Gerhard Richter, Overpainted Photographs

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2008 by Hatje Cantz (here), in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen and the Centre de la photographie Geneve. 392 pages with 495 color images. Includes essays by Siri Hustvedt, Markus Meinzelmann, Uwe Schneede, and Botho Strauss. (Cover shot at right.)

Comments/Context: Gerhard Richter has often explored the border between painting and photography in his art, but his series of overpainted photographs has been largely overlooked until recently. This fine volume gathers together these works going back to their first appearance in the late 1980s, and discusses in depth his techniques and approaches in making these small mixed media images.In many ways, the project is a combination of the impulse for economy/reuse with Richter’s artistic vision. The process begins with a group of commerically processed 4×6 family snapshots, made by Richter himself or others while on holiday, at his home or studio, or on walks in the park. These are however the images that didn’t make it into the albums; they are the duplicates, or marginal compositions, or blurry red eye rejects. The second component is the leftover oil paint, with various colors melded together, smeared on the long plastic blade that Richter uses to scrape paint across his canvases.
Richter than takes the photographs and pushes, pulls, and draws them through the surplus paint, lifting the prints to create ridges or allowing the paint to smear and drip to create spots and blobs. (No brushes are involved, although a palette knife is used from time to time.) The works are made quickly, with a large element of chance and spontaneity, full of simple gestural motion.
What emerges from this process are strange hybrid works, often spectacular in their contrasts. The most noticeable effect is that the colored swaths of paint conceal parts of the underlying photograph, leading the viewer to struggle to fill in the pieces of the figurative story, creating a sense of mystery or unknown. The abstract smears and ripples of color themselves have a beauty of their own, richly textured and swirled surfaces highlighting the “painterly” qualities of the medium. These two forces are then juxtaposed in each picture, with complementary or contradictory color schemes in the two layers creating additional visual excitement.
What is perhaps most surprising is the wide variation in outcomes that Richter can produce using different combinations of paint color and underlying photographs. There are literally hundreds of individual images in this book, and each one has its own merits. These are intimate pictures that are well suited to close inspection in book form, and the volume itself is extremely well crafted (I particularly like the understated cloth binding.) Richter is undoubtedly an important force in contemporary art, and the body of work represented here is well worth further exploration, especially for photography collectors.
Collector’s POV: Gerhard Richter is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery (here) in New York. Some of his overpainted photographs have found their way into the secondary market from time to time over the past few years, ranging between $12000 and $25000 at auction. In terms of our particular collection, we need to dig through this book more carefully to see if we can uncover some images that were constructed with with floral or city scenes as the underlying motif, as they would create intriguing contrasts with our existing collection.
Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Museum Morsbroich exhibit 2008 (in German) (here)
  • 5B4 book review (here)

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Read more about: Gerhard Richter, Hatje Cantz

One comment

  1. J. Wesley Brown /

    I saw them at PhotoEspana. Yes, literally hundreds…to the extent that while some were indeed very special, you got the feeling he was doing 20-30 in any given day and thinking to himself all the time, “I'm Gerhard Richter. Yep, these will sell!”

    It also would have been nice to see some varying sizes instead of all 4×6-ish, save for a few.

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