Achromatic Gerhard Richter: The Color Behind the Surface

German artist Gerhard Richter, a masterful painter of hyperreal photo-like compositions and derivative blurry abstractions, created his work Grau (Grey) in 1976. This painting is oil on linen and is 78 3/4 x 67 inches. It has an approximate profile of 1 1/2 inches, whose edges reveal a light-grey ground. Grau is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California, and is currently on view in the second floor galleries. It has been assigned an inventory number of 98.526.

Grau, Gerhard Richter, oil on linen, 1976

The deceptive first impressions of a singular-color painting — especially anti-color beyond (or before) the rainbow’s palette — can trick a viewer into a passing glance and a fading thought. Yet Richter painted Grau and other similar works steadily throughout the period of Pop art — a style examining mass consumption, celebrity and captivation — when color was an important compositional device. By painting large monochromatic works such as Grau, Richter sought to counter the extroverted tendencies of ascendent Pop art, leading the viewer into an active introspection.

Grau is a big painting. Seven feet high, it towers over viewers and visually dominates the space it occupies. Covered in thick semi-gloss medium-grey paint, little variation between the surface pigment and the lighter grey ground exist. No presence of any other value of grey, or any chroma from the spectrum, is found on its surface.

Reflective qualities of the semi-gloss finish heighten or subside with distance. Approaching the work from afar, the surface seems matte and smooth, appearing as just a canvas painted grey. A casual oblique glimpse could even convince the viewer this is just a frame wrapped in an opaque cotton cloth. However, viewing the painting up close reveals its surface reflectivity. Ambient light bounces off the composition and the viewer recognizes that Richter’s touch is present in a lush texture.

Multiple gestures of brushstroke fill the picture plane. Large canvas-width swaths and rhythmic accordion thumps fill most of the painting, the latter sweeping back and forth as a feather descends from the sky. Stitch-like elements, created from lines of stippled paint, originate from the upper-right edge and fork away in the middle ground. A few noisy scratches occupy the lower-left quadrant, as if Richter dug his fingernails into half-dried paint and extracted little flecks. All these little bits of noise provide intriguing contrast and prevent the whole texture from becoming quiet monotony.

The most important element of the work is its lack of color. The artist reinforces this in his titling, disappointing anyone who seeks clarification about the painting’s meaning. Here, grey is what you see and Grau is what you get.

Richter has a history with the strict use of grey. In his catalog raisonné he lists Tisch from 1962 as his first work — a grey, blurred, and smudged image of a table modeled in tilted perspective [1]. He completed his first photo-picture in 1964, a colorless painting of French actress Brigitte Bardot [2]. Sourcing imagery from photographs and print media, the artist continued to create achromatic compositions, choosing political figures, newspaper advertisements, and even farm animals as the subject. He would eventually progress to non- objective painting, his subject matter having been obliterated into a severe blear.

At the same time Richter was completing Tisch, Andy Warhol began a mass production of his Campbell’s Soup Cans [3]. Warhol had been drawing and painting from newspaper clippings since 1960, but moved to easily identifiable imagery from popular culture shortly thereafter [4]. Moreover, infatuated with celebrity, Warhol immortalized big names in works like Marilyn (1962), Liz (1963), and Mao (1972) [5].

While comparisons of Richter to other then-emerging artists occurred, this crossover between his work and Warhol’s earned him repeated inquiry about his relation to Pop art. Rolf Schön, a writer for Die Deutsche Zeitung, posed Richter with that very question in 1972. The artist responded with admiration for Warhol, but more importantly stated that Pop art didn’t interest him [6].

Distancing himself from this stylistic categorizing, he chose the subject- and colorless format as a response to his assertion that, “he did not know what to paint” [7]. The more monochromes he created, the more “differences of quality” he began to notice [8]. Subsequently, he would characterize the series as being “powerless,” “a lack of differentiation, nothing, nil” [9].

The artist’s contradictory feelings about the series of work didn’t seem to inhibit its production, as he consistently produced variations of the grey monochrome well into the new millennium. What Richter avoids discussing, though, is their emotional power.

The only way to appreciate the force of Grau is to engage with it. Richter’s aforementioned semi-gloss veils its interior. The viewer who stoops and squats, peeks into an ocean of texture. The lower half of the painting reveals waves of brushstrokes that sway to-and-fro. These lines coax the viewer to lift from their crouch and direct their gaze into the atmosphere painted above. Suddenly, this tactile staccato feels like water flowing over the surface of the canvas.

Standing upright, the viewer takes a step back and attempts to view this ocean in panorama. Disengagement implements another device of the pigment’s sheen, captivating us in our retreat. The paint dematerializes — our shadow becomes illuminated into the surface, our form now an intended element of the composition. The illusion of liquid now solidifies to a glassine crust. Another step away from our crouch lends the conviction that the paint subtly mimics the silver backing of a broken mirror.

Though we are captured by the sudden chameleon-like charm, we continue our retreat from the work and everything begins to fade away. No less than five feet from the painting and it has returned to its dull state: opaque, absorbing all light and shadow cast upon it. Its liquid instability has disappeared, the mirror has faded, and the paint has rematerialized into just grey — nothingness on a canvas.

Since the work does not evoke emotional color associations, the painting tasks its viewer with the responsibility of defining its meaning. Furthermore, lacking any recognizable subject matter common to the period of its creation, a viewer has no cultural reference point with which to make a comparison. This leaves the viewer with few options to begin their assessment: other objects in the room, spatial relations, or oneself.

Richter’s buried textures and mirror-like allure rewards those who challenge the façade and physically investigate the composition. The notions of external beauty and instant recognition are gone. Grau destroys the spotlight, yet highlights our shadow.

Although we often associate the mirror with narcissism, here the viewer gazes into faceted reflections. Grau is instead an anti-mirror and creates of our form a mess, a beginning. Our own character becomes the subject of the work, whether that embodies the fluidity of personality or the cloths we wrap around our own frame. Grau destroys the importance of image only to use the wake to create something anew. The artist even characterizes his own preferences of operating within this context, saying he prefers, “to go through destruction to construction.” [10].

As we peer into this neutral field and begin to question ourselves, one final phenomenon occurs. A prolonged transfixion invokes a certain meditation in the viewer. But in a twist of optical revelation, one’s eye begins to tire and see the canvas as violet and blue — a final shard of illusion revealing that even our bodies have a natural response to make something from the nothing.


[1] R. Storr. Gerhard Richter, Forty Years of Painting. (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2002.) pg 107.
[2] G. Richter. Writings 1961-2007. (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2009.) pg 21.
[3] K. Varnedoe. “Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.” Bastien pgs 40-45.
[4] H. Bastien, ed. Retrospective: Andy Warhol. (London: Tate, 2001) pg 93.
[5] Ibid., pgs 141, 152, 237.
[6] Richter, pgs 60-61.
[7] Ibid., pg 91.
[8] Ibid., pgs 91-92.
[9] Ibid., pgs 93, 104.
[10] Ibid., pg 67.

¶ 2012·03·15