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Daniel Richter: a master of contemporary art in the making

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Daniel Richter started his life as a painter fairly late, as he took up studying painting at the age of thirty at the Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts (from 1991 to 1995), after a career as an illustrator in the music world, producing posters and record sleeves for various bands. He soon became Albert Oehlen’s studio assistant, and started producing his own abstract works in the mid-1990’s. This first abstract period, which lasted a few years—Richter started turning to figuration from 1999 to 2002—, enabled him to come into his own style, giving birth to dense and colorful compositions reminiscent of graffiti art, and a psychedelic visual realm where chaos, conflict and a menacing liveliness are central themes. At the time, Richter was fascinated by the freedom enabled by the history of abstract painting, and his paintings were filled with a great amount of visual information in a manner sometimes quite reminiscent of some of Oehlen’s own work.

Zwiesprache mit der Natur (beim Baden), 1996, Daniel Richter

The work of Daniel Richter then took a figurative turn in the early 2000’s, and only went back to abstraction for a very short time between 2013 and 2016. Within this large time span, it is difficult to distinguish particular subsets because the painter—as he often reminds us in his interviews—makes a point of constantly renewing his artistic vocabulary. There are however recurring aspects to his work. One of them is that his paintings always seem to float between two realms: that of dreams and fantasies on one side, and on the other of the most immediate and cruel material reality. Many a time has Richter been described as a “history painter”, as he often draws inspiration from historical photographs, famous paintings or images drawn from pop culture. His relationship to landscapes and sceneries is even quite reminiscent of the great traditional images of German Romanticism in a sense. But next to these tangible shapes, he introduces abstract elements such as flashes of light or incongruous colors which transform these real sceneries into dreamlike landscapes. Consequently, he is also sometimes associated with the expressionist movement and compared to the likes of James Ensor: in a similar fashion to the latter’s work, which explores the underbelly of a collapsing society in a rather anarchist light, Richter’s depictions of humanity often have punk undertones to them.

But Daniel Richter’s paintings are nonetheless resolutely contemporary: the ambience they summon is often artificial and urban, notably through the use of colors inspired by x-ray, infra-red and video games imagery. In addition, themes of oppression, surveillance and psychological discomfort were ubiquitous in his most recent works (especially since the 2010’s).

A painting from the 10001 nacht exhibition

In 2011 and 2012, the painter produced some of his very best work from this series. The important exhibition that established the reputation of these types of works was his show entitled 10001 nacht at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover in 2011. Within the canvases on display, one could see various human figures resembling soldiers travelling across a post-apocalyptic universe in psychedelic colors. The first solo show by the artist that immediately followed in early 2012 took place at his gallery Peres Project in Los Angeles, and its title A concert of purpose and action directly referenced the declaration of war to Germany by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Through the characters that haunt the chemical landscapes of these series of works, Richter questioned our notion of heroism. Indeed, the painter is interested in the idea that our times have lost their bearings, and that the heroes of yesterday might well be the tormenters of tomorrow. The artist has for instance been very critical of the American military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But direct interpretation is once more evaded by Richter, and it is quite unclear which war is referenced in these paintings. Their resulting ambiguity is exactly what the artist is looking for: the obscure coloring of the soldiers barely betrays their uniforms and weapons and enables the viewer to project various protagonists upon them. In contrast, the backgrounds are generally richly ornamented, with successions of seismic lines evoking mountains of sorts in vivid—sometimes even fluorescent—colors. These paintings seem to issue a form of warning regarding a dystopic future, against the backdrop of chemical or radioactive war. There is a sense in which Richter’s images from that period are a display of what awaits us if humanity is unable to learn from its past mistakes.

Then, from roughly 2013 to 2015, the painter underwent a period of further experiments: in some of his canvases from that time, he stripped down his matured visual language to its formal elements, and played around with it for a while, discovering new ways of building up an image. It seemed as though Richter was sometimes going back to full abstraction, with indeterminate forms floating in indeterminate space. But negative shapes evoking the shadows of his absent human figures soon started to creep back into these severely abstract pictures, and the artist started to transition wholly into a new type of works. Indeed, since 2016, Richter has said to have turned the page of his “figurative and narrative” period to concentrate on vaguely human figures on the verge of complete abstraction. A year prior, the painter had started to narrow down his compositions, abandoning the former vastness of the scenes depicted in his paintings to focus more on the human form. This new great series of paintings was presented for the first time during an exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfort in late 2015 / early 2016, followed a few months later by a solo show entitled Half-Naked Truth at Thaddaeus Ropac. Since then, the artist has been focusing mainly on these types of works, which were also at the center of his later exhibitions at Regen Projects, Grimm and Thaddaeus Ropac.

A painting from Furor 1 at Thaddaeus Ropac

These new paintings both break away from his previous work and embody continuity. His very colorful and tortuous universe remains unscathed in a way. For example, Richter still sometimes draws inspiration from historic themes and photographs, as shown in his latest Parisian exhibition entitled Furor I, in which all the canvases were inspired by a single postcard showing two injured soldiers from World War I strolling around on crutches. But in other ways, the artist also decided to completely renew his approach to painting, and his process underwent a few radical transformations. Richter considerably reduced his use of brushwork—exploring tools such as palette knives and oil sticks. The paintings are thus made by first laying down color stripes (sometimes in gradients) next to fillings of abrasive colors, before adding fragmented humanoid figures in the midst of various acts with oil pastels. On large canvases, the depicted anthropomorphic beings often seem to levitate in an irresolute and disembodied world made of color fields. In this series, Daniel Richter delivers a powerful form of abstraction, beyond or below the layer of reality we all experience—in the realm of possibility: the backgrounds suggest unreal or incompletely materialized landscapes, and the distorted figures (by occupying several places simultaneously) seem to float in a quantum space where various incarnate feelings exist all at once. To an uncommon degree, the artist manages to create a beautiful dialogue between opposites: rest/movement, solace/suffering, light/darkness. The resulting works thus suggest a form of volatile sensuousness and ethereal beauty which counteracts the ruthless energy within them.

Through these recent paintings, Richter has reached a new height of artistic maturity and freedom in his career. A victim of its success, the last Parisian exhibition of these works by Thaddaeus Ropac, in November 2021, was sold out before it even opened its doors, with considerable waiting lists and an important number of works reserved for prestigious institutions. Since then, the artist showcased more of these works at Space K in Seoul, Korea, at Ateneo Veneto in Venice, Italy, and at Regen Projects in Los Angeles in 2022. All these exhibitions furthered the theme of these somewhat humanoid figures on crutches, inspired by the injuries sustained by soldiers at war. The paintings on display at his show Limbo in Venice were now devoid of gradients, producing vibrant and dense color fields as a backdrop for the figures, as if the colors took it upon themselves to carry out the battle between contradictions. As for the figures, their lines seem less and less ubiquitous, as they seemed to become increasingly composed of color fields themselves.

Which direction Daniel Richter will take next, no one knows. One thing is for sure though: the painter has garnered a high level of international recognition over the years. Well represented by his three galleries Regen Projects, Thaddaeus Ropac and Max Hetzler, and reaping the rewards of thirty years of solid artistic production, his works are now part of the collections of various public and private collections, such as those of the MoMA (New York) and Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris). The painter’s latest museum exhibition took place at the Kunsthalle Tübingen in Germany in May 2023, and showcased even more of the painter’s latest images. Lastly, Richter's work will be on display at Thaddaeus Ropac during Frieze London in October; the traditional Ropac exhibition during the renowned art fair is an event that is always eagerly awaited by the entire art world.



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