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 – http://www.gerhard-richter.com/art/atlas/
Here are the first 3 panels from the collection which began in 1962.