‘I don’t mistrust reality, of which I know next to nothing. I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed’ (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 60).
With its immaculate hyper-realist surface, interspersed with ghostly apertures of paint, Gerhard Richter’s Self-Portrait, Three Times, 22 January 1990 stems from his landmark series of over-painted photographs. Presenting multiple exposures fused together, this large-scale work depicts the artist in his studio in Cologne, seated among examples of his squeegee paintings. Richter’s silhouette is portrayed three times, at different periods of his life, as a spectral vision that progressively disappears in monochromatic translucency, culminating in an empty chair in the left corner of the work. Richter applies thick swathes of oil paint directly onto the print, as if miraculously extracted from the squeegee paintings in the background. The work is part of a series of eleven prints, examples of which are held in the Tate Modern, London, the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, the Sprengel Museum, Hannover and Museum Folkwang, Essen. Throughout the series, Richter progressively effaces the photographic image with paint, to the point of almost total obscurity. Since the 1960s, the relationship between painting and photography – between abstraction and figuration – has been the touchstone of Richter’s entire practice; here, it is applied directly to his own self-image.
Richter’s fascination with the medium of photography dates back to 1945, when he received a camera from his mother. He worked as an assistant in a photo laboratory a few years later, when, according to him, the huge quantities of photographs that passed through the developing bath every day may well have caused a lasting trauma. From then on, Richter devoted himself to interrogating the nature of reality and through its various systems of representation. In 1969, he created the Atlas, a compendium of images gleaned from magazines, found or taken himself, which he used as the starting point for his over-painted photographs. By blurring and overwriting the underlying image, Richter sought to question the perceived objectivity and truth-claims of photography. ‘I don’t mistrust reality, of which I know next to nothing’, Richter claimed. ‘I mistrust the picture of reality conveyed to us by our senses, which is imperfect and circumscribed’ (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 60). Deeply self-reflexive and tinged with poignancy, the present work bears witness to this statement.