In the early 1980s, German artist Gerhard Richter painted 24 views of flickering white candles, and not a single one sold. When one of those “Candle” canvases came up at Christie’s in London this past fall, it sold for $16.5 million.
Few people can pinpoint the moment when an artist becomes iconic in the way of Pablo Picasso or Andy Warhol, but right now the art world is trying to anoint Mr. Richter. Last year, his works sold at auction for a total of $200 million, according to auction tracker Artnet—more than any other living artist and topping last year’s auction totals for Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko combined. At Mr. Richter’s gallery in New York, the waiting list for one of his new works, which can sell for $3 million apiece, is several dozen names long.
In November at Sotheby’s, London collector Lily Safra paid $20.8 million for Mr. Richter’s 1997 eggplant-colored “Abstract Painting,” an auction record for the artist. Other artists have sold individual works at higher prices—Jeff Koons, for example—but in terms of volume at auction, Mr. Richter currently tops the market.
The artist’s ascent is being driven by market demands as much as curatorial merit: Auction houses and museums, eager for new masters to canonize, are showcasing Mr. Richter’s works around the world at an ever-increasing clip. An influx of international collectors and dealers are also seizing the moment to buy or sell his pieces at a profit—including art-world tastemakers such as Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich, French luxury-goods executive Bernard Arnault, dealer Larry Gagosian, Taiwanese electronics mogul Pierre Chen and New York hedge-fund manager Steven Cohen.
Mr. Richter’s work is uniquely suited to the tastes of the current art market. Like Picasso, he paints in a number of different styles—from rainbow-hued abstracts to poignant family portraits—giving collectors plenty of choice. Like Warhol, he is prolific, which ensures a steady volume of his works in the marketplace—yet enough of his works are in museum collections that he has avoided a glut. And ever since the deaths last year of painters Cy Twombly and Lucian Freud, collectors searching for another senior statesman have started giving his work a closer look.
Collectors are paying a particular premium for Mr. Richter’s larger abstracts from the late 1980s, which have all the visual impact of a work by Francis Bacon or Mr. Rothko, artists whose prices spiked before the recession. These abstracts are also immediately identifiable as being Mr. Richter’s creations, making them easy status symbols. San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier says, “Collectors want an iconic work in a format that everyone recognizes. Monkey see, monkey do.”
Mr. Richter, 80 years old, isn’t a household name in the U.S. yet, but he’s revered in Europe. Born in Dresden, he fled the former East Germany months before the Berlin Wall went up. He has spent the past six decades experimenting with ways to refresh traditional painting categories like the still life. He’s best known for haunting family portraits that evoke smudged newspaper clippings—a wry response to Pop that won him a pre-eminent spot among Europe’s postwar painters. He also uses an oversized squeegee the size of a car bumper to create layered abstracts. That he flits between several painting styles, rather than sticking to one signature look, has always confounded some audiences, yet the toggling is actually his calling card, the painter as polymath.
A blockbuster retrospective, “Gerhard Richter: Panorama,” has been crisscrossing the art capitals of Europe, having just traveled from London’s Tate Modern to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, where it will show through May 13. So far, the show has drawn large crowds; it heads to Paris’s Centre Pompidou in June.
Further information: http://www.gerhard-richter.com/
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Gerhard Richter, Panorama
Sun 12 February – Sun 13 May 2012
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Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977 (1988)
Sun 12 February – Sun 13 May 2012