Now 88, Richter is one of the world’s most important living artists. A 2019 list of the wealthiest Germans ranked him 230th (tied with over 30 others), with a fortune of €700 million. But back then, Gerd Richter (as he called himself at the time) was completely unknown in West Germany, despite some early successes in Dresden. These hard first months west—during which Richter designed and built carnival floats and Ema sewed children’s clothes to earn their keep—are the subject of a small exhibition mounted by the Gerhard Richter Archive at the Albertinum in Dresden.
The first work in Richter’s meticulously catalogued oeuvre, titled Table, dates from 1962. He destroyed most of the paintings produced before Table in a fire in the courtyard of the Düsseldorf Art Academy.
But five paintings that predate the catalogue were spared, and they are on display in Dresden. “I believe these are the only works from that era that survived,” said Dietmar Elger, head of the Gerhard Richter Archive. As a result, scant research has been conducted into this formative chapter of Richter’s career, he said.
These early works give glimpses, with the privilege of hindsight, of the artist Richter would later become—even though he changed course and started afresh after the ceremonial bonfire. They show him oscillating between abstract and figurative work, as he has done throughout his career, and a willingness to experiment. His obsession with fastidious documentation is revealed in painstakingly assembled pages of photos of recent works that he sent to friends and in a minutely detailed floor plan of his new apartment.