Gerhard Richter was born in Dresden (then in East Germany) in 1932. He studied billboard and stage painting in Zittau (1948-41), and mural painting at the Dresden Kunstakademie (1952-57). In 1959 he viewed the "documenta 2" exhibition in Kassel and was profoundly impressed by the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana, and decided to move to the West. He relocated to Düsseldorf (West Germany) in 1961 where he studied under Karl Otto Götz and met contemporary German painters Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo. At first styling himself as one of Europe's first Pop artists, he quickly developed a range of painting styles based on found or official photographs; he held his first solo exhibition in 1964. Thereafter he moved quickly and with technical assurance through a range of styles, including minimalist color charts, large photorealist landscapes and cloud studies, ironic copies of paintings by Titian, and huge expressivist and abstract canvases made by scraping layers of wet paint over each other. He traveled to New York in 1970 and the following year began a long teaching career at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. His works were included in the exhibitions "documenta 6" (1977) and "documenta 8" (1987). In 1983 he moved to Cologne, and thereafter was widely exhibited and published around the world. He is today one of the elders in European art, widely exhibited and continuously productive.

Although he neglected watercolors early in his career, he slowly warmed to the medium. His works come in series of a dozen or more, typically painted in a few weeks, followed by intervals of a year or more. (His style is to title these works with the approximate date they were painted.) He began the first series on a vacation in Davos because "small watercolors are easy to do in a hotel room" (as I discovered during my own business travels). The formats are small, half a sheet of scrap typing or notebook paper, some of it ruled, all of it buckling under the wet washes — "cheap paper was an opportunity to avoid a certain watercolor esthetic, the arts-and-crafts preciousness." He extends that grim objective to an aggressive denial of any "pretty" watercolor effects — puddling the colors into muds and grays, then slashing out the image with violent dark strokes, as if denying he ever painted it. By the time he painted 4.1.1978, (18x24cm) however, he was visibly relaxing his guard and getting into the spirit of the thing — reserving whites, allowing saturated passages to emerge, and enjoying the wet-in-wet dynamism and unpredictability of medium. The painting fascinates like a plastic aquarium bag, holding the blossoms and diffuse streaks of color like captured sea jelly and vivid worms.



A series painted six years later shows Richter using all the layered mixtures and rich colors that watercolors can offer. In Aetna II (1984; 40x30cm) he applied the soft color of wax crayons to reserve active lines or broad passages of texture within the wash fields. He then applied layer after layer of pure colored washes, moving from warm to cool and light to dark in classic watercolor style, but using these methods to get visual effects more like a collage or acrylic, and varying his very broad brushstrokes to highlight the paper's surface texture. The culminating dark blue vertical brushstrokes, playing off the confused background of reds and yellows, convey the strength and balance of mountain pines or the towers of urban technology. The variety and coherence of the painting are wonderful to explore with an eye both to the sensual joy of the image and the range of techniques used to create it. Browsing these works, one can watch as Richter explores the medium, testing its limits, and also developing promising accidents into unplanned but chosen harmonies.

Skipping ahead another seven years, and Richter's style has evolved again, this time into complex layerings of paint that build an ambiguous surface at once enameled, transparent, active, and radiantly serene. These pictures use watercolors at moderate dilution, causing all colors (even cadmiums) to appear semitransparent; the multiple layerings are so complex and capitalize so much on chance wet in wet effects, that Richter himself claims he no longer knows how to paint them. Richter has settled into using the quarter sheet format, but intensifies the visual and technical complexity of the designs within it. 7.3.1991 (30x40cm) is broadly structured around the transition from dark, cool blues and greens at upper left to warm scarlets at lower right, with a skein of sunny yellows weaving between. But look at the density and variety of brushstrokes, the random combinations of colors peeking through semiopaque washes, and the tumble of dull greens that are actually that same sunny yellow unsaturated with a touch of blue violet. This is the best kind of abstraction: our intellect cannot find release in a sufficient interpretation, and our eye is lured by complexity and color beauty to prolong the act of exploration within the always renewable moment of the image.

The only available collection, with an interview of Gerhard Richter on his watercolor development, is the museum catalog from the 1999 exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur: Gerhard Richter Aquarelle / Watercolors 1964-1997 edited by Dieter Schwartz (Richter Verlag, 1999).