After years of working in a strictly monochromatic palette, in 1966 Gerhard Richter dramatically turned to colour, seeking to orchestrate a vivid multiplicity of hues as beautifully and as unequivocally as possible (G. Richter, quoted in Hans-Ulrich Obrist, ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p. 141). The resulting Colour Chart series, his first sustained exploration of the role of colour in painting, proved to be one of the most seminal bodies of work in his career. Twelve Colours, one of the very first of his Colour Charts, brilliantly encapsulates the formal and conceptual themes of this series. Indeed, Richters Colour Charts foreshadow in many ways his engagement with pure, arresting combinations of colour in his renowned Abstract Pictures.
The format of the Colour Chart series was based on the type of paint sample cards familiar from hardware stores and interior design shops. Richter described having a moment of epiphany while looking at one such colour chart, realizing it looks like a painting. Its wonderful (G. Richter, quoted in Colour Chart: Reinventing Colour, 1950 to Today, New York, 2008, p. 90). Seizing on the colour chart as a ready-made abstract painting, Richter offered a witty Pop rejoinder to hallowed forms of abstraction, which have historically encoded idealistic world views. Richter described his Colour Charts as primarily a response to Pop and to Warhol above all, their deadpan grid format paying homage to Warhols dance-steps or colour-by numbers series. Although the cool, industrially-inflected appearance of Twelve Colours might seem to relate it to the new currents of Minimalist art, or to Ellsworth Kellys Colours for a Large Wall of the early 50s (which he claims not to have known at the time), Richters investigation of colour represents an independent and inventive, although highly complementary, exploration of the resonance of found colour and non-hierarchical compositional structures. Indeed, a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York investigated the widespread importance of standardized, industrially produced colour in international post-War art, a phenomenon in which works such as Twelve Colours play a pivotal role.
The Colour Charts were the product of an incredibly fertile creative stage in Richters career, when he was working closely alongside friends such as Sigmar Polke and Blinky Palermo, whom he met while attending art school in D,sseldorf. Together, they perused department stores and other shops in search of new, non-art, materials with which to experiment. Such shops were embodiments of the new post-war prosperity in West Germany, a far cry from East Germany, which Richter abandoned in 1961, shortly before the Berlin Wall was erected. The furnishings and supplies they offered for a broad middle-class audience the opportunity to transform its environment, customizing their surroundings and possessions in response to their own desires. While Richter found himself drawn to the paint samples available in such shops, Polke and Palermo chose to experiment with ready-made textiles. Polke used inexpensive printed Art Deco-style fabrics as basis for some of his paintings, and Palermo stitched together coloured bolts of fabric to create abstract fields of colour.
Turning to the cool, colourful geometrical arrangements of colours was in many ways a sharp departure from the black-and-white photo-based works that Richter had focused on in the early 60s. Yet like the photographic sources for his paintings, he treated the colour chart as a ready-made source. Richters underlying rationale for why he was drawn to photographs might equally apply to his interest in colour charts; as he stated, it was my wish to be neutral. I saw it as an opportunity. It was the opposite of ideology. And to be as objective as possible offered a legitimization for painting since you were being objective and doing what was necessary, enlightening, and so on (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter, Forty Years of Painting, New York, 2002, p. 298). Born in 1932, Richter lived through a succession of historical ruptures in Germany that were charged by the ideological extremes of fascism and communism. As an artist, he has pointedly refused to put stock in any single artistic style, movement or ideology, resulting in one of the most diverse and wide-ranging bodies of work in modern art. Richter proclaimed that his colour charts were explicitly intended as an assault on the falsity and religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phoney reverence. Devotional art all those squares Church handicrafts (G. Richter, quoted in The Daily Practice of Painting, p. 141). Utopian, symbolically-charged views of colour, including the influential theories that Joseph Albers famously expounded, stressing the relational and symbolic values of colour in his endless Homage to the Square paintings, was therefore summarily dismantled by Richters insistently objective, non-symbolic presentation of colour.
Although Richter played with the notion of readymade composition, the painting Twelve Colours is in fact rigorously composed. His preparatory sketches for his 1966 Colour Charts reveal his meticulous planning, whereby he chose specific colour combinations, and carefully removed the names of the colours as well as the paint manufacturers. In his later series of Colour Chart paintings, of 1973-74, Richter instead employed elements of chance, as well as studio assistants, to remove his own hand from their production. In welve Colours, the subtle traces of Richters brushwork are still visible in the shiny enamel paint.
The composition of Twelve Colours has a distinctly classical feel to it. Richter carefully balanced the blocks of highly saturated and shiny enamel pigment against the cool, white grid of exposed primed canvas. As Richter has claimed, The classical is what holds me together. It is that which gives me form. It is the order that I do not have to attack. It is something that tames my chaos or holds it together so that I can continue to exist. That was never a question for me. That is essential for life (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter, Forty Years of Painting, p. 299). This sense of classical structure holds the heterogeneous array of colours together in a dynamic equilibrium, evoking both randomness and order, and the notion of plurality above all. Indeed, the heterogeneity of hues in Twelve Colours can be seen as corresponding in a certain way with Richters own career as an artist, whereby he has continually investigated multiple, often contradictory, routes within the domain of painting.