In 2002, Robert Storr, then Senior Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, organized and curated the exhibition, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. The first full-scale survey in New York devoted to the German artist’s work, the exhibition included more than 180 paintings from each phase in his career, ranging from his photographic-based work to his gestural abstraction.
The show also featured Richter’s fifteen-piece cycle, October 18, 1977, which was based on newspaper photographs of the militant, anti-establishment group, Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) or, as it was called in the media, Baader-Meinhof Gang.
Richter created the paintings to mark his fascination with the group, which was active in West Germany from 1970 until 1998. The RAF’s activities resulted in 34 deaths, largely until five of the group’s leaders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, Holger Meins and Jan-Carl Raspe were arrested and placed in solitary confinement in the newly built Stammheim Prison. In 1974, Meins died following a hunger strike, while Meinhof was found hanged in her cell in May 1976. And on October 18, 1977, Baader, Ensslin and Raspe were found dead in their cells of apparent suicides, although these findings, as well as that of Meinhof’s death, were widely disputed.
Richter said of the cycle, “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.” Notwithstanding the RAF’s popularity, however, the work was met with some controversy when it was unveiled in 1989, a reminder that the issue remained largely unresolved in German public opinion.
The following is Robert Storr’s commentary on the cycle, as well as on the entirety of Gerhard Richter’s practice:
Each kind of photograph purports to represent reality and, in a sense, we are inclined to believe that light directly carries reality through the lens of the camera and prints it on the film. However, as we have come to realize, photography is no more accurate a representation of reality than any other system of science.
This is important in Richter’s enterprise because, in effect, it is resuscitated a genre of painting that had fallen in disuse because of photography, film and video and that is history painting. In the nineteenth, eighteenth and seventeenth century, history painting was the highest genre that a painter could aspire to.
It was the way in which cultural myths and social symbols were embodied for general public consumption. It celebrated the things that held nations and peoples together, from kings and queens to battles and revolutions.
By the twentieth century, the function of recording history had been turned over to photomechanical means. In choosing to paint things that have already been photographed, Richter, in a sense juxtaposes, or pits against each other, the two ways of representing history. In this case, the story that he tells episodically is not one which united Germany, but one which, in fact, divides them and has done for almost thirty years.