Gerhard Richter: postmodern artist

Postmodernism – Hooray

Gerhard Richter

So! Gerhard Richter. Born in 1932 and a top-selling artist. Let’s see why.

In order to discuss the work of Gerhard Richter, I first need to explain some terms and theories of postmodern thinking. First I will discuss when the term postmodernism came into existence, and then I will move on to two very important thinkers – Jameson and Baudrillard. If you’re already  familiar with these terms and people, you can skip this and move on to the part about Richter himself.


The word “Postmodernism” was used for the first time in the 1930s. In the fifties and sixties the term gained currency within literary criticism, but it wouldn’t be until the 1970s and 1980s that people used this term to write about literature, visual arts and music which had departed from modernist conventions (D’Alleva 150). We wonder if the prefix “post” in postmodernism means that we should situate it after the modernist movement, or as a sort of continuation of modernism? Or both?

Two very important theorists within the field of postmodern theory are Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. Jameson is an American Marxist and theorized the postmodernist movement consequently from a late capitalistic viewpoint. He has, as Baudrillard, a quite negative attitude towards the postmodern world.  According to these two pessimists truth, authenticity and originality are lost in the postmodern era.


Jameson sees evidence for the existence of postmodernism in a radical rupture at the end of the fifties, or the beginning of the sixties (Jameson 1). He sums up five characteristics that determine postmodernism.

  1. First feature: A new depthlessness which becomes clear in contemporary theory as well as in a totally new culture of the image or the simulacrum (Jameson 4). This can be translated as a literally, but also figuratively shallowness. Photography has played an important role in this for it has resulted in a certain deadness in postmodern art (Jameson 6).  According to Jameson this is the result of a fundamental change of the objectworld – which has degenerated in series of texts or simulacra – as well as the place of the subject within this objectworld (Jameson 6). The fear and alienation of modernism make place for the depravation of feeling. This redemption of modern fear brings about a loss of style and the end of the distinctive, individual movement of the brush according to Jameson (Jameson 9).
  2. Second feature: The decrease of historicity, as well in our attitude towards the public history as in new forms of our individual temporality, which determines with its schizophrenic structure new types of syntaxis or syntagmetic  relations in the more temporal art (Jameson 4). This is where the term pastiche must be placed. In the postmodern world there is after all no place anymore for parody, with its specific characteristics such as the satire, and the awareness that besides borrowing styles, there is also such a thing as a healthy linguistic normality (Jameson 10). The only thing that is left for us is the neutral version of the imitation (ibidem). In this late capitalist world the exchange value is generalized in such a way that only an arbitrary cannibalizing of all styles of the past is possible.
  3. Third feature : There appeared a totally new emotional key-note – which Jameson calls intensities – which is best described in the light of older theories about the sublime (Jameson 4). The postmodern subject isn’t able anymore to organize its past and present in a coherent whole and this results in fragmentation and heterogeneity (Jameson 15). In short, the downfall of temporality results in schizophrenia.
  4.  Fourth feature: There is a deep, essential junction of the former [the euphoria or the intensities] with a totally new technology, which is in itself a metaphor for a totally new economical system (Jameson 4). Jameson combines the term camp – in the way it is used by Susan Sontag – with the romantic sublime to speak of this experience (Jameson 20).
  5.  Fifth feature: Jameson has some objections when it comes to the task of the political art in this new and astonishing world of the late or multinational capitalism (Jameson 4).


Baudrillard focuses on the evolution of the simulacrum. He claims that the visual and the digital media made it impossible for us to make a distinction between reality and false copies of reality.

“[…]Baudrillard argues that there’s no way of getting away from simulacra, because of mass media. Simulacra are everywhere, and they determine our reality, how we live and behave. They provide us with codes or models that tell us what to do, and we’re passive before this onslaught. Baudrillard says that when the image is more “real” than any other “reality”, where there is only surface but no depth, only signifiers with no signifieds, only imitations with no originals, we are in the realm of hyperreality”  (D’Alleva 154).

Real and unreal/false are no longer distinguishable in the hyperreality. The simulacrum even precedes the original. In this manner, truth and reality expire and are replaced by the simulacrum.

Baudrillard perceives three stadia in the evolution of the simulacrum:

  1. The first stadium he calls the counterfeit and this was the dominant scheme in the pre-industrial society of the renaissance (Baudrillard 1).
  2. The second stadium is that of production and was dominant in the modern, industrial society.
  3. We have arrived at the third stadium: the stadium of the simulation. The simulation is active on the structural law of values (ibidem). In this phase there is no room anymore for an original. Until modernity values were shown as real, but in postmodernity a transition has taken place of real values to imaginary values. This simulation is autonomous and thus a hyperreality.

Baudrillard shows that in mass media there is no meaning – mental concept – attached to the signifier: there is no reality, nothing that the signifier – the concrete realised sign – reproduces or represents. Like this, the simulacrum becomes reality (D’Alleva 154).

Gerhard Richter

I have chosen the painting “Motorboot” as a casus

Richter, Gerhard. Motorboot.1965. olieverf op canvas. Kunstmuseum, Basel.[1]

Richter, Gerhard. Zeitungsfotos. 1962. Atlas sheett:10. [2]

The painting “Motorboot” belongs to Gerhard Richters photo-paintings of the daily life. Richter started in the sixties with producing this kinds of photo-paintings. He combined a relatively new medium – photography – with the classical medium of painting. This combination fits in the fading of the old – high modern – border between high brow and low brow. Painting is part of the high culture (high brow) and photography belongs to commercial art (low brow) (Jameson 2). Photo-paintings come into existence by projecting a picture on a canvas and then painting on top of this projection. Richter’s early works were painted in shades of grey, leaving out hard black and white tones. “Motorboot” is a painting painted in this technique, but he has also painted some of them in colour.

The final phase of the process used to pain photo-paintings is the degradation of the sharpness of the image. He uses a dry brush or sponge to
create a blurry effect. His technique is thus industrial since he uses projections. This places his work in between the tradition of the mechanical reproduction of an image and the human production of a piece of art.

Since the early sixties, Richter collects pictures which he gets from magazines, journals, photoalbums of friends or his personal albums. He brings them together in a permanently growing archive which he calls “Atlas”[3]. He adds pictures that have been important for his paintings, but also pictures which he will use in the future. He categorizes the pictures – the originals, the enlargements, the reproductions and the drawings – on the basis of subject and form and he stores them on panels which he exhibits.

According to Jameson, photorealism seemed like a return to the representation and figuration, after the long hegemony of the abstract esthetics, until it became clear that the objects of photorealism weren’t traceable in the “real world” either. They are pictures of this world, which therefore changes into a series of images.  This is why the realism of photorealistic paintings turns into the simulacrum (Jameson 19). In following quotes, Richter explains what it is about photography that makes it so interesting, and why he uses photography in his artwork:

“Of course, a long time ago, I thought a picture was a picture only if it was painted. Later on I found to my great surprise that I could see a photograph as a picture—and in my enthusiasm I often saw it as the better picture of the two. It functions in the same way: it shows the appearance of something that is not itself”[4]

“ The photograph took the place of all those paintings, drawings and illustrations that served to provide information about the reality that they represented. A photograph does this more reliably and more credibly than any painting. It is the only picture that tells the absolute truth, because it sees “objectively”. It usually gets believed, even where it is technically faulty and the content is barely identifiable. The photograph is the most perfect picture. It does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style. Both in its way of informing, and in what it informs of, it is my source. A photograph is taken in order to inform. What matters to the photographer and to the viewer is the result, the legible information, the fact captured in an image. Alternatively, the photograph can be regarded as a picture, in which case the information conveyed changes radically. However, because it is very hard to turn a photograph into a picture simply by declaring it to be one, I have to make a painted copy” [5]

Though photography has changed the notion of realistic representation to such extent that the photographic picture has replaced the objective representing of reality, Richter puts forward that both pictures and paintings only show the outward appearance of something which they aren’t themselves. A picture is not reality, but only a copy of this reality. A photorealistic painting is therefore only a copy of a copy of reality. The picture of which people thought it showed reality, is also a “recycling of” and thus reality is always recycled and had changed into a series of images. Our world has been transformed into images because of photography and photorealism. Knowing this, Richter’s paintings are simulacra – works of art which precede the original. If this painting is a simulacrum,  meaning and the signified aren’t linked anymore (according to Baudrillard).

Is Richter’s art “real” art, or is it a system of signs which creates “proof” – new works of art – that it is real? So my question is if this specific painting represents the image/concept of that which is referred to?  Does “Motorboat” represent the mental concept of the reality of happy, cheerful people on a boat trip? Or is it the photo-painting, the simulacrum which forms reality now?  Postmodern theorists would consider this as a “loss of the real” because we aren’t able to see the difference between true/authentic and false anymore.

An important question with respect to the work of Richter is if it possesses a style. Jameson said that with postmodernity, personal style seized to exist, which was symbolized by mechanical reproduction (Jameson 9). Richter himself claims to love everything without style: dictionaries, pictures, nature, himself and his paintings. He says that style is violent and he himself is not[6]. This is why he is a big fan of pop-art and the Fluxus movement: these art movements are anti artistic and they objectify painting itself. They deny the historical culture of painting and call attention to the technique. This technique, in the case of photorealism, is something which anyone could do (you don’t have to be able to draw).

The pictures Richter uses are anonymous, banal images which most of the time weren’t made for artistic reasons. They were produced to be seen, as pure images, without any style. This is where we can locate depthlessness. The painting has a flat, shallow surface, but it’s also free of emotional comments or content. Richter admits that his paintings might have something to do with death and pain, but he doesn’t have the intention to incorporate these emotions deliberately. Jameson would probably argue that this deadness is activated by the photographic character of the works of art. We can speak of a decline of the feeling because Richter chooses his pictures on the basis of form and/or esthetics, and not on the basis of content and/or emotion (Jameson 6). Also the vagueness of the gray show a lack of feelings or the desire to express something.

Although his photo-paintings and the archive “Atlas” work  on the level of documenting, the subjects are arbitrary, banal and trivial. The stories behind the pictures aren’t important, nor is the history of the people in the image. We can categorize  photo-paintings, which are neutral imitations of photographs and paintings, as pastiches because they don’t have the intention to ask questions about the realness based on historical basis.

A counter-argument could be that Richter does believe in beauty. But, this beauty is a depthless beauty and cannot mask the fact that “Motorboot” has come into existence in a postmodern tradition. This doesn’t mean, though that we, the spectators, cannot enjoy these works on the esthetic level.

How do you feel about Richter’s works of art?


D’Alleva, Anne. “Postmodernism as Condition and Practice.” Methods & Theories of Art History. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005. 149-157.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Order of Simulacra.” Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: SAGE publications Ltd.

Jameson, Fredric. “Het postmodernisme of de culturele logica van het late kapitalisme.” Yang. Trans. Sascha Bru. Web. 7 juni 2010.

[4] Richter, Gerhard. The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993 , ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, trans. David Britt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in association with Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1995. 217.

[5] Richter, Gerhard. The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993 , ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist, trans. David Britt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in association with Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1995. 30-31.

[6] Richter, Gerhard. Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009. 32.

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