Conversation with Gerhard Richter

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: In the beginning .

Gerhard Richter: We begin simply. (laughs)

HUO: The blow up and the game with the ruler are a thread running through your work. I'm thinking, for instance, of the sketches in the atlas where pictures were intended to become large Utopian spaces, or the micro-studies on paper in the seventies, which paved the way for the first large-format abstract pictures a little later.

GR: That's right, that happened more often.

HUO: How did the blow up of your candle picture in Dresden come about?

GR: I don't even know anymore who in Dresden had the of asking for a picture from me to cover the large facade. I think it was Dr. Schmidt from the museum, and he was also the one who suggested a candle as a motif. I then made collages of various pictures of candles on a photo of the facade and that's how what seemed the most suitable motif of the two candles came about. At first it was only intended to look pretty, but later a politically useful statement was also found in the picture.

HUO: How did the picture become politically charged?

GR: That came about through the 13 February anniversary of the destruction of Dresden fifty years earlier which was coming up. – And candles had always been an important symbol for the GDR, as a silent protest against the regime, that already made a great impression. Naturally, it was a strange feeling to see that a small picture of candles was turning into something completely different, something that I had never intended. Because as I was painting it, it neither had this unequivocal meaning nor was it intended to be anything like a street picture. It sort of ran away from me and became something over which I no longer had control. A similar thing happened with the Vienna picture.

HUO: Talking about pictures running away .

GR: Like with children who later do things that you don't understand anymore.

HUO: There's this "Two-leg theory". The works are present in highly specialised discursive contexts while simultaneously having a popular dimension.

GR: I wasn't previously aware of that – that a picture appears in a whole range of forms which I am absolutely not, or only seldom, responsible for. That's done by other people, and because they do it for another purpose it also becomes another picture. The postcard of a candle is there to send greetings and the large-format picture to drive past. I neither made nor intended either of them. A nice side-effect. To make them popular.

HUO: The form in which the same picture appears is changed by the selection of details, by the enlargement as well as the copying by CALSI (Computer Aided Large Scale Imagery). The translation is permanently there in your pictures; the translation from photo to picture which is once again reproduced. The format of the large-format picture (50 x 10 metres) brings to mind the propaganda pictures of the Russian Revolution, for instance by Altman or Dufy's Fée Electronique. Or your monumental Strichbild.

GR: Except that with Raoul Dufy it's not a reproduction; he himself painted it directly on the wall. And my 2 large lines weren't an enlargement of pictures but the enlargement of designs which I had made only for this purpose. – On the other hand the picture for the Vienna Kunsthalle is a reproduction, and on top of that it's a reproduction of the detail from a picture. So it became a completely new picture, and also because its authorship is a completely different one. It wasn't even me who had the that came from others, and the choice of motif was then made collectively, so it wasn't from me alone. That's a completely different way of working, rather like in an advertising agency, where I have just been working on a long term project. That's very exciting and very contemporary. – Maybe exhibitions would even be organised much better and with much more effect on the public with reproductions instead of originals.

HUO: Bruce Sterling has been putting his books on the Internet for several years and making them available to everyone. What is astounding is that the sales figures for hardcovers and paperbacks, that is for bits and bites, have in no way sunk but have risen dramatically. In the virtual and digital world there's a great demand for the book as an object which can be handled. The same applies to exhibitions, the originals don't become any less valuable but the distribution is much greater.

GR: That's good – that's the only thing you should really want; to be as broadly present as possible. To expand oneself. Otherwise the others will do it. (laughs)

HUO: Are there limits? Television?

GR: Only because it doesn't know what to do with pictures. They only want actors, the artist in the talkshow who then makes himself totally ridiculous.

HUO: And a still picture on television?

GR: That would be wonderful, occasionally a still picture on the box, without commentary, without music, maybe it would be a release for the viewers.

HUO: Robert Bresson said that different rules are valid in each medium. In New York there is a recent tendency for artists to make Hollywood films. Larry Clark, Robert Longo, David Salle, Julian Schnabel. Until now none of these experiments has really worked. In this connection maybe it would be interesting to talk about your film experiment in Japan.

GR: Where I went about it in the wrong way, rather carelessly experimented in another medium. That went completely wrong. Film is not for me.

HUO: That brings us back to your original reservations about the large-format picture.

GR: At the beginning I thought that I had to come up with something very special – not what I can do but something completely different, something spectacular, screaming or funny. Then I have a lot of silly which in the end only depress me. That's why your of using the river picture was very healthy. And that only a detail was enlarged I find very beautiful – it also fits in with the plan for the small book which will only show details.

HUO: The Halifax Book was multi-perspective and gathered various views of a picture. In contrast, the book now being put together will include frontally reproduced details of a picture. Going back to the large-format picture, at first you thought of a blow up of a sequence of photos.

GR: Yes, but as I said, of very special photos, which I can't even create. Now I can also imagine my photos in such a large format. Next time.

(September 1995)