Gerhard Richter, the creative destruction
In the long arc of art history, we’ve become reluctantly accustomed to the devastating loss of cultural artifacts due to war and human misdeeds, natural disaster, and just plain unfortunate accidents. But what happens when the destruction is a conscious decision occurring at the hands of the creator himself? Over the past several decades, Gerhard Richter, one of the most well-known and important artists in the post WWII-era, has destroyed more than 60 of his completed works.These were not newly finished pieces that failed to meet his vision or standards; in many cases, they were paintings that had appeared in exhibitions and shows—paintings that Der piegel estimates would now be worth around $655 million.
In the early 1960s, after Richter escaped from Dresden to West Germany ahead of the Berlin Wall’s construction, he began a series of photorealistic paintings in which he painted copies of black and white photographs onto large canvases using only a palette of grey. It was these canvases that took a major hit when he decided to cull his oeuvre in his 30s. Among the lost was the painting Warship Destroyed by Torpedo, which featured a calm grey sea and sky punctuated by an explosive spray of water in the middle of the long, dark boat in the center of the canvas. The painting was featured in the artist’s first gallery exhibit in 1964. There was also the 1962 painting of Hitler in grey and black that leans heavily towards the pop art styles Richter had been studying. Not only was it a foundational work in the early development of the artist, but it also was an historically important piece. Following the war, it became a taboo in Germany to address the events of the recent past; by painting Hitler, Richter refused to be silent and insisted on confronting the war and the dark stain that remained on the country.
These were just two of the more than 60 works that the artist condemned, telling Der Spiegel that “cutting up the paintings was always an act of liberation.” Richter’s destructive impulses did have one safety lever, so to speak. Before sending the works under his merciless box-cutter or into the flames, Richter took photos of most of the doomed pieces. These images have remained largely hidden away, unseen in his personal archive. While it is clear that the artist’s actions were deliberate, he wasn’t wholly without regret. "Sometimes, when I see one of the photos, I think to myself: That's too bad; you could have let this one or that one survive,” Richter told Der Spiegel. A quick search of his official website-cum-catalogue raisonné turns up 89 works listed as “destroyed.” While some are early photorealistic paintings, many of these are the colorful abstract pieces he turned to in the 1970s and has continued to make ever since, toggling between the two styles.
Richter is hardly the first artist who has wiped out pieces of his own canon. He joins a long history of artists who haven’t been afraid to destroy where they saw fit.