File Note 113: Daniel Richter - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Katharina Dohm



Lonely Old Slogans Images References Biography Credits

Lonely Old Slogans

Welcome to the swirling world of Daniel Richter! Located in the space between abstract and figurative painting, where colours, elements, and motifs are laid on top of each other, layer upon layer, where it seethes menacingly over here and flashes brightly over there, and where the titles of the paintings only seem to give information about the themes depicted within. The paintings exhibited here offer an insight into the varied and contradictory work of a painter for whom nothing is as suspicious as routine. From the 1990s until today, the works testify to the act of painting as the only method and opportunity to critically explore painting anew, again and again, to test it, to wrangle with it, to address it. How much colour, how many forms, how much chaos, how much reduction, how many references, how much wit, how much sarcasm, how much history can one picture hold? Painting against conforming to convention, painting based on challenge. Above all it is always about, and remains about, painting.

Daniel Richter’s artistic career began in Hamburg in the 1990s, when he moved from the left-wing punk and squatting scene to the solitude of the studio, where he studied under Werner Büttner and assisted Albert Oehlen. The paintings of his first creative period are a reaction to what you weren’t allowed to do back then: to fill a picture completely. Pictures emerged from his so called abstract phase such as Havanna (1997) or Europa – Immer Ärger mit den Sogenannten (1999), which fascinate due to the almost unending number of elements, forms and colours. The motto seems to be horror vacui 1 in abundance rather than less is more. Richter calls it ‘pure materialism’. Colours in all their physical states enter in and run free: translucent, transparent, wet, opaque, rich, deep, full, one on top of the other. Richter always maintains control over the seemingly arbitrary pulsing chaos of the different elements, which follow a careful composition. Then, as now, the titles offer only a superficial way of interpreting – if they offer one at all – and not a solution to the puzzle. Taking in the opulence of this excess, admiring the variation of colours, being open to painting, and taking everything in – that is the challenge for the viewer. 

At the end of the 1990s, figures crept into Richter’s pictorial worlds, and the turning point came in the new millennium: from abstract and formal to figurative and narrative. The pictures often deal with topical political dilemmas and point out the failure of social utopias. In the predominantly large-format scenes such as Tuanus (2000), the image space opens up like a theatre stage. The figures performing within – a violent scene of men in the Taunusanlage green space of Frankfurt am Main – are often only portrayed as silhouettes; as if seen through a night vision camera, they seem bodiless. In the 1980s and 1990s drug consumption was rife in Frankfurt, and was reduced by robust police intervention, repression and the expulsion of the addicts around the drug clinics in the neighbourhood surrounding the train station, which did not improve the addicts’ living conditions. Although Richter draws on topical, mass media sources to produce his pictures, they do not illustrate events, and although they do not provide a direct commentary, they do adopt a stance. Richter manages to split themes and problems down to their core, so that Tarifa (2001) is as current today as it was sixteen years ago. Critics state that with these works, Richter has given new life to history painting. However, the pictures do not facilitate any convincing interpretation, and often even lead the viewer astray. We must fill in what we have seen with our own knowledge of and ideas about politics, history, and science. Phienox (2000), for example, is not based on photos of overjoyed East- and West-Berliners on and beside the Berlin Wall, celebrating the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, but on pictures of American embassy workers fleeing in panic in Nairobi in 1998. Richter uncouples the underlying archive material from its context, and remixes it into something new, through which the legibility of codes and cyphers becomes difficult or impossible.

With no excess of colour or form, or depth of image space, the break from the overriding themes of multiplicity and narration is evident in Lonely Old Slogan (2006). The hopelessness of the window without a view and the virtually monochrome black wall simultaneously underline the half-life of the once rebellious slogan ‘Fuck the Police’ on the protagonist’s back. We encounter another figure from behind in A Flower in Flames (2012): he seems tiny, outfitted with a turban and machine gun before an imposing and vivid mountain landscape, calling to mind the famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich. This is not a depiction of a Romantic interrogation of the relationship between man and nature, but rather it is about pushing artistic possibility further. Through the figure of the soldier, Richter once again evokes a fallen male world, that of the heroic male fantasy, such as the Marlboro man. The man in Halber Akt (2013) seems to be in harmony with nature yet is just as unheroic: he appears as a masturbating figure with his back turned. Whilst the treatment of colour around the treetops still exhibits Richter’s typical shimmering and shining effect, a flatter and richer way of painting than before begins to reveal itself. Whereas the protagonists in his pictures directly challenge and oppose the viewer, here one becomes a voyeur of an intimate and possibly embarrassing moment – ‘Please don’t turn around!’ This small-scale painting seems to be an homage to Werner Büttner’s Selbstbildnis im Kino, onanierend (1980) which marked a turning point in Richter’s life, and would make a pivotal contribution to his own artistic career. Richter has stated: 

It made it immediately clear to me that art could have had more to do with method, attitude and a readiness to make a fool out of oneself, than with beautifying, expertise and subjectivity. Less than ten years later, I began to study under Werner Büttner (…) 2 

Whether abstract or figurative, in all of Richter’s pictures, the themes of power, sex and violence are omnipresent. This is also true of his most recent phase of work, in which self-restraint and self-imposed limitations are employed as an artistic strategy: for example, painting without a brush, so as to avoid falling into old patterns of movement. Horizontal colour gradients from blue to green and from yellow to red also bring about their own chromatic disintegration, like a neutralisation of colour. On the dull, almost two dimensional background, brightly coloured set pieces of bodies romp around. Once again the paintings are based on pre-existing photographs, this time on pornographic images from the internet. Intertwined forms, spread legs, buttocks, thighs, long arms and those grotesque masks: Asger, Bill und Mark and Francis, der Fröhliche (both 2015), the potential surnames Jorn, De Kooning, Rothko and Bacon refer to famous predecessors of recent art history, and ultimately, back to painting itself. Complex spaces emerge in the pictures, in which background and foreground are intertwined and jump back and forth. On top of these, disintegrating knots of bodies appear, which cannot be separated into unambiguous actions or distinct figures. Richter states: 

In my paintings you always see something which isn’t there. For me this is a promise, and also perhaps the reason why people paint, apart from the fact that they really just want to be left alone (…) 3


1 Fear of empty space 

2 Citation Daniel Richter in:
monopol magazin, 12/2013, p.73.

3 Daniel Richter im Gespräch mit Poul Erik Tøjner (Daniel Richter in conversation with Poul Erik Tøjner): Exhibition catalogue: Daniel Richter – Lonely Old Slogans, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art; Belvedere/21er Haus, Wien, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2016, p. 75.

Howard, Byron and Moore, Rich (dirs.). Zootopia, 2016

Kurosawa, Akira (dir.). Ran, 1985

Otomo, Katsuhiro (dir.). Akira, 1982

Simon, David (creator). The Wire: Seasons 1-5, 2002-08 

Eisler, Hanns. Ernste Gesänge, 1962

Herndon, Holly. Movement, 2012

Suicide. Suicide, 1977

The Pop Group. For How Much Longer Do we Tolerate Mass Murder?, 1980

Zukie, Tapper. M.P.L.A., 2014 

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle (France: Buchet-Chastel, 1967)

Glaser, Georg K. Geheimnis und Gewalt (Germany, 1990)

Jung, Franz. Der Weg Nach Unten (Germany: Edition Nautilus, 2000)

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006)

Schalamow, Warlam. Durch den Schnee, Erzählungen aus Kolyma (USA: 1966)

Solanas, Valerie. SCUM Manifesto (USA: self-published, 1967)

Valtin, Jan. Out of the Night, (Germany, 1941)

Barks, Carl. The Complete Donald Duck Disney Library 1947-57 (USA: Fantagraphic Books, 2011) 

Blain, Christophe. Isaac the Pirate: To Exotic Lands, (USA: NBM Publishing, 2004)

Jason. What I Did, (USA: Fantagraphic Books, 2010)


Daniel Richter (b.1962, Eutin, Germany) is based between Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna. From 2004–6 he was Professor of Painting at UdK Berlin. Since 2006, Richter has held a professorship at Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Richter’s works are held by museums including the Kunstmuseum, Bonn, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Germany. He has had solo exhibitions at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (2015), kestnergesellschaft, Hanover (2011), Museum der Moderne: Rupertinum, Salzburg (2010), Essl Museum of Contemporary Art, Klosterneuberg, Austria (2009), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg (2007), Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Spain (2007), Denver Art Museum, Colorado (2007), and Kunstmuseum Basel – Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Switzerland (2006). He has also participated in Kids at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin (2012), and Uwe Lausen, Daniel Richter at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin (2006).


Katharina Dohm is Curator at Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, where she recently curated an exhibition of Daniel Richter’s latest works, titled Hello I Love You, 2016. Essay translated from the German by Katie Hardy.

Supported by the Daniel Richter Exhibition Circle, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Regen Projects and VITSOE.