- Gerhard Richter
- signed, titled, dated 1987, and numbered 633 on the reverse
- oil on canvas
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
Private Collection, Minnesota
Sotheby's, London, June 27, 2001, Lot 18
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Cities Collect, September 2000 - January 2001
Angelika Thill, et. al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Osternfildern-Ruit 1993, cat. no. 633, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Gerhard Richter: Abstrakte Bilder, 2008, p. 57, illustrated in color
Richter's Gudrun from 1987 is a fascinating and visually explosive work that references Gudrun Ensslin, a founding member of the German youth protest group, the Red Army Faction. With its eponymous title, Gudrun represents one of the rare instances in which Richter's famed mode of gestural abstraction here incorporates a more charged character than his usual treatise on the abstract nature of art. The color palette of Gudrun, in which a potent red visually collides with strong black diagonals and veils highlights in yellow, blue and green, provides this painting with a sumptuous and visual muscularity. This intense optical vitality is wedded to an equally forceful and contrapuntal geometric construct, as the pulsating red is joined by a dramatic and vigorous black upsweep of Richter's signature squeegee tool. It is telling that this abstract work is the precursor to the extraordinary - and vastly different - series of fifteen representational works in the October 18, 1977 series which also touches on the same period in German contemporary history.
In Gudrun and the October 18, 1977 series, Richter embarks on an exhaustive navigation of the seemingly antithetical and mutable periphery between Abstraction and Figuration and, simultaneously, creates abstractions devoid of imposed subjectivity. By naming this canvas Gudrun, Richter establishes an inherent narrative and complex, referential significance whose drama is heightened through the deep saturated hues. Gudrun fundamentally embodies the principles of Abstract Expressionism through Richter's elegant and masterful abstraction of the palpable memory of these events. The authority his paintings possess over their resultant emotive effects, however, is among the artist's greatest triumphs and a signal to his profound genius.
The origins of the RAF (also known as the Baader-Meinhof group) in 1970 trace back to post-World War II Germany, when issues of German identity and nationalism were called into question, and the younger generations grew hostile towards the country's governing bodies. Student protest movements became a popular method of rebelling against the German state, and Gudrun Ensslin helped the RAF launch attacks on public buildings and German government officials to gain attention for their ideology. She was ultimately arrested on June 8, 1972 and five years later on October 18, 1977, while serving her sentence, Gudrun was found dead in her prison cell, hanging from a rope. Fellow inmates and RAF members Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe also appeared to have committed suicide on the same day, but the German public was skeptical of the multiple-suicide claim and maintained that the activists were murdered.
The events of October 18, 1977 became deeply embedded in the German public's consciousness, and Gerhard Richter was considerably moved by their actions, "I was impressed by the terrorist's energy, their uncompromising determination and their absolute bravery; but I could not find it in my heart to condemn the State for its harsh response...The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after, stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since, despite all my efforts to suppress it." (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 173). Though the RAF pursued an anti-authority agenda, many left-leaning German citizens sympathized with their ideologies, if not their execution. Richter's statement accurately encompasses the ambiguous public sentiment in the delicate political climate of the 1970s in Germany.
Indeed, even ten years after the RAF deaths, Richter dedicated this 1987 abstract painting to the memory of the fallen activist in this monumental and powerful work. Gudrun from 1987 preceded Richter's 1988 series of fifteen paintings in his earlier blurred photo-based style, all picturing the players and events of October 18, 1977. This critically-praised suite of paintings reside in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and mark a significant moment in Richter's œuvre when the artist tackles a politically-charged subject, but attempts to present it in an objective, detached way to the viewer. Though the subject is inherently controversial, Richter still chooses to tell this story, a deliberate act similar to his earlier paintings Tante Marianne, 1965 and Onkel Rudi, 1965, which dealt with Richter's family and their more personal connections to World War II Germany and its tragedies.
Acclaimed scholar Robert Storr writes that Richter "may retain his composure and, for the sake of his art, the appearance of neutrality; but he does not avert his eyes at the sight of modernity's horrors. Instead, he is determined to depict the cruelty and absurdity that engender them and the suffering they cause as objectively and as unforgettably as possible." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 43). Richter's approach to painting these culturally-sensitive and contentious scenes is similar to that of Édouard Manet in The Execution of Maximilian I, 1868-1869, who restages the historical moment of Emperor Maximilian I's death not for a specific political agenda, but to capture a feeling, a moment, a cultural zeitgeist. Both Richter and Manet refuse to ignore the adversity or heroism of their contemporaries, but turn to the service of their art as the ultimate subject of their paintings.
In the October 18, 1977 series, Richter chooses this smeared, blended figuration as a way to detach himself from the documentary photographs even a decade later. The blurred images seem to evoke a memory or a dream, which is not quite real or present, but is lingering in the back of the mind, just barely reachable. Richter takes this technique a step further with Gudrun from 1987, which is entirely smudged, wiped, squeegee-ed, and abstracted. The darker background of the picture plane combines hues of green, blue, black, and yellow, but is superseded by the large patch of bright red paint. The red, which may reference the Red Army Faction and the passion of these young activists, commands the viewer's attention in its vibrancy and stunning surface quality.