In the early 1980s, painting was reaffirming its status in the art world, with neo-expressionism (or "Neue Wilde" as it was sometimes referred to in Germany) heading its revival. In the US, figures such as Philip Guston and Julian Schnabel were leading practitioners, and in Germany Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer had risen to fame. In early 1981, an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London entitled A New Spirit in Painting brought many of these artists together – including Richter. Robert Storr has described Richter as a forerunner to these changes: "Richter's engagement with expressionist-type painting antedates this movement by several years, but he was doubtless aware of this current as it began to well up around him and as he was lumped together with its exponents in a number of exhibitions as the tendency crested."65 The exhibition nonetheless brought Richter to a wider audience. Alongside German Art Today at the "Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris" and a solo show in Munich, the decade started well.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Richter had found a new direction with his Abstract Paintings. His personal life had also undergone changes: he had divorced his wife Ema and began a close relationship with artist Isa Genzken. They first met in the early 1970s when she was a student and Richter became reacquainted later in the decade when she was established as a successful artist. By the early 1980s, Genzken and Richter were living together in Düsseldorf, and they married in 1982. The following year, they were offered a large studio space in a former factory in Bismarckstrasse in Cologne by Richter's gallerist Rudolf Zwirner, which they accepted, leaving Düsseldorf and Richter's studio in Brückenstrasse behind.
The main question facing Richter after the success with his abstractions was in what direction to take his figurative work. Between 1982 and 1983, Richter created a series of work depicting candles. Although they received little attention when first exhibited in Germany, they have come to be regarded as some of Richter's most iconic works. Painted with a muted but complex palette ranging from earthy browns and coppers through dusty greys, shadowy blues, dim greens and musty beiges, the candles – often a single candle, though occasionally two or three per image – are depicted against minimal backgrounds comprising bare walls, plain tabletops and dark doorways. Using chiaroscuro and blurring, the Candle paintings offered a fresh approach to photo painting that also served to distinguish him from the neo-expressionist fashions of the time.
Landscapes also confirmed their position in Richter's oeuvre in the 1980s. Ever since his Corsica paintings [CR: 199-201, 211, 212] of the late 1960s, Richter had periodically returned to the subject, each time integrating it further with his core themes. While the Davos paintings [CR: 468/1-3, 469-1] of 1981 and the Iceberg paintings [CR: 496/1-2] of 1982 had extended Richter's interest in the sublime and German romanticism, landscape paintings of 1983 and 1984 were more down to earth, depicting rural farmland areas. In works such as Barn [CR: 549-1], Meadow [CR: 549-2] and Rhinescape [CR: 550-3] it is the Rhineland, close to Richter's home, which is presented. The Abstract Paintings [CR 551/1-9] that follow on from these landscapes in 1984 show how closely aligned Richter's figurative and abstract work really was, with blue skies and horizons serving to anchor otherwise entirely abstract marks. In 1985, Richter produced a number of landscapes including Staubach [CR: 572-1], Troisdorf [CR: 572-2] and Buschdorf [CR:572-5] that were more subdued and set the tone for his future landscapes, which Dietmar Elger observes "culminated in 1987 with twenty-three field and meadow pieces."66
In 1988, Richter made a series of photo paintings in a starkly different direction. October 18, 1977 [CR: 667-674], a cycle of paintings relating to the day several members of the Red Army Faction (RAF) – also known as the Baader-Meinhof group – died in prison, was to be one of Richter's most significant and discussed bodies of work. The RAF was a group that Storr has described as "student radicals turned armed revolutionaries"67 who carried out a range of terrorist acts in the 1970s. Their deaths were treated as suicides, though their unusual circumstances raised suspicions that they might have been killed by agents of the state. Richter's series of blurred, grisaille paintings depicted key moments from the events leading up to and surrounding their deaths, including the arrest of three members of the group on the morning of 1st June 1972, member Gudrun Ensslin hanging in her cell on October 18, 1977, and the funeral following their deaths on October 27, 1977.
This was Richter's most politically provocative body of work to date, and even though the work was made more than ten years after the events, it was still a subject that touched a raw nerve with the German public, opening up the debate about a "disaffected generation, a generation for the most part born after the war and at odds with that of their parents who had acquiesced to, if not supported, Hitler."68 Richter's works seemed to crystallise this debate, although he resisted commenting on it himself.69 Speaking about the RAF in 1989, Richter asserted that what he found most inexplicable was how humans "produce ideas, which are almost always not only utterly wrong and nonsensical but above all dangerous."70
Another work produced in 1988 proved to be one of Richter's most popular works of all time and could not have been more different to the October cycle. Betty [CR: 663-5] is a portrait of Richter's daughter Betty as a young girl (by the time of painting she was a young adult). She sits close to the picture plane, wearing a red and white floral hooded cardigan or dressing gown, facing away from the viewer, seemingly into a dark grey void – a void which on closer inspection reveals itself as one of Richter's grey abstract canvases.
Such work helped launch Richter into the public sphere beyond the art market and gallery sector. By the end of the 1980s, Richter was among the most prominent painters in both Germany and the world. His first major retrospective, which started in 1986 at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and travelled to Berlin, Bern and Vienna, was greeted with critical acclaim. His gallery representation was shifting too, with Marian Goodman in New York and Anthony d'Offay in London taking the lead as Richter's representation. The 1980s had been a highly successful decade, seeing both his abstract works and photo paintings reach a point of acclaim that matched his status and reputation.
65 Robert Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.71.
66 It was Elger who curated the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to Richter's landscape works, presented at the Sprengel Museum Hannover in 1998; Elger, A Life in Painting, 2009, p.273.
67 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.74.
68 Storr, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p.74.
69 Already controversial when they were first shown in 1989 at the Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen in Rotterdam, Richter's October cycle became increasingly controversial when shown in New York shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. The entire cycle had been purchased by MoMA, New York, in 1995. The debate is discussed in Robert Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2009, pp.37-43.
70 Richter in Conversation with Jan Thorn-Prikker, 1989, Gerhard Richter: Text, 2009, p. 231. Cited in Storr, September: A History Painting by Gerhard Richter, Tate Publishing, 2010, p.38.