Gerhard Richter's Atlas is a collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and sketches that the artist has been assembling since the mid 1960s. A few years later, Richter started to arrange the materials on loose sheets of paper.
'In the beginning I tried to accommodate everything there that was somewhere between art and garbage and that somehow seemed important to me and a pity to throw away.'1
At present, Atlas consists of 802 sheets. Spanning a period of almost four decades, the individual sheets reflect different phases of Richter's life and work:
Although Gerhard Richter had already begun collecting photographs and press cuttings, he started working on Atlas in the early 1970s by arranging his own and other family photographs on paper.
Subsequent to these photographs, he included pictures taken from newspapers and magazines, some of which he used as source images for his 1960s photo paintings [e.g. Sheets: 5–15]. For the group of works 48 Portraits for example, sketches of how to hang the paintings can be found in addition to source images and installation views of the paintings at the Venice Biennale in 1972. [Sheets: 30–41]
Atlas offers insights into Richter's artistic practice and his way of creating imagery. The Atlas sheets allow one to track how first experiments with Holocaust photographs eventually led to Black, Red, Gold, executed in colour-coated glass; the piece was commissioned by the Deutsche Bundestag (German Government) [Sheets: 635–655].
However, photographs taken by the artist himself are the main focus of Atlas. Extensive series of landscapes, still lifes and family photographs were meticulously arranged on the sheets. Some of these photographs were later used as source images for paintings or were included in his artist's books, as can be seen in Wald. The Atlas sheets 697–736 even include the complete layout of the artist's book War Cut from 2004.
Gerhard Richter's life and art interrelate in Atlas in a multilayered way: banal subjects such as a toilet roll [Sheet: 14] are juxtaposed with horrifying Holocaust images [Sheets: 16–20]; serial landscape pictures are lined up with intimate family photographs; colour samples attached to source images can be found as well as photographs showing museum installations. On the basis of its complexity and diversity, the importance of Atlas exceeds simple documentation, and Atlas is widely considered as an independent artwork.
Notes prepared by editorial team
1 Interview with Dieter Schwarz, 1999 in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p. 332