Gerhard Richter’s Picture Collection, Atlas – Jeremiah Spofford




Over the past 40 years the German painter Gerhard Richter has amassed an expansive and heterogeneous array of photographs that began as a tool in service of his painting practice and has since evolved into an exhibited collection.  The photos have periodically come into public view in Europe and the United States, shown on panels, and the current size of the collection hovers somewhere near 600 panels and some five thousand photographs.  I am interested in a couple aspects of Richter’s collection, the first being at what point does the compilation of visual aids become a collection?  What are the aims of Richter’s collecting practice?  And finally, how does the artist’s considerable fame as a painter influence interest in his photographs?

Commenting on Atlas Richter said, In my picture atlas…I can only get a handle on the flood of pictures by creating order since there are no individual pictures at all anymore.   Richter’s not exactly inventing the wheel by using photographs as potential sources for paintings.  However I am attracted to the poetics of compiling his own picture atlas, a map of visual stimuli, through which he navigates his painting practice.  His map has categories that include found newspaper clippings, portraits, pornography, sketches and diagrams.  I have a problem with the above quote describing Atlas due to the fact that upon more careful consideration of the categories, much of the content includes photos he has taken himself, sketches and ideas for installations.  I would argue that in one sense this collection serves as a display and platform for his photo practice rather than a mechanism that he uses to tackle an onslaught of images.  It is evident that he is both maker and collector simultaneously and when these two modes find combination within his collection a partial history is illustrated, though not a history born totally from the necessitation of ordering that Richter asserts is all one can do when confronted with the orgy of images found in the world today. 

 Lynn Cook writes in her essay Atlas that the collection serves as much more than an artist’s repository for memorable images.  She goes on to say that what began as a cumulative, improvisational activity has evolved from an album to a potentially encyclopedic project, driven by its own idiosyncratic, internal logic.  Cook argues that it is apparent that with the continued iterations of the collection Richter has began to play more to the role of collector, orchestrating the material in terms of the overall layout, establishing larger rhythms and references between the parts.  That said, this compendium functions not as a generator of meaning but rather to point to relationships between images through association.  Richter has often asserted that his picture collection is not selling an ideology and proceeds according to no preconceived plan.  Atlas occupies a liminal space between archive and scrapbook, collection of photos and collection of a photographers photos and an artist’s interest in the imagery around him.  The ample scholarly interest surrounding Atlas is no doubt partially due to Richter being arguably the most important German painter post World War II.(He’s certainly the most expensive.)  

The collection can be found online at –  

Here are the first 3 panels from the collection which began in 1962.


3 responses to “Gerhard Richter’s Picture Collection, Atlas – Jeremiah Spofford

  1. I do understand the avalanche of images on this level. You seem to argue against the assertion that the artists’ categorizations function to order his world. But I think Richter gave up on trying to classify the onslaught of his own making, and that;s jsut as valid as trying to understand the external world. Richter’s ordered displays reference disorder more than order, just as Warhol’s “Time Capsules” do.

  2. Here is some information on the documentary Golub that I mentioned in class, which shows how he uses files of photos he clips to create his paintings. Northcoast Video on Division Ave. at Damen has this for rental. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen on an artist’s working process. Also, even if you don’t like his work, Leon Golub was a great talker – a very articulate and often really funny artist.

    Golub (1988)

    Directed by: Jerry Blumenthal, Gordon Quinn
    Cast: Leon Golub, Nancy Spero
    Rating: NR

    Follow the creation of “White Squad X”, one of artist Leon Golub’s monumental canvases, in the award-winning documentary Golub. A unique blend of three themes–art, politics, and the media–the 56-minute film examines the role of violence in the modern world as depicted in the artist’s paintings. Known for his sense of history and political activism, Golub powerfully portrays the human condition in situations of oppression and conflict through unconventional artistic techniques. You’ll see images of torture, war, and brutality come to life in close-ups of the artist at work. Other highlights include interviews with museum-goers about the relationship between art and society, and archival footage. ~ Kathleen Wildasin, All Movie Guide

  3. Also…

    Adam mentioned Francis Bacon’s studio and his use of photos. This documentary, uploaded to the web by our friends at, is another classic and extensively highlights his sources and how they get translated into paintings.

    Oh, and there is a lot of fun footage of Bacon getting drunk.

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