In 1961, Richter and his wife Ema defected to West Germany from the increasingly repressive GDR. They stayed with a friend, Reinhard Graner, in Düsseldorf for the first few weeks. Initially Richter considered moving to Munich, but following advice from Graner chose to settle in Düsseldorf. The city’s Staatliche Kunstakademie [Düsseldorf Art Academy] had a considerable reputation and featured largely in Richter’s final decision. Despite having already studied art at the Dresden Academy, Richter decided to apply, seeking the opportunity to integrate with his new environment, meet peers and broaden his knowledge of contemporary art. As a student he would also receive a stipend, which would help him during the first few years in the West. Richter started studying at the Düsseldorf Academy in October 1961, in Ferdinand Macketanz's class. An intensely productive period followed: 'I tried out everything I could.'38 He later described his work at the time as 'varying in style between Dubuffet, Giacometti, Tàpies, and many others.'39 While Richter was unhappy with and destroyed many of these paintings, it was an important period of experimentation that helped to establish him in the Academy.
In the 1960s, the Academy was at the forefront of developments in the art world. In addition to being a bastion of Informel painting, it became a hub for the Fluxus movement when Joseph Beuys was appointed professor. Düsseldorf and nearby Cologne offered a vibrant community of artists, exhibitions and events - energised not least by the ZERO group, founded by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in 1957. Richter had arrived in the midst of all this, and many aspects of this environment would remain sources of long-lasting inspiration.
After his first term, Richter moved into the class of Karl Otto Götz, who had been attracting some of the most interesting students at the Academy. Amongst these Richter would find a circle of friends that would become important future affiliations: 'I was incredibly lucky to find the right friends at the Academy: Sigmar Polke, Konrad Fischer and [Blinky] Palermo.'40
The three artists exhibited together in May 1963 in an empty shop in Düsseldorf's old town centre, rented from the local civic administration. And in October, Richter and Lueg organised an exhibition and event at a furniture store in the city. Entitled 'Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism', the initiative involved an exhibition of the artist's paintings and a happening in which they performed as 'living sculptures' in a mock living room with a variety of props, including an effigy of (the then still living) John F. Kennedy. Also featured was an installation in a cupboard by Beuys, suggesting the influence Fluxus had on Richter and his circle. 'I was very impressed with Fluxus. It was so absurd and destructive,'41 Richter has commented. The furniture store exhibition generated a considerable amount of interest and was characteristic of the energy, curiosity, humour and spirit shared by Richter and his peers at the time. The young men payed close attention to the Pop Art movement taking form across the Atlantic. Each of them absorbed different elements of this into their own thinking and practice and became some of the most influential contributors – even as students – to the European rendition of the movement.
Richter's interest in current affairs, consumer society, the media and popular culture began to come through in his paintings, with early examples including Party [CR: 2-1], depicting a scene from a televised New Year's Eve party; Table [CR:1], based on a table in the Italian design magazine Domus; President Johnson consoles Mrs. Kennedy [CR: 11-2], from a newspaper cutting; and Folding Dryer [CR: 4], reproducing an advert, including text, for a clothes dryer. These works were the beginning of Richter's professional oeuvre and it was the use of photographic images – something that had previously been inconceivable to him and to academic painting – that marked the pivotal breakthrough.42
Already at this early stage, Richter set about exploring the relationship between the photographic image and painting that would become one of the cornerstones of his practice. He produced some of the first works that incorporated his 'blurring' technique, such as Pedestrians [CR: 6] and Alster [CR: 10], as well as beginning a series of paintings depicting military jets, along with an increasing number of portraits, primarily in black and white, based on media images and found photographs. By the time Richter left the Academy in the summer of 1964, it was with a newly developed approach that would sustain him for decades to come.
37 Letter to Professor Heinz Lohmar, 1961. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.13.
38 Statement, 10 October 1973. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.84.
39 Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 2004. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.472.
40 Ibid., p.473.
41 Interview with Dorothea Dietrich, 1985. Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p.157.
42 Richter's catalogue raisonné is described by Elger as follows: '[In 1969 he began to devise] the first version of the catalogue raisonné, introducing the numbering system that he still uses today. Not every artwork is included. [...] The catalogue raisonné is thus conceived not as an exhaustive record of everything he has painted but as a corpus of works established by the artist himself.' Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.169. Robert Storr asserts that the catalogue raisonné is 'less a literal history of his production than an empirical narrative construct internally adjusted to account for the importance paintings had for him after he had studied them in the context of others of their generation.' Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.29.