Gerhard Richter: Painting After All

In 2020, art can be made from literally anything. So why still paint?

One contemporary artist has some answers.

A Master of Painting

In 1961, just 29 years old, Gerhard Richter escaped East Germany to study art in Düsseldorf. Over the six decades since, his work has spanned a multitude of subjects, styles, and mediums. Here, ahead of The Met’s exhibition Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, see his art and hear from Richter himself through excerpts from interviews and the artist’s notebooks.

Why I paint

Freedom to investigate and express.

When Richter began painting in West Germany the country was still recovering from the aftermath of World War II. As his generation struggled to deal with the past, the question “Why paint?” became an especially provocative one. For Richter, having grown up under an authoritarian regime, the reason to paint was existential: “Art requires freedom … in dictatorships there is no art, not even bad art.”

The first impulse towards painting, or towards art in general, stems from the need to communicate. … Without this, all work would be pointless and unjustified, like Art for Art’s Sake.”

Notes, 1962
To begin To remember

Explore reasons why Richter paints

To understand To feel
To begin

Table (detail), 1962

"Painting is ... an almost blind, desperate effort … 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."

Notes, 1985

To remember

Aunt Marianne (detail), 1965/2018

"You get so used to photos. … You know the world of photos, but not the world they photographed. … The photos create a world, but I don't know what's happening outside of the frame. … It's a massive intervention … into our knowledge, our consciousness."

Gerhard Richter Painting, 2011

To feel

Forest (1) (detail), 2005

"Helplessness is the great theme in painting, or rather the strongest motivation for and during painting. And the forest in general has special significance, perhaps more so in Germany than anywhere else. You can lose your way in forests, feel deserted, but also secure, held fast in the bosom of the undergrowth."

The Richter Interviews, 2014

To understand

Group of People (detail), 1965

"To the individual, the collective experience of the age represents a bond—and also, in a sense, security. … But all we can represent is an analogy. … Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense."

Notes, 1962

What I paint

A world of images.

From portraits to landscapes to abstractions, Richter’s subject constantly changes, sometimes even within a single year—and that’s 100% according to plan. Richter says he’s suspicious of images and the “reality” that they convey, so he varies his approach to explore the different possibilities of representing the world.

Richter squats on a metal chair in his art studio, in front of an easel displaying a realistically painted landscape, with two towering abstract paintings leaning on the floor against the wall behind him. He holds and looks at a small compact mirror which presumably reflects the landscape painting on the easel next to him.

How I paint

Plan. Paint. View. Judge. Repeat.

Richter’s paintings respond to what he sees, not just in the world around him, but also to the image forming on his own canvas. He adds broad sweeps of color with wide brushes, and later applies and removes paint with large squeegees. The process, by design, leaves much to chance, resulting in risks and rewards for the works that emerge. According to Richter, “each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free, until I conclude there's nothing left to do.”

Abstract painting of a heavily textured and layered surface of white, green, yellow hues of paint smeared and scraped across the surface with elements of red peaking through.

Painting the Birkenau series

Richter is interested in what pictures mean—not the spectacle of the image itself. His Birkenau series was based on four photographs smuggled from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp, in 1944. In 2014 Richter revisited the horrific images, first sketching them out on individual canvases, but then gradually painting them over to produce heavily disturbed, ruptured surfaces. This veiling holds in tension the complex relationship of history and memory, with the forces of destruction and reconstruction, and with abstraction and representation.

It’s not unusual for me to start from the figurative and end up with something abstract.”

— Interview, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 2016

Between figuration and abstraction

Richter’s paintings range from figurative images based on photographs to complex abstractions. These dual modes are sometimes characterized as oppositional, but Richter embraces the in-between as an active space to develop his practice.

So why still paint?

Well, Richter might say, because painting provides a freedom to investigate our relationships to images and to challenge how we see and make sense of the world around us.

And those are just two reasons—each of Richter’s paintings offers answers to this question. Gerhard Richter: Painting After All will highlight over 100 works, including his first painting, Table (1962), and the recent series Cage (2006) and Birkenau (2014), as well as Richter’s glass works, including the new installation House of Cards (2020). Many of these works have never been exhibited in the United States.




The pleasure of painting proves the necessity of it—all children paint spontaneously. Painting has a brilliant future. Hasn’t it?”

Interview with Amine Haase, 1977



Plan Your Visit

Exhibition Details

  • Dates March 4, 2020–July 5, 2020
  • The Met Breuer 945 Madison Ave, New York City
  • Gerhard Richter: Painting After All Floors 3 and 4
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Quote, Image, and Video Credits

Primer made possible by

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Supported by

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and the Director's Fund.


Works of art © Gerhard Richter 2020 (20012020)

© 2020 The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Gerhard Richter: Painting After All credits