This work will be included as no. 323a in the forthcoming Gerhard Richter catalogue raisonné, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archiv, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.
"Painting has nothing to do with thinking, because in painting thinking is painting. Thinking is language - record-keeping - and has to take place before and after. Einstein did not think when he was calculating: he calculated - producing the next equation in reaction to the one that went before - just as in painting one form is a response to another, and so on"
(G. Richter, quoted in H. U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1993, p. 13).
Constructed from a complex web of intermingled, seemingly endless and lusciously applied thick grey paint, Gerhard Richter's magnificent Portrait of Albert Einstein is one of four paintings he produced in 1972 on the eve of his groundbreaking commission for the Venice Biennale, the iconic 48 Portraits. This series of painterly monochrome portraits of forty eight of the twentieth century's greatest scientific and cultural minds was the work with which his reputation as one of the leading innovators in painting was sealed on the international stage. As the direct precursor to 48 Portraits, the rich painterly brushstrokes of Portrait of Albert Einstein's sets the tone for his continuing exploration of figuration and abstraction. This work is the culmination of a series of successive paintings in which the subjects (the scientists Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein) begin to dissolve from the recognisable images of traditional portraiture into a web of gestural brushstrokes which become increasingly abstract. As the final painting in this quartet, Portrait Albert Einstein takes this concept to its logical conclusion, as the formalities of portraiture are abandoned in favour of a potent gestural rendition of the inherent power within the human mind. Portrait Albert Einstein is also an important part of Richter's early Grau paintings, which are his direct response to the debate surrounding what it meant to be a painter in an age dominated by the mechanical reproduction of images. By abandoning the strict adherence to both colour and form, Richter had freed himself from the constraints of centuries of painterly tradition and carved a path for painting to be a pivotal part of contemporary art.
Traditionally the German Pavilion at the Biennale had been used to house work by a group of recognisable artists but in 1972 the Commissioner, Dieter Honisch, undertook the unusual decision to select Richter to solely represent his country. The neoclassical design of the pavilion allowed Richter to complete a project he'd been contemplating for a number of years. 48 Portraits is a promenade of what the artist described as "great figures" of Western modern culture. He whittled down an initial list of over 270 possible images to the final 48 which included men from the worlds of science, literature, philosophy and poetry. The central theme of this series was the homogeneity of the images that Richter selected. He chose the final images on the basis of their similar composition and used the same cropping throughout, reducing the space around each head to a monochromatic grey.
Although totally abstract in nature, this close cropping and use of grey from 48 Portraits can clearly be seen in Portrait Albert Einstein. But perhaps more importantly is the fact that the present work begins the process which culminates in his Venice masterworks -- that of the examination of identity and what makes an individual who they are. Richter was becoming increasingly interested in identity being the essence of a person's personality, rather than the physical features. In Portrait Albert Einstein the energy and rapid movement of the brushstrokes evoke a visual representation of Einstein's 'Photoelectric Effect' - the idea that electrons are emitted from matter as a consequence of their absorption of energy. Therefore, in this particular work, Richter has ensured that Einstein's ideas have become his identity, more than the physical features displayed in traditional portraiture. As Richter pointed out, "I was interested in the unspoken language of these paintings. Heads, although full of literature and philosophy, became completely unliterary. Literature is removed, the personalities become anonymous. That's what it's about for me "(G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2002, p. 197).
While his earlier photo-realist pictures only subtly disrupt the painted surface, this painting interrupts the image almost to the point of total abstraction. Yet some traces of formal portraiture do remain in the areas of darker tones that are concentrated in the upper and central parts of the canvas hinting at an almost ghostly apparition of a figure beneath. This technique appears to be the natural extension of the stylistic practice which Richter dubbed as Vermalung - the feathering procedure derived from the disruption of the clarity in his blurred-photo paintings. The technique used in Portrait Albert Einstein takes this process to its logical conclusion with the fiercely gestural movements giving the impression of intentionally eradicating the subject. As the artist himself noted, "All that interests me is the grey areas, the passages and tonal sequences, the pictorial spaces, overlaps and interlockings. If I had any way of abandoning the objects as the bearer of this structure, I would immediately start painting abstracts" ("Notes 1964-1965" cited in Ibid, p. 37). SJ