Richter, who never uses assistants, says that his paintings can take from two months to two years to complete. He began this one, Im Birkengrund, more than a year ago. “I’ve always been fascinated by the almighty power of the hand that writes down history,” he says, explaining that the work—based on a scene from the Old Testament in which King Belshazzar of Babylon is visited by an omen that he ignores—critiques the blurring of fact and fiction in today’s news media. It also gives a lighthearted nod to Thing in Charles Addams’s cartoons.
Richter’s knowledge of art history borders on the encyclopedic, and he readily admits to cannibalizing the work of painters from Vuillard to Dix, as well as of more recent artists, such as Ross Bleckner and Richter’s friend and mentor the German painter Albert Oehlen. From Oehlen, whom he once assisted, he pilfered a penchant for witty titles. From Bleckner, he lifted glowing light. And perhaps most important, he updated the style of American graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and made it German by establishing a connection between graffiti and the now-defunct Berlin Wall in paintings such as Phienox.
His recent focus on solitary figures presents yet another cannibalization—of his past. Born in 1962 in a small village outside Hamburg, Richter was kicked out of high school after throwing a chair at a teacher. His father had already committed what the artist calls “the classic act of sleeping with his secretary,” abandoning the family when Richter was a teenager, never to see his son again. Richter moved to Hamburg when he was 17 and fell in with a group of “do-it-yourself punk-rock lefty squatters.” He collected LPs and comic books. And he drew. In the early ’80s, when hardcore punk bands toured Germany, Richter’s considerable skills as a draftsman came to the attention of local impresarios. Before long he was earning a living designing concert posters, T-shirts, and album covers.
That life came to an end in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and punk was subsumed into the larger music industry. “I had to decide what to do with my life,” Richter says. In 1992 the artist, at age 30, enrolled in Hamburg’s College of Fine Arts. Two years later, while still a student, he was invited by Nicole Hackert and Bruno Brunnet, the cofounders of CFA, to participate in a group show. Unhappy with Richter’s submission, however, they withdrew their offer.
“I was not disappointed or angry,” recalls Richter, explaining that “as a student, I was very insecure and not taking myself seriously.” Back in Hamburg, he came to the conclusion that the Berlin show, which contained mainly Minimalist and Conceptual work, “was really lame and boring. … I thought of Abstract Expressionism as a real promise of freedom and unlimited lawlessness.” Several months later, convinced that the final word on abstraction had yet to be spoken, he invited Hackert and Brunnet to Hamburg to witness his painted response.
In the heyday of Conceptualism, Hackert recalls, when the overriding aesthetic was “less is more,” Richter’s claim of resolving some crisis in abstract painting sounded bombastic. Then the artist showed the partners six paintings whose opulent, smeary and graffiti-strewn surfaces completely won them over. Richter’s first solo show with them, in 1995, was a commercial success, but it wasn’t until Richter began to paint figuratively that demand for his pictures skyrocketed.
The New York collector Michael Hort, for example, recalls liking, but not buying, Richter’s abstract paintings when he and his wife, Susan, first saw them at art fairs in the 1990s. Then, during Art Forum Berlin in 2000, they visited cfa, where they were confronted by Zurberes, a painting of an arcade featuring a performing monkey, which they immediately purchased. The couple have since added two major Richtstudio photoer paintings and a dozen drawings to their collection. When they started amassing his work, a large-scale painting was valued at $25,000; today a picture of the same size sells for $375,000, according to Hackert.
The Museum of Modern Art trustee David Teiger, also from New York, bought his first major Richter in 2003. Teiger, who began collecting Philip Guston, de Kooning and Rothko in 1956 and who now owns two Richters, describes the German artist’s formally astute, history-laden paintings as “anarchistic and antiregime” and the artist himself as “in a constant battle with art history [in which] he doesn’t give up.”
With so many galleries, collectors and museums clamoring for Richter’s artwork, his claim that a major highlight of his career occurred during a quiet moment in his studio is perhaps surprising. It came in 2002, when Pettibon—known for his disturbing send-ups of comic book drawings and whom Richter calls “one of the artists I adore most in America”—paid a visit. The two, sitting at the cluttered dining table, collaborated on a photocollage to commemorate the one-year anniversary of 9/11. Comparing Pettibon’s art making to skateboarding or playing the guitar, Richter says, “You don’t need a studio with 60 guys polishing your sculpture. You don’t need all these guys blowing glass. My respect goes to someone like Pettibon, who can say something serious with just a pencil.
“It was one of the rare good collaborations,” he adds, laughing. Then, like a kid with a prized baseball card, he whips out a snapshot of Pettibon drawing at his kitchen table to prove it.
In The Studio with Daniel Richter
By Dorothy Spears
Published: October 1, 2008, ART + AUCTION
Daniel Richter website
Represented by Contemporary Fine Art, Berlin
Represented by David Zwirner, New York