In The Studio with Daniel Richter
By Dorothy Spears
Published: October 1, 2008, Art+Auction
Within a stone’s throw of Daniel Richter’s studio in the funky neighborhood known as Mitte, the Berlin Biennale has laid out an international smorgasbord of artists, curators, dealers and critics. But the scraggly-haired, athletically built Richter—whose giant, cacophonous paintings overflow with exuberant graffiti scrawls, gobs of Day-Glo color and ghoulish references to Goya, Ensor and Munch—is deliberately steering clear of the action. From a window in the Gothic-style former postal-service carriage house where he has lived and worked in relative quiet for 10 years, the artist spots a journalist roaming a dilapidated courtyard and raps lightly on the darkened pane. Moments later he emerges—towering, unshaven—in a blue flannel bathrobe, pajamas and paint-speckled soccer shoes.
Richter, 46, burst onto the already spirited German painting scene in 1995 with his first solo show, at the Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery (CFA), in Berlin, including works such as Love, whose colorful, free-form style evinced a fascination with punk rock and the album covers of R. Crumb and Raymond Pettibon. Four years later, Richter’s abstract squiggles and pinkish tones began to assume the shapes of faces in a crowd as he segued into figuration. But it wasn’t until 2000, when Phienox and Tuanus, also first displayed at CFA, revealed his keen grasp of color and dappled-light effects, that Richter’s meteoric ascent in Germany translated into a quick succession of gallery shows.
Enthusiasm for his work continues to grow. A sold-out show of Richter’s most recent paintings and drawings at Los Angeles’s Regen Projects this past February was followed a month later by an exhibition of new work, also sold out, at David Zwirner Gallery, in New York. This month, “Daniel Richter: A Major Survey” opens at Denver Art Museum, ending a tour that began in Hamburg and included stops in the Hague and Málaga, Spain. The midcareer retrospective, which includes 25 large-scale paintings and nearly 40 smaller works from 1994 to the present, will finally give the artist broad institutional exposure in the United States. Organized by Denver’s recently appointed curator of modern and contemporary art, Christoph Heinrich, the exhibition rides a wave of international interest in contemporary German painters, among them Neo Rauch, Franz Ackermann, Thomas Scheibitz and now Richter.
Richter often uses news photographs as sources for his work, and evidence of his reading preferences—from leaning towers of newspapers and magazines to existential novels—clutters the dining table of his small kitchen adjacent to the studio. He loves talking politics and unselfconsciously spouts provocative opinions. That said, the imagery of his best-known history paintings— friezelike depictions of comic-book superheroes, burlesque dancers, dogs and zombies confronting policemen—defies easy interpretation. The same is true of his more recent portraits of solitary instrumentalists and soldiers, whose fuzzy edges and shadows render guitars and guns interchangeable. “One minute, you have the melancholic blues folk musician, the heroic poor guy,” he says. “The next, you have the lost soul of a soldier entering a vast enemy area.” Presented from the rear, the figures in this series are stooped, abject, like prisoners awaiting their own execution but, says Richter, only half accepting their fate.
With its 30-foot ceilings and persistent damp chill, Richter’s studio has the feel of a giant garage, and in fact, the building was an auto body shop after it was abandoned by the post office. Overlapping Persian carpets do little to warm things up. A series of dark rooms off his studio reveals an unmade bed and shelves cluttered with books and records. It’s as if his real life exists elsewhere— which in some ways it does. After working in monk-like seclusion for two- to three-week periods, he joins his wife, Angela, a theater director, and their toddler son at their home in Hamburg for several days—or weeks—of rest. After this much-needed domesticity, he returns to Berlin to start the cycle all over.
Two enormous whitewashed wooden panels run the length and width of the cavernous space. In the room’s center, a single, swiveling office chair, its seat padded with a thick wool blanket, offers the perfect vantage from which to view an enormous painting in progress hanging from the smaller of the two panels. Like a witness to Richter’s many contradictions, the picture features neither guitar hero nor soldier but a burning hand suspended before a horrified man in a blue suit and a frieze of fluorescent skeletons.
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Daniel Richter website
Represented by Contemporary Fine Art, Berlin
Represented by David Zwirner, New York