The present work is one of three paintings of Alfred Schmela, the impotant German dealer, that Gerhard Richter made in 1964. The first in this series shows six bust-length views of Schmela, seen en face. The second in the series is the present work; it is the largest of three, and the most tightly cropped image in the series. The third was made from the same photograph, but is smaller and shows more of Schmela's upper body and left arm.
The present work is among the earliest of Richter's early photo-based paintings, a technique he began exploring in 1962-1963. In rendering photographs as painting, Richter has consistently made two important stylistic changes. First, he emphasizes the luminosity of the photographs. Richter is fascinated by the play of light on objects and by capturing form through value or tone. He said, "The central problem in my painting is light" (G. Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 39); and he also said, "All that interests me is the gray areas, the interlockings" (ibid., p. 37). Second, Richter blurs and streaks the forms, abandoning the clarity of the photographic image in favor of something more diffuse and complex. He has said, "I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit" (ibid., p. 37).
Before the modern era, portraiture typically sought to create a stable, immutable and permanent image of a person that would last despite death and the passage of time; portraiture, moreover, was generally believed to be a form of moralized biography that represented the good of someone's character. But in the twentieth-century, portraiture generally departs from literal and faithful naturalism, often to a very great degree; and Richter argues that portraiture can never represent someone's nature, "A portrait must not express anything of the sitter's 'soul', essence or character. Nor must a painter 'see' a sitter in any specific, personal way; because a portrait can never come closer to the sitter than when it is a very good likeness. For this reason, among others, it is far better to paint a portrait from a photograph, because no can ever paint a specific person-only a painting that has nothing whatsoever in common with the sitter. In a portrait painted by me, the likeness to the model is apparent, unintentional and also entirely useless" (ibid., p. 57).
Alfred Schmela was perhaps the most significant German dealer of contemporary art in the 1960s (fig. 1). With extraordinary passion and flair, he almost single-handedly propelled the avant-garde forward, importing dozens of artists from France, Italy, America and elsewhere. Schmela organized the first one-man exhibitions in Germany of more than a dozen foreign artists, including Klein, Tpies, Fontana, Noland, Christo, Indiana, Morris and Tuttle. Schmela also had shows for an extremely wide range of important modern artists, including Dall, Picasso, Dubuffet, Schwitters and Mir. He sponsored the first one-man shows of several key German artists, including Heinz Mack and Hans Hacke. Schmela gave Richter his first one-man show in September 1964, the same year that Richter painted the present work.
That Schmela made such an extraordinary impact on the German avant-garde is all the more remarkable given the tiny dimensions of his first gallery in Dusseldorf. After nine years of operation, Schmela closed that space and moved to a bigger gallery at the end of 1966; the final exhibition was a week-long celebration, "Hommage an Schmela," between 7 and 15 December. Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo and Gerhard Richter were among the participants. On Sunday 11 December 1966, Konrad Fischer-Lueg organized an "aktion" in the Gallery, called "Kaffee und Kuchen." The present work--Richter's portrait of Schmela--was hung at the back of the Gallery for this occasion (fig. 2).
Paintings of dealers are a significant sub-category of modern portraiture, and Richter's portraits of Schmela have an important place in this genre.
Alfred Schmela with friends and associates, including Gerhard Richter, seated on the floor at the left edge.
The present work exhibited at Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf, during the "Kaffee und Kuchen" action, 11 December 1966.