Kunstsammlung NRW
Gerhard Richter, Fuji, 1996, © Gerhard Richter, Köln

#32 asks: Hubertus Butin on Gerhard Richter’s Editions

“It doesn't always have to be about oil on canvas”: on the occasion of the exhibition “Gerhard Richter: Art in the Plural,” which is a guest for three weeks in the K20 am Grabbeplatz, we spoke with the art historian Hubertus Butin on the editions of the most successful German artist of our time.

#32: Beginning in 1965, Gerhard Richter has produced more than 160 editions in the most diverse techniques, from photoworks to artist’s books, from object editions to prints. A short question: Why?

Although the production of editions – that is to say of multiple copies of artistic originals – is closely associated for Richter motivically with his paintings, they nonetheless form an important area of independent activity in both technical and medial terms.

Moreover, the editions represent an extraordinarily multifarious and experimental field of activity for this artist, one that offers more possibilities than the production of unique works. Richter himself said recently in an interview: “I am more interested in pictures than in painting.” This demonstrates the importance of fundamental reflections concerning the possibilities and conditions of contemporary image production, and in this respect, the editions are no less relevant than the unica.

#32: Palpable in the Federal Republic during the mid-1960s in many areas of life was a sense of upheaval: are Richter’s editions interpretable in this context as well, under the heading of the “democratization” of art – in a way that was also the case for Joseph Beuys?

Around 1970, the so-called “democratization of art consumption” was a key sociopolitical aim for many artists, art dealers, and publishers. At the time, a number of editions of works by Gerhard Richter were offered for 8-10 German marks. For him, the possibility of reaching a larger public that is associated with this practice continues to play a vital role, even though today's editions are more expensive, of course. This sense of mission, however, is not oriented exclusively toward the market, but also toward a more conceptual level, since Richter’s “art in the plural” can indeed be perceived and reflected upon by a larger public. 

#32: Striking in Richter’s overall oeuvre of editions is the accumulation of print works in connection with photographs. Why is this method of image replication – which could even be characterized as industrial – so important to him?

Since 1965, Gerhard Richter has employed photomechanical technical techniques of reproduction exclusively for his print works, which constitute the larger part of his editions: offset and screen printing, heliography, collotype and inkjet printing. In a way that is comparable to Andy Warhol, he thereby undermined the opposition between industrial technology and manual artistic production. As a result, moreover, the production process was demystified, for an emphatically subject-centered handwriting – of the type familiar from etching or woodcut printing – is avoided here. During the 1960s and 70s, an artistic preoccupation with popular culture and the mass media called attention to the photographic motifs of this image world, but also to media of presentation and procedures of reproduction, for example screenprinting, which fascinated Richter, but as is well known, artists like Sigmar Polke and Roy Lichtenstein as well.

#32: Richter’s editions have received heightened attention recently in the art world. Is this simply a function of his enormous international fame, or even of the exorbitant prices fetched by his virtually prohibitive unicat works?

Internationally, Gerhard Richter is regarded as one of the most important and successful German artists of the present day. Again and again, I'm astonished by how many of his works are found in museums around the world. Needless to say, the editions – which have shifted increasingly into the focus of attention in recent years – have profited from this as well. But it's not just a question of more attractive prices (i.e. compared to the unicat works), but also of the specific art-historical valuation of these works. Some museum directors, but also private collections like Thomas Olbricht, have long recognized the significance and attractiveness of these works, and have oriented their collecting activities accordingly. It doesn't always have to be about oil on canvas.

Hubertus Butin lives and works in Berlin and is the author of the catalog raisonné of Gerhard Richter’s editions which is appearing in March of 2014. He has long been familiar with Richter’s work: during the 1990s, he worked as a research assistant in the artist's studio. Visitors can learn more about Hubertus Butin on the KPMG-Kunstabend of March 5th, when the art historian will be a guest at the K20 (8 p.m.).

Gerd Korinthenberg posed questions for #32 in January of 2014.

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