Gerhard Richter: Abstraction – Symposium at the Barberini Museum, Potsdam10. April 2018
At the end of June 2018, the exhibition Gerhard Richter: Abstraction will open at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam. It will be devoted to Richter’s methods, particularly in connection with his abstract oeuvre, and will explain his work process, beginning with early works from the 1960s up to the present day. Around 80 works – including grey pictures, squeegee paintings and a large-format Strip – will be on display. In preparation for the exhibition, which is conceived in cooperation with the Gerhard Richter Archive, a symposium was held at the Barberini Museum in early March.
The first speaker was Dr Ortrud Westheider, director of the museum. In her lecture Abstraction as a Method she dealt with Gerhard Richter’s techniques. Westheider identifies, among other things, the painted photographs on which his photo paintings are based as the so-called third way. It frees Richter from composition and image ideas, but at the same time allows him to paint figuratively.
Of interest are the connections she makes between the monochrome still lifes of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi and Richter’s curtain pictures from the 1960s, both of which move between abstraction and figuration. Likewise the references to Mondrian in Richter’s rhombic canvases of the late 1990s or to Cornelis Gijsbrecht’s trompe l’œil pictures in Richter’s depictions of turned sheets.
The next contribution of the day dealt with the relationship of abstract and representational pictures in Gerhard Richter’s work. Dr Dietmar Elger, director of the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden, emphasised that abstract groups are repeatedly interrupted by figurative works, but that this should not be understood as interfering but as complementary. This interplay of abstraction and figuration becomes clear already in the early work Tisch (Table) from 1962. The blurring does not erase the object, it remains equally readable.
Elger also discussed how associations often arise from work titles. The sheets of the abstract work Elbe, for example, are, thanks to their title, perceived as representations of river landscapes. Richter’s curtain, corrugated iron and shadow paintings also reveal the illusionistic in painting.
Elger, using the example of the Strips, which are all based on Abstract Painting (724-4) from 1990, explains how Richter translates works into a new medium and thus gives them a new relevance.
In his lecture, Hubertus Butin illuminated Richter’s colour chart pictures of the 1960s and 1970s. He juxtaposed these works by Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Jim Dine and Blinky Palermo, whose image-determining motifs are also colour fields.
He elaborated on Richter’s rejection of traditional colour theories, such as Philipp Otto Runge’s colour sphere. By drawing lots for the position that a certain colour tone would take up in the grid, Richter prevented anything resembling an intended composition from the outset. In addition, at least in the early colour charts, the colour structures are frequently interrupted by white bars. This prevents an interaction of colours as it can be observed, for example, in the works of Josef Albers.
Next up was Professor Dr Armin Zweite with his paper When Painting, Thinking is Painting, in which he lectured on the priority of form in Richter’s work. He dealt with the concepts of various philosophers and art theorists, e.g. Adorno, Gottfried Boehm and, time and again, Konrad Fiedler, whose philosophy is based on that of Kant and Schopenhauer. Fiedler argues, among other things, that it is only through art that man can attain reality. Gerhard Richter also dealt with reality in art and stated that “you can’t represent reality at all – that what you make represents nothing but itself, and therefore is itself reality.“ 
Zweite mentions that the tool also has a strong influence on the work. Professor Dr Matthias Krüger can certainly agree with this. His lecture was on the subject of Richter’s painting equipment – the squeegee. Krüger describes its development, beginning with the first device patented by Ettore Steccone in 1938 up to the “painterly random number generator” made of Plexiglas used by Richter.
The film Gerhard Richter – Painting by Corinna Belz shows how Richter handles the squeegee in his studio. One can observe the artist using the tool with care and downright provocative slowness to create his multi-layered squeegee paintings.
Krüger also compares the use of the palette knife or spatula by artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Gustave Courbet and August Strindberg. Moreover, in the overpainted photographs and some of Richter’s paintings of details he recognises parallels with so-called palette painting. After the completion of a painting, artists used their painter’s palettes, which were no longer needed, as the basis for small, dainty paintings.
Each of these papers lets us look forward to the exhibition – which will be on view at the Barberini Museum from 30 June 2018 – and invites visitors to take a closer look at Richter’s paintings. In any case, we are already very excited.
 Interview with Rolf Schön 1972, in: Gerhard Richter: Text – Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, Thames & Hudson, London 2009, p. 59.