationship with music, in my constant efforts to create a structure in musical terms and a varied instrumentation. —1986

Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude— I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone. I end up with a work of destruction. It goes without saying that I can’t take any short cuts: I can’t start off right away with the work in its final state. —1989

It 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 hardand-fast image, as I have with a photographic original—then arbitrary choice and chance play an important part. 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 Readymade) 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. —1990

Early on, at the Academy, I would have loved to paint like the artists I admired at the time: Manet, Cézanne or Velázquez. But I couldn’t. And later on I realized that it’s a good thing I can’t, because that’s beside the point. In the first place, the basis is an intention—that of picturing the world. And painting is always only a means to this end (which is why you can’t ever say that a bad picture is well painted). Nevertheless, painting and the means of painting are of important elementary facts. You can see this in a number of well-intentioned paintings, with lofty aspirations as to content, which remain absolutely inedible. This edible quality has nothing to do with self indulgence; it’s utterly basic, existential. It has more to do with seeing, I think. The rest is manual; it’s no problem. Anything can be painted. It’s more difficult to see whether what one is doing is any good or not. But that’s the only thing that counts. As Duchamp showed, it has nothing to do with craftsmanship. What counts isn’t being able to do a thing, it’s seeing what it is. Seeing is the decisive act, and ultimately it places the maker and the viewer on the same level. —1990

Accept that I can plan nothing. Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned. I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures— even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they like and somehow just take shape. Because it’s still up to me to determine the point at which they are finished (picture-making consists of a multitude of Yes/No decisions, with a Yes to end it all). If I look at it that way, the whole thing starts to seem quite natural again—or rather Nature-like, alive—and the same thing applies to the comparison on the social level. —1990

Consciousness is the capacity to know that we and others are and were and will be. It is therefore the capacity to visualize, and therefore the belief that keeps us alive. Without visualizing the future, and our own goals and tasks, we should vegetate and—since we lack the instinct that the animals have—we should perish. Belief (view, opinion, conviction, hope, plan, etc.) is thus our most important quality and capacity. And in the form of faith it can dominate us with such power and conviction that we transform it into destructive superstition. That is why we must always confront belief with skepticism and analysis. —1992

Scraping off. For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again. In this process I don’t actually reveal what was beneath. If I wanted to do that, I would have to think what to reveal (figurative pictures or signs or patterns); that is, pictures that might as well be produced direct. It would also be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect. The process of applying, destroying and layering repertoire in picturemaking. —1992

It’s the found object, which you then accept, alter or even destroy—but always control. The process of generating the chance event can be as planned and deliberate as you like. —1993

In principle, everything is a detail. —1993

The image of the artist as a misunderstood figure is abhorrent to me. I much prefer the high times, as in the Renaissance or in Egypt, where art was part of the social order and was needed in the present. —1993 In the abstract paintings, there’s sometimes this trick. I have to be careful not to do it, but I sometimes cover the painting with white and then everything is beautiful and new and fresh, like snow. All the misery is over, the terror. —1996

The most important thing, in life and for humanity, is to decide what is good and what is bad. And it’s the most difficult. I remember a time when it was out of fashion to judge a painting good. But all my real constructive experiences with people were about good or not good. I don’t know if it’s the same in English, but in German if you say it’s a good painting, you already mean it’s beautiful; if you say it’s a bad painting, you imply also that it’s ugly. It almost has moral connotations of good and evil. —1996

When I paint a landscape from a photograph, I can see the end point before I start, although in fact it always turns out slightly different than I imagined. 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. At the beginning, I feel totally free, and it’s fun, like being a child. The paintings can look good for a day or an hour. Over time, they change. In the end, you become like a chess player. It takes me longer than some people to recognize their quality, their situation—to realize when they are finished. Finally, one day I enter the room and say, “Checkmate.” Then sometimes I need a break, a quiet job, like a landscape. But I always need to paint abstracts again. I need that pleasure. —2002

In one sense, abstract art is absolutely nothing, stupid. In 100 years, maybe people will just think it’s garbage. But somehow we see something in it; we have a sense of quality. There must be something, some higher faculty, some progressive sensibility that we find in abstraction. But it is impossible to describe. —2002

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