The Ascent of Gerhard Richter: Charting the German Painter's Rise From Cool Outsider to Auction Rockstar

The Ascent of Gerhard Richter: Charting the German Painter's Rise From Cool Outsider to Auction Rockstar
Gerhard Richter
(Photo by Hubert Becker)

Until late last year, the market ascension that has made Gerhard Richter the world’s top selling living artist could have been characterized as a slow burn. True, the 80-year-old painter had enjoyed decades of renown, with top-notch gallery affiliation, countless museum exhibitions, and even the early honor of representing the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1972 Venice Biennale. Richter’s market prices, however — particularly for his critically heralded, richly colored, multilayered abstract works — had been rising at a tortoise’s pace.

That slow but steady advance turned supersonic at Sotheby’s New York last November, when a group of eight Richter abstract canvases of various dimensions and dates from a private collection fetched $74,280,000 against combined pre sale estimates of $27 million to $36.7 million. The psychedelic, purple-haze-colored, and squeegeed "Abstraktes Bild" (“Abstract Painting”) of 1997, measuring a mural-scale 8 feet 61?8 inches by 11 feet 17?8 inches, fetched a record $20,802,500 (est. $9-12 million). It flattened the previous mark set by "Kerze" (“Candle”), 1982, at Christie’s London just one month earlier, when the 323?4-by- 241?2-inch photo painting (as Richter’s photograph-based works are called) made £10,457,250 ($16.4million). At Sotheby’s, the buyer of the new first-ranked Richter was the billionaire Lily Safra, who donated the painting to the Israel Museum in memory of her late husband, the Lebanese-born banker Edmond Safra. The unnamed consignors, later revealed to be the London collectors Marc and Victoria Sursock, had acquired the work on the primary market at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, in London, in 1998, a time when auction prices for Richter’s large-scale abstractions stood under $500,000.

Marian Goodman, Richter’s longtime dealer, looks farther back, to 1985, when Richter had his first solo exhibition with her in New York (it coincided with one at Sperone Westwater Gallery). Recalls Goodman, “In 1985 one could buy a three-meter perims or 10-foot abstract painting for $25,000, and a few years earlier — when they were first painted — a small candle painting brought around $5,000. It’s kind of shocking, but it’s a fact.”

A confluence of circumstances has contributed to Richter’s global elevation as the most sought-after living artist, among them the recent deaths of titans Lucian Freud and Cy Twombly. For the new global superrich, the large-scale and vibrantly hued Richter abstractions can be easy to live with — a decorator’s dream, really, with a large array of color combinations and sizes yet they possess considerable wall power. And then there is the market's ineluctable need to anoint a new leader.

“The art world always needs a clear top end,” says Thaddaeus Ropac, the Paris and Salzburg dealer, “and for years the top end was taken by a few English artists, namely [Francis] Bacon and Freud. The fact is they are gone, and someone had to take over the reign. Jasper Johns would be the natural contender but he doesn’t appeal enough to the world audience. You haven’t heard much exciting news about Johns recently, and the same goes for Brice Marden. The art market instinctively decided Richter should be the one.”

Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s and the force behind the Richter market surge of last November, looks beyond the mysteries of instinct, observing, “Every market needs an artist that combines high quality and beauty. Now, when contemporary art has to be beautiful, Richter is the artist.” Meyer equates Richter’s market power with that of Bacon and Mark Rothko, noting that when the eight Richters were displayed together at Sotheby’s during the New York preview last fall, “I told people, ‘You are standing in a room full of Rothko’s in 1982, because that’s what they are.’”

As it turns out, Richter holds Rothko in low esteem — he greatly admires Barnett Newman and Robert Ryman — and might well flinch at hearing Meyer’s comparison, however complimentary the intention behind it. “Richter has a keen interest in Newman but not in Rothko. He is not drawn to anyone on the romantic side of Abstract Expressionism,” says Robert Storr, currently the dean of the Yale School of Art, who curated the landmark 2002 retrospective “Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which featured 188 works. “He may think about Rothko,” adds Storr, “but not in positive terms.”

Among the paintings that did exceedingly well at Sotheby’s last November was "Gudrun," 1987, a gestural abstraction with a blaze of fragmented and veiled primary colors and aggressive black streaks, which sold to a telephone bidder for $18,002,500 (est. $5.5-7.5 million). The Sursocks had acquired "Gudrun" at Sotheby’s London in June 2001 for £501,276 ($709,350). Richter named the painting for Gudrun Ensslin, a founding member of the radical left-wing German youth protest group the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and the title grants the nonobjective work a politically charged dimension, particularly in hindsight. The year after painting "Gudrun," Richter created the 15-painting cycle “October 18, 1977,” commemorating the rather grisly prison deaths of some of the key members of Baader-Meinhof. The series was purchased by MOMA in 1995.

Another large-scale abstraction, "Abstraktes Bild," 1992, a sweep of brilliant colors and dense layers crafted in a closely choreographed process that Richter has described as “applying, destroying, and layering,” sold at the November 2011 Sotheby’s event to a telephone bidder for $14,082,500 (est. $5.5-7.5 million). It had last changed hands at Sotheby’s New York in May 2005 for $1,248,000.

There will be no shortage of material for the market — Richter is astonishingly prolific. His abstract work began in the 1960s, shortly after he moved from Dresden, in Soviet-controlled East Germany, where he had worked successfully as a mural painter in the Social Realist style, to Düsseldorf in the West. He studied for three years at the prestigious Düseldorf Art Academy, where he befriended and exhibited with Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, and Konrad Lueg (better known later as the dealer Konrad Fischer). Polke and Richter cofounded the short-lived Capitalist Realist movement, a German-flavored exploration of pop consumerism that debuted officially in a 1963 exhibition in Düseldorf featuring the founders with Lueg and Wolf Vostell. Richter is credited with coining the movement’s name as a riposte to Soviet-style Social Realism. He and Polke remained close until the latter’s death in 2010.

During the 1960s, Richter produced some 28 abstract paintings, according to the online archive meticulously compiled by the Swiss collector Joe Hage. The census of abstract pictures jumps to 151 for the 1970s and grows much larger in the 1980s, when Richter produced 201 abstract works in various sizes in the first half of the decade and 344 works in the second half. Discussing Richter’s numerically modest beginning and subsequent sharp uptick as a painter of abstractions, Storr explains, “Reaching the point where he could paint what he calls ‘abstract pictures’ was a significant problem for him — he didn’t want to be caught in the slipstream of previous abstraction, whether metaphysical, transcendental, or social — and it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that he found a way to really move forward on his own terms.”

Richter maintains a disciplined production schedule in Cologne, where he has lived since 1983. Although he has several assistants mixing paint and preparing canvases and a manager to oversee the enterprise, he works alone in his studio, aided by lightweight aluminum ladders and armed with a formidable variety of brushes and custom-made squeegee tools with which he achieves his trademark spectacular surfaces. The abundance of Richter’s abstractions may make the works appear numbingly similar to some observers, the result of a marathon-like effort to create material for an insatiable art market. Meyer acknowledges the copious output but doesn’t see that as a hindrance to evaluating the work in terms of quality and rarity. “Like great Rothkos,” he explains, “there may be 40 or 50 great Richter paintings, so you sort that out and know exactly where you are.”

Still, one can’t help but ask why the abstractions have zoomed so high in value, especially since they have generally played second fiddle in the market to the photorealist paintings, such as "Mustang Squadron," 1964, and "Ema (Nude on a Staircase)," 1966, which first brought Richter fame. That disparity seemed especially acute last November at Christie’s, the same week the abstracts racked up record prices at Sotheby’s, when Richter’s "Frau Niepenberg," 1965, a blurry painting based on a found photograph, offered by the Astrup Fearnley Collection in Oslo, was bought in against an estimate of $7 million to $10 million, despite the work’s inclusion in the important 2009 exhibition “Gerhard Richter Portraits,” at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Intriguingly, Richter’s representational and abstract works, while typically distinguished in the market, are not absolutely separate in his creative process. As Storr explains, “Underneath many abstract paintings are figurative paintings, and certainly after the mid-1980s Richter regularly used abstraction to cancel out photo based images with which he was dissatisfied or used photo images as the sacrificial lamb of abstraction. If you X-ray these works you may find something else underneath.” Storr cites as examples “canceled” paintings from the “October 18, 1977” cycle that lurk beneath the surfaces of some of Richter’s abstract works. He also mentions "Clouds," a bravura two-panel abstract work from 1982, also owned by MOMA. “First you have a cloud painting,” he observes, “and then a kind of Al Heldish or hard-edged and geometric abstract painting that [Richter] then built over and dragged” with a squeegee. “You have three different genres within the same painting.”

The recent leap in Richter’s market has been assisted by the magisterial touring retrospective “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” which debuted at Tate Modern, in London, in early October, then moved to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie in February, and will open at the Centre Pompidou in Paris this month. There is precedent for this. Just as Richter’s MOMA retrospective was winding down in May 2002, a photo painting, "Drei Kerzen" (“Three Candles”), 1982, sold for a record $5,395,750 at Sotheby’s New York, and "180 Farben" (“180 Colors”), 1971, from the “Color Chart” series, made $3,969,500 at the same house. A 98-inch-square "Abstraktes Bild" from 1987 sold for $1,329,500 at Christie’s New York that same month.

“If you look through Richter’s career and correlate it to the marketplace,” says Francis Outred, European head of postwar and contemporary at Christie’s,“every time he has a retrospective, there’s a jump in the market. When people see independent works on their own in isolation, they like them but don’t really get the full artistic vision. It’s only when you see all the work together that you understand how special the vision is and what a pioneer he is,” Outred continues. “The abstract paintings have become the paintings of choice for this generation in the same way the 1960s photo paintings were for the generation of the 1990s.”

Beyond the retrospective, Richtermania is being stirred by the publication this year of the first volume of a long-awaited updated catalogue raisonné, a projected five-volume undertaking edited by Dietmar Elger, the director of the Gerhard Richter Archive, in Dresden. It will supersede the existing three-volume catalogue raisonné, which covers 1962-93. Meanwhile, audiences have been watching the 2011 documentary "Gerhard Richter Painting" by the German filmmaker Corinna Belz, which lifts the veil on the artist's method and intensity. In short, the run-up to the highly touted sale of six important Richter paintings on May 8th at Christie’s New York enjoyed quite a tail wind.

Not everyone is persuaded by this recent spate of astonishing prices, especially those reached at Sotheby’s last November. “I haven’t a clue,” says the seasoned dealer Roland Augustine, cofounder of Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York, about what he regards as less-than-stellar abstractions. The gallery has sold several major Richter paintings, including the black-and-white photo painting "Woman Descending the Staircase," 1965, now in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1996 organized an exhibition of 24 photo paintings and abstractions that Augustine characterizes as the first show in New York devoted to Richter on the secondary market. “As much as Lawrence [Luhring] and I both have been involved in the Richter market,” continues Augustine, “I don’t believe we could sell one of those abstractions for $12 million to $15 million right now if we had one in the gallery. It wouldn’t feel conscionable. He’s produced hundreds and hundreds of paintings, and his output is formidable. I just can’t imagine where these price levels come from.” About the group that recently sold at Sotheby’s, Augustine says frankly, “I mean, they were hardly A-quality paintings. It looked like a group of paintings put together by a speculator who bought them from here and there and elsewhere.”

A speculative motive was certainly evident in the midseason sale at Sotheby’s London in February, when Richter’s "Abstraktes Bild," 1995, measuring a scant 22 by 20 inches, sold for £959,650 ($1.5million). The seller, Paris dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski, literally doubled his investment, having bought the painting just two months earlier at Paul Kasmin’s stand at Art Basel Miami for $750,000. The dealer bought a second, similarly scaled Richter from Seoul’s Kukje Gallery in Miami for a similar price and resold it in a private transaction in March at a comparable profit. Asked why he sold the paintings so quickly, Sayegh-Belchatowski, a familiar figure on the international auction and art fair circuit, states the obvious: “As you know, the Richter market is strong right now, and there are a lot of collectors who want to have one or some paintings by this major artist in their collection.”

Richter’s market advance shows no sign of abating. At this year’s February evening sale at Christie’s London, at least four telephone bidders chased Richter’s large "Abstraktes Bild," 1994, a mélange of flickering blues and greens reminiscent of Monet’s water lilies. Estimated at £5 million to £7 million ($7.6-11 million), it sold to an American telephone bidder for £9,897,250 ($15.5 million). Outred attributes the competition to “pure collector passion” and a belief that “Richter’s market is still undervalued. I think we’re very early in the cycle for his market.”

Against the back drop of this fierce trading in paintings by Richter, Marian Goodman says her gallery sets a price standard different from that of the auction houses, adding that she has to be increasingly vigilant about whom she sells work to. "Gerhard and I do the pricing together, and we’re certainly not trying to match auction prices. One of the things we have to be careful of is speculators, and we are very careful about the prospective owners. This is necessary and we advise it because our prices are so very much lower than auction prices. Gerhard himself has said that the auction prices are crazy."

Richter’s position in the pantheon of postwar art is unassailable in the view of historians and curators, and the desire of collectors appears unquenchable. But Goodman sees an ethical current that runs through the work, an aspect that is being eclipsed by the market furor. She notes with a certain sadness, “Everybody wants to know prices and people either praise him for the prices or complain of them, but they don’t really have anything to do with the art.” Richter’s oeuvre, Goodman says, is "so dedicated to the art of painting itself, so ambitious in terms of creating works of breadth and depth, works that don’t repeat themselves. Art for him really is a moral act. He is for me and many, many others a great painter and the quality of the work itself is the real value. Prices can never compete with that."

This article appears in the June issue of Art+Auction.