Eleanor Callahan, whose ever-changing image became a sensitively nuanced chapter of photography history — composed of pictures taken over more than 50 years by her husband, Harry Callahan — died Tuesday in an Atlanta hospice. She was 95.
The cause was cancer, said her daughter, Barbara Callahan.
The couple met on a blind date in 1933, when Eleanor was a secretary at Chrysler Motors in Detroit and Harry was a clerk at the firm. They were married three years later, forging a remarkably close relationship that lasted until Harry’s death in 1999 and produced hundreds of imaginatively composed black-and-white portraits.
Often portrayed in the nude, Eleanor is sometimes the central event of a striking picture, filling the frame with her ample contours or rising in Lake Michigan with her eyes closed and her long, dark hair sweeping through the water. In other memorable photographs, she is a tiny but powerful feminine force whose presence fills a landscape or an empty room.
Harry Callahan is known for merging pure photography with experimental techniques in a distinctively personal mode of expression. And none of his work is more personal than the portraits of his life partner and constant muse.
"Eleanor went beyond being Harry’s companion, wife and the mother of his child," said Stephen White, a longtime photography dealer who lives in Los Angeles. "She was an additional f-stop on his lens. Through her, he saw form and structure more clearly, both in nature and in the world. She was present in his photographs even when she wasn’t in them. Eleanor was Harry Callahan’s collaborator, for she rested inside his psyche."
Eleanor Knapp was born June 13, 1916, in Royal Oak, Mich. She chose a secretarial career rather than going to college and continued to work as the Callahans moved to Chicago and Providence, R.I., where Harry taught for nearly 20 years at the Rhode Island School of Design. As a young man, he had left Chrysler to study engineering at Michigan State University but dropped out and returned to Chrysler, joining the company’s camera club.
Essentially a self-taught photographer, he said his interest was sparked by a movie camera owned by one of Eleanor’s relatives. Harry considered buying one of his own, but chose a still camera instead and began photographing in 1938. He often credited Ansel Adams with encouraging him to be an artist and teaching him that it wasn’t necessary to travel far and wide to find inspiring subject matter.
In 1980, when Callahan and his wife visited Los Angeles to help launch Light, a photography gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, he told a Times writer: "I just love to photograph. I get up in the morning and I know that’s what I want to do. Why shouldn’t a photographer be like any other workman? Why should he sit around and wait until the sun hits an object in a certain way?"
And why should he search for other models when his wife was willing and close at hand? He began photographing Eleanor in 1941 and gained an additional subject in 1950, when their daughter was born.
Through the years, Harry Callahan had little to say about his photographs. Eleanor said even less. But she was in the public eye in 2007, when curator Julian Cox organized "Harry Callahan: Eleanor," an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. On that occasion, she told an interviewer that she never refused her husband’s requests to pose because of her trust in his vision and love of his work.
In 1996, when a retrospective of Harry Callahan’s work was presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Eleanor was quoted in the Washington Post as saying she "didn’t mind" being constantly on call for photo sessions.
"Heavens to Betsy," she said in the newspaper, "I was used to it by then. He’d photograph me while I was sleeping. Or he’d just sneak up on me. I never protested. Photography was as much a part of our lives as getting up in the morning. I wasn’t worried about the pictures. I never had any thought that they would be anything but nice. Harry was so intense in his desire to be a photographer, and I thought that was just great."
Besides her daughter, Callahan is survived by two grandchildren.
"When Damien Hirst was looking though his archive recently, in preparation for his forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern, he came across some film footage of an interview he did with David Bowie in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996. "I’m sitting on a big ashtray talking bollocks," says Hirst, laughing. "At one point, Bowie says, ’So what about a big Tate gallery show, then?’ And I say, ’No way. Museums are for dead artists. I’d never show my work in the Tate. You’d never get me in that place.’"
He grins ruefully and shakes his head. "I was watching it and thinking, ’Jesus Christ, how things change.’ Suddenly, I’m 46 and I’m having what they call a mid-career retrospective. It doesn’t seem right somehow."
We are seated on a sofa beneath a big blue Francis Bacon in an expansive first-floor room in Science Ltd, Hirst’s central London HQ. It is a vast building on several storeys, and it contains more contemporary art than many medium-sized galleries. There are pieces by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and, of course, several spin and spot paintings, and steel and glass medicine cabinets by the man himself. Hirst’s Prada loafers are on the floor in front of us, but his signature tinted glasses are nowhere to be seen. He looks stockier than the last time I saw him, just over two years ago, and a bit quieter, more reflective. "It’s mortality, mate," he says. "My eldest boy, Connor, is 16. A few of my friends have died. I’m getting older. I’m not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more."
But you’re only 46, I say; it’s not as if the reaper has you in his sights. "I know, I know, but it’s more that realisation that you’re not young any more. I’ve always thought, ’I don’t want to look back. Ever.’ I think I was obsessed with the new. That’s changed."
A mid-career retrospective will do that, I say, teasingly. "Maybe," he says. "But I think it’s more that when you’re young, you’re invincible, you’re immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you’re inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It’s fixed. You can’t change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest."
The exhibition in question, simply entitled Damien Hirst, will "be a map of my life as an artist, not a greatest hits". It will include most of the greatest hits, though, as well as some not so well-known early work. "There’s the painted boxes and boards that I put in Freeze [the groundbreaking show Hirst curated in 1988], from when I wanted to be the new Kurt Schwitters. And there’s stuff from my student days at Goldsmiths – gloss-painted frying pans I hung on the wall. Embarrassing stuff like that."
It was Nick Serota, director of Tate, who also insisted that Hirst show the early work, as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. "The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They’re all in there, for better or worse," says Hirst. He then relates an anecdote that illustrates both his cavalier attitude to his work and the weight the work carries. It concerns an early spot painting, executed by Hirst himself, rather than (as is the case with the 1,500-strong series that followed) one of his production team.
"I showed Nick a photo of it and he wanted it in the show. It’s all drips and splats. Terrible, really. When I moved down to Devon, I stuck it outside behind a barn. Millicent [Wilner] from Gagosian came down to visit and she was freaking out: ’Why have you put it there? In the rain! Jesus Christ, Damien!’ It was like gold because it was me, but, really, it’s shit."
Is he happy it’s in the show, now? "I am, yes. It tells part of the story of my last 25 years as an artist. It’s important on that level. It says that I didn’t just arrive on the planet going ’Fuck you’ to everybody, which is what a lot of people seem to think."
Damien Hirst looks back. <http://tinyurl.com/79umydx>
The "fuck you" work is there in full force, too, though. There’s the famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled with typical Hirstian extravagance The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and described in the catalogue as "one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century art". There’s Mother and Child Divided (1993), a bisected cow and calf suspended in four tanks, and the mythical bestiary that is the collection Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), which includes a zebra, a unicorn and a golden calf.
There are pristine steel and glass cabinets full of neatly arranged pills, and evil-looking black paintings made of thousands of flies congealed in paint. There are spin paintings with and without human skulls at their centre, and spot paintings that move between the vibrant and the purely ambient. There are more flies, live ones, hatched from maggots and feeding off a severed cow’s head in a vitrine, and butterflies, pinned and painted and pressed on canvas, and a single white dove suspended in mid-flight above a human skull. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane; all the big Hirstian statements that have appalled some critics with their supposed obviousness, but have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.
Outside Tate Modern will stand Hymn (1999), Hirst’s monumental take on a child’s educational figure, complete with exposed stomach organs. Inside, in the massive Turbine Hall, flanked by security guards, will sit a relatively tiny piece entitled For the Love of God (2007), the most expensive work of art ever created in terms of its materials: a human skull cast in platinum and encased in diamonds. A modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.
"Putting the show together," says Hirst, "was like a big 180-degree turn for me. I’m looking back at all this work and trying to make sense of it. Some of it is great, and some of it is unrealised and didn’t make it in there, and some of it is just shit. It’s 25 bloody years of work and, of course, I’m proud of it, proud that I put the effort in, but there’s also one part of me going, ’How did that happen?’"
How, indeed? It is a question that exercises the minds of his many detractors in the art world: how did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet? (In the Sunday Times Rich List of 2010, Hirst’s wealth was estimated at £215m.) The answer is long and complex, and has much to do with the radical shifts in culture that have occurred over the past 25 years or so, both in Britain and the world: the unstoppable rise of art as commodity and the successful artist as a brand; the ascendancy of a post-Thatcher generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who set out, unapologetically, to make shock-art that also made money; the attendant rise of uber-dealers such as Jay Jopling in London and Larry Gagosian in New York; and the birth of a new kind of gallery culture, in which the blockbuster show rules and merchandising is a lucrative sideline.
At the centre of this ultra-commodified art world stands Damien Hirst, art superstar: the richest, loudest, biggest YBA of all. Except that, no longer young, he seems – at the very moment when his canonisation by the art establishment is complete – to be in a long period of transition. When I last spoke to him, in September 2009, in his vast studio near Stroud, Gloucestershire, it was exactly a year after the astounding success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, his record-breaking Sotheby’s auction of 2008. Back then, just before the world markets tumbled, Hirst made headlines by bypassing his dealers, Jopling and Gagosian, altogether, and taking more than £111m in sales in two days of often-frenzied bidding. Right on the cusp of the recession, the Sotheby’s auction was a pivotal moment for Hirst – a grand farewell, he told me, to the "big work" he had been making for years. He also told me then that conceptualism was "a total dead end" and said: "You spend 20 years celebrating your immortality, and then you realise that’s not what it’s about."
Since then, he has been relatively quiet on the creative (if not the commercial) front, working mainly on his own paintings: that is, canvases on which he, and he alone, applies the paint. Many of them, including a series made after the suicide of his friend Angus Fairhurst in March 2008, were completed in a room in Claridge’s that his good friend Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the hotel) loaned him rent-free, in return for some paintings that now decorate the Connaught, another of McKillen’s London hotels. An exhibition of that work, No Love Lost, opened at the Wallace Collection in London in October 2009 to uniformly murderous reviews, the late art critic Tom Lubbock comparing Hirst to "a not very promising first-year art student".
Undaunted, Hirst has continued to paint, and when I travelled down to his country home in deepest Devon a few weeks ago, he showed me briefly around his garden shed, where a paint-splattered stuffed bear stood sentinel over a group of partially completed canvases, featuring brightly coloured parrots in lush landscapes and a single big painting of a human head in a wash of what you might call Bacon blue. A few stuffed parrots stood on perches in the centre of the cluttered room, bright yellow and green, as if staring at their painted selves. "When all else fails," Hirst quipped, "get yourself a few dead parrots." It all seemed a long way from a giant blue shark in a tank of formaldehyde. "I’ve spent a long time avoiding painting and dealing with it from a distance," he said. "But as I get older I’m more comfortable with it."
Damien Hirst, circa 1993. <http://tinyurl.com/7ddx4pk>
The house in Devon, where Hirst currently lives with his wife, Maia Norman, and their three children, is one of several properties he owns. He also has a stately home, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, that will one day house a collection of his own work. Near Stroud, he has another house with a vast studio attached, where, not that long ago, many of his 150-strong team of assistants laboured over his serial works: the spot paintings, spin paintings, cabinets and vitrines. He has a houseboat in Chelsea, a house in Thailand, where he spent Christmas, and another in Mexico, although he hasn’t been there for a while because "it’s a bit wild west out there at the moment".
In London, as well as Science, his organisational hub, he also owns a big chunk of Newport Street in Lambeth, which is currently being turned into a new gallery that will open in 2014 and house his extensive collection of contemporary art by the likes of Bacon, Koons, Murakami, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and even Banksy – "We do these collaborations with my spots. I got one from him recently and he’d written all over it in big black letters: Sorry, The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out of Stock."
Over lunch in Hirst’s quayside restaurant in Ilfracombe, beneath a pristine glass cabinet full of pills, I ask him if it was always his motivation to be the biggest, the most successful? "I always wanted to be bigger, but not biggest. Even as a kid in drawing class, I had real ambition. I wanted to be the best in the class but there was always some other feller who was better; so I thought, ’It can’t be about being the best, it has to be about the drawing itself, what you do with it.’ That’s kind of stuck with me. Being best is a false goal, you have to measure success on your own terms."
With Damien Hirst, though, it aways seems to come down to three things: art, ambition and money, though not necessarily in that order. For that reason, as curator Ann Gallagher asserts in her catalogue introduction to the Tate Modern show: "Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times." What that says about us – and about Hirst – is a matter of some debate. Writing recently in the New Yorker on the simultaneous exhibition of all Hirst’s 1,500 signature spot paintings in all 11 Gagosian galleries dotted around the globe, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Hirst will go down in history as a particularly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort."
Schjeldahl’s critical hauteur is not untypical. The bigger Hirst has become, the more he has become an object of scorn to some serious art critics, a symptom of all that is wrong with contemporary art – and the rampant, market-led capitalism that drives it – as well as an easy target for the flak directed at conceptual art in general. "His work," writes Gallagher, measuredly, "is characterised by its directness as well as its ambition; it is both deadpan and affecting, and it provokes awe and outrage in equal measure."
That, one senses, is exactly how Hirst – mellower these days, but still a northern prole with attitude to burn – likes it. Is there a little part of him that still rejoices in the notion that he is, at heart, a working-class lad who is somehow sticking it to the toffs of the art world? "All of me, I’d say," he replies, cackling. "I mean, I don’t fit, do I? I can play the game, but I don’t really fit. But you get older and you realise that rebellion doesn’t really matter to the market. I kind of learned that early on and I’ve never forgotten it." How early on? "Well, I remember in about 1989, when I was still an outsider and all my mates were having shows and I wasn’t, and it really bugged me. As I was making the fly piece, I was thinking: ’I’m gonna show you. I’m gonna kill you with this one, knock you down dead, and change the world.’ And I showed it to a few galleries and they all just turned round and went ’Marvellous, darling.’ It didn’t have the effect I wanted. It had the opposite effect. I was gutted, in a way."
As a young teenager, Damien Hirst wanted most of all to be a punk, but, as he now puts it, "I was just too young and not angry enough." He remembers his mother melting his one Sex Pistols record to fashion it into a plant holder, and he remembers sneaking out, aged 12 or 13, with his "punk clothes" hidden in a bag, then changing into them when he was out of sight of his house. "I think that attitude crept into my art somehow. I was always looking for ways to sneak stuff into the art world and make it explode in their faces. I was an infiltrator."
Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was a handful for his mother, Mary Brennan, who worked in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. His punk phase came just after the man he thought was his father walked out on the family when Hirst was 12. He also went through a brief shoplifting phase – he was arrested twice – before he was finally accepted on his second application to study an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds.
As a teenager, he made regular visits to Leeds University’s Anatomy Museum to practise drawing, and it was there he found inspiration for his first piece of shock art: a photograph mounted on a steel frame called With Dead Head, first exhibited in 1991, in which his 16-year-old self poses, grinning, beside the severed head of a middle-aged man which sits on a mortuary table. It set the scene, if not the tone, for much of what was to follow.
Hirst moved to London in the mid-1980s, and for a time worked on building sites, before being accepted to Goldsmiths in 1986. There, under the tutelage of the artist Michael Craig-Martin, he realised that for the time being, at least, painting was over and that, in contemporary art, the idea was the be all and end all.
"When I arrived there, I was this angry young painter looking at all the conceptual work being made there and dismissing it as pure crap," he says, laughing. "But I got seduced by it. Initially, I was finding pieces of wood, banging them together, and slapping the paint on. It was Rauschenberg, de Kooning and a bit of Schwitters. It had been done to death and they told me so. I went back up to Leeds and I thought, ’OK, I’ve got to deal with the world I live in – advertising, TV, media. I need to communicate the here and now.’ I realised that you couldn’t use the tools of yesterday to communicate today’s world. Basically, that was the big light that went on in my head."
The rest is art history, though it took a while to be made. You could even say that Hirst the entrepreneur arrived in the public eye before Hirst the artist, when he curated Freeze, a three-part group show of his contemporaries, including Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw. It was held in a disused warehouse in London’s Docklands in the summer of 1988. The space – and the ambition – was influenced by Charles Saatchi’s big gallery in Boundary Road in north London, which opened in the mid-1980s, and initially showed work by pioneering American conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, both of whom influenced Hirst.
Despite being a student show, Freeze became the most talked-about art event of the year in London, attracting the attention of both Saatchi and Serota. "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated," Craig-Martin said later, "whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work."
By the time he left Goldsmiths, Hirst was already making spot paintings and medicine cabinets, both in highly formalised series, and made with the help of a small team of assistants. In 1991, he had his first solo show, In and Out of Love, in a disused shop in central London. His creative imagination had taken another leap. Visitors entered a room in which live butterflies fluttered around, having hatched from canvases embedded with pupae. In another room, dead butterflies were arranged on white canvases placed around a white table with four overflowing ashtrays. All the Hirstian themes were already in place: life and death, beauty and horror, as well as the sense of spectacle that would become the defining aspect of his work.
At a Serpentine gallery show that same year, Hirst met Jay Jopling, who would soon become his dealer. Things moved even faster after that. For a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hirst referred in the catalogue to a work in progress that had been commissioned by Charles Saatchi. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Living Person, it comprised a 14ft-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. It did not appear in the Saatchi Gallery until 1992, but when it did, it radically changed the world of contemporary art – and the course of Damien Hirst’s life.
Having been bought by Saatchi for £50,000, the shark in the formaldehyde-filled vitrine became an icon of contemporary art of the 1990s and perhaps the defining work of what would come to be known as the YBA movement. ("£50,000 For Fish Without Chips" ran a headline in the Sun at the time.) In 2004, the work was sold to an American collector, Steven A Cohen, for a reputed $8m. In 2006, the original shark, having deteriorated, was replaced at Hirst’s insistence by a new formaldehyde-injected one, which was then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is that shark that visitors to the Tate Modern show will see. (Both Hirst and Cohen seem unfazed by the big art-historical question of whether a replacement can ever have the import of the original art work. Only time will answer that one.)
"It’s what Jeff Koons once referred to as a high-maintenance piece of art," says Hirst, when I ask him about the practicalities of owning a shark in a tank. "The formaldehyde works are guaranteed for 200 years. I would like it to always look as fresh as the day I made it, so part of the contract is: if the glass breaks, we mend it; if the tank gets dirty, we clean it; if the shark rots, we find you a new shark." At 22 tons, it must be a bugger to transport, though? "Not really. The tank and the shark travel separately. Then you clean it and set it up, add the formaldehyde. Basically," he says, without irony, "it’s just a big aquarium with a dead fish in it."
Since the shark first swam into the public consciousness in 1992, it has, as Hirst once admitted to me, "been hard to see the art for the dollar signs". His astonishing earning power came to a head with the Sotheby’s auction in September 2008, when total sales were 10 times higher than the previous record for work by a single artist. By then, he already held the record for the most money paid in auction for a single work of art by a living European artist, the emir of Qatar having paid £9m the previous year for Lullaby Spring, a steel cabinet containing 6,136 neatly arranged pills.
"Money is massive," says Hirst, when I remind him of the above quote. "I don’t think it should ever be the goal, but I had no money as a kid and so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest. I used to argue with Angus [Fairhurst] and Sarah [Lucas] about that all the time when we were starting out and struggling. They’d say: ’You’re obsessed’ and I’d be like, ’It’s important.’ See, if you don’t care about it, often you don’t deal with it, then it screws you. I do believe art is more powerful than money, though. I still believe that. And if I ever find out money’s more important, I’ll knock it on the head."
For all that, Damien Hirst has become for many the epitome of the artist as businessman, entrepreneur and global brand. It is quite a transformation, given that in the wild years of the 1990s, when the YBAs held their own in the drinking, tooting and necking pills stakes with Noel and Liam and the rest of the Britpop crew, Hirst was the loudest, drunkest and, some would say, most objectionable lad of the lot. His bills at the Groucho club, sent monthly to his home address, were legendary, as was his tendency to go out for a drink on a Friday night and get home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He has not touched a drink – nor popped a pill, nor snorted a line – in five years. Does he miss the good old, bad old days?
"Nah. I’ve done it, man," he says, shaking his head and reaching for a Diet Coke. "I had a beautiful 10 years and then, suddenly, it started to hurt. I couldn’t handle the hangovers: waking up in the sticky filth of the Colony Room on the floor; sweating my way though meetings at White Cube; going to meet Larry [Gagosian] on the Anadin, the Nurofen, the Berocca and the Vicks nasal spray, looking like an alcoholic tramp. It wasn’t good. I just woke up one day and thought: ’That’s it. It’s over.’ Haven’t touched a drop since."
We talk about Louise Bourgeois, whom Hirst visited before her death last year, and I mention her belief that happy people could not make great art. Is he happy? He laughs. "Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There’s no better feeling. It’s beauteous. But it’s always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas. I don’t believe it’s about God-given genius, but I do believe somehow in the magic of art even though I don’t want to. I believe in science. I want clear answers." He pauses for a moment. "I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It’s a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody’s gotta do it."
Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 9 Sep, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Observer readers can buy two tickets for the price of one: the offer is valid on full-price tickets only and must be booked before 4 April. Visit tate.org.uk and quote promotional code OBS241
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.
A visitor at the blockbuster retrospective ’Gerhard Richter: Panorama’ at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie; it will travel to Paris in June. <http://tinyurl.com/88hpywn>
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.
For his part, Mr. Richter seems a reluctant commodity. At a time when superstar artists typically have a different dealer for every continent, he funnels nearly all his new works through New York dealer Marian Goodman. Both are soft-spoken and rarely attend high-profile auctions. The pair has declined lucrative licensing deals and private commissions. For years, their combined efforts have helped his price levels retain an air of integrity. Ms. Goodman, speaking on behalf of the artist, who declined to be interviewed himself, said, "He has an honest market."
Mr. Richter has created more than 3,000 paintings, but nearly 40% of them (including ’Betty,’ pictured here) are in museum collections, which has prevented a market glut.<http://tinyurl.com/7zoc8hs>
Not everyone is ready to bet on Mr. Richter. Jose Mugrabi and David Nahmad, major dealers in Warhol and Picasso, respectively, said they don’t think Mr. Richter has enough heft to compete with the market presence of those modern masters. Mr. Mugrabi said Mr. Richter’s art is more fashionable now than it used to be, but not more important.
Trends in contemporary art, as in fashion, can also change quickly, so it’s unclear whether Mr. Richter’s prices will keep climbing or drop again over the long run. In the late 1980s, prices for Frank Stella’s geometric paintings rose quickly to nearly $4 million before reaching a plateau in 1989 that he hasn’t matched at auction since. Mr. Rothko’s abstract paintings also soared to $72.8 million during the market’s last peak in 2007, but nothing by him has sold for half as much in the past couple of years. Art adviser Nicolai Frahm says he’s counseling his collector clients to hold off seeking Mr. Richter’s works "until his prices equalize."
Russian industrialist Roman Abramovich is among the influential collectors who have helped to make Mr. Richter’s market. Mr. Abramovich paid $15.1 million for Mr. Richter’s 1990 ’Abstract Painting’ at Sotheby’s.<http://tinyurl.com/6voswl4>
Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, said he thinks such lofty comparisons to Picasso and Warhol will hold up, though. "Richter doesn’t want to be the next king, but he has taken painting farther than just about anyone else," he said.
Mr. Richter works out of a pair of pristine studios in Cologne, including one attached by a garden path to the home he shares with his third wife, Sabine, and their young son, Moritz. Mr. Richter suffered a stroke a few years ago, but he remains fit and moves easily, his face framed by a jaunty pair of translucent eyeglasses.
The son of a Dresden schoolteacher, Mr. Richter grew up in communist East Germany, steeped in the academic rigors of Soviet Realism. Some of his first jobs included painting murals of cheery workers for the state. In 1959, he saw Western contemporary art for the first time at an exhibition called Documenta in the German town of Kassel; afterward, he told friends he would have to rethink what he knew about art after seeing Jackson Pollock’s drippy splatters and Lucio Fontana’s punctured canvases.
Part of Mr. Richter’s appeal to collectors: He paints in a wide range of styles, from colorful abstracts to hazy portraits. His ’Sailors’ sold for $13.2 million at Sotheby’s. <http://tinyurl.com/759lrdw>
Two years later, he and his wife, Ema, enlisted a friend to sneak them by car into West Berlin so he could study art without political constraint. The couple moved to Düsseldorf, and by the end of the summer the Berlin Wall had gone up. He never saw his parents again.
Over the next decade, the artist grappled with occasional homesickness—and the legacy of his country’s role in the war—by painting portraits of his relatives that looked like black-and-white photographs, only hazy. The subjects included his "Aunt Marianne," who was exterminated by the Nazis because she was mentally ill, and his "Uncle Rudi," a Nazi soldier who died fighting in the war.
Rudolf Zwirner, one of the artist’s earliest dealers, was impressed when he saw the work in 1962; few German artists were addressing such disquieting topics. For years after the war, wealthy American collectors who were championing Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol considered German art "taboo," Mr. Zwirner said, so he and other dealers cultivated collectors for Mr. Richter nearby. Their prices rarely topped $1,000. "I sold Richters to my physician, my neighbors, my brother—anybody I could convince," he said. To this day, it’s not unusual for bourgeois families in the region to own dozens of works by the artist; one collector in Munich owns 70 works. By the time Mr. Richter was invited to represent Germany in the 1972 Venice Biennale, his pool of countrymen collectors was deep.
Mr. Richter’s 1982 ’Candle’ painting sold in October at Christie’s for $16.5 million. <http://tinyurl.com/7unw6wg>
In the years that followed, Mr. Richter churned through several different series—like those candles—which didn’t sell as well as the angst-ridden paintings of his German contemporaries like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz. But in the mid-1980s, he began making brightly colored abstracts, and collectors pounced. San Francisco collectors Donald and Doris Fisher, who founded the Gap retail chain, bought several of these works.
The real turning point for Mr. Richter came in 1995 when New York’s Museum of Modern Art paid $3 million for a suite of 15 grisaille paintings called "Oct. 18, 1977." The artist painted this cycle in 1988 as a response to the arrest, trial and grisly death in 1977 of a group of young German anarchists-turned-terrorists. Mr. Storr, the Yale dean who then served as the museum’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, began planning a major survey of Mr. Richter’s work for the museum.
As soon as word leaked about the museum show, Mr. Zwirner said his phone started ringing with American collectors seeking Richters. A year later, in 1996, Sotheby’s in London put a Richter on the cover of one of its sale catalogs. Back in Germany, longtime collectors started getting letters from auction houses: Did they care to sell a Richter?
MoMA’s long-awaited survey opened six years later, in 2001, and suddenly series that had seemed random when they debuted, like his "Candle" works, seemed relevant, said Sotheby’s specialist Cheyenne Westphal. Three months after the exhibit opened, the auction house sold his "Three Candles" for $5.3 million.
Mr. Richter with his longtime dealer, Marian Goodman <http://tinyurl.com/7lyb9wy>
Two years after that, a lawyer and collector based in Zurich named Joe Hage began gathering auction prices and exhibit details about the works in Mr. Richter’s oeuvre. He started a website, gerhard-richter.com, and began posting the results online.
For newer, Internet-savvy collectors, Mr. Hage’s site has proved popular because of all that its tallying has revealed. Mr. Richter has created 3,000 paintings—fewer than Warhol’s 8,000 silk-screens but considerably more than Salvador Dalí’s 1,200 works. He’s also heavily traded, with more than 200 of his works turning up at auction every year, which provides buyers with a regular stream of price points to analyze. Museums own roughly 38% of his works, though, including half of his most coveted works, those large squeegee abstracts.
By 2006, an influx of newly wealthy collectors began competing hard for contemporary art, spiking values for dozens of artists including Mr. Richter. Sotheby’s began shipping its top Richters to Hong Kong so potential bidders there could see his works. In May 2006, a bidder at Berlin’s Villa Griesbach auction house paid $1 million for Mr. Richter’s 1971 portrait of "Mao." The following summer, the same painting came up for bid at Christie’s in London and sold for $2.5 million.
Then came the snowball: In February 2008, the artist’s eldest daughter, Betty, sold her 1983 "Candle" for $15.8 million, triple the high estimate, at Sotheby’s. Three months later, Mr. Abramovich dropped $15.1 million for Mr. Richter’s green-gray "Abstract Painting" from 1990. It was only priced to sell for up to $7 million. With that, collectors recalibrated Mr. Richter’s high bar to $15 million or more.
Mr. Richter’s 1997 ’Abstract Painting,’ which Lily Safra bought for $20.8 million at Sotheby’s. <http://tinyurl.com/7gqw3yt>
During the recession that followed, potential sellers of Mr. Richter’s masterworks largely sat on the sidelines, but by late 2010, as the market perked up again, a fresh set of collectors began embellishing their collections with Richters. That November, Sotheby’s got $13.2 million for his 1966 "Sailors," a work that spent years in the New Museum Weserburg in Bremen. The buyers were Houston hedge-fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura.
A pivotal sale four months ago sealed the deal. At Sotheby’s in New York, London collectors Marc and Victoria Sursock offered up eight Richter abstracts; all sold for well over their asking prices, including the abstract that went to Ms. Safra for $20.8 million. Last month in London, collectors came back for more: Christie’s got $15.5 million for a green Richter abstract, while Sotheby’s sold a creamy abstract to a former Zurich nightclub owner, Carl Hirschmann, for $4.8 million.
Mr. Richter has told friends he thinks his recent auction records are "absurd." But for his longtime collectors, they’re paying dividends.
A few years ago, as Berlin endocrinologist Thomas Olbricht was constructing a five-story museum to showcase his art collection, he realized he was running low on cash. So he sold a blue-orange Richter abstract. Mr. Olbricht had paid about $287,000 for it in 1996; Christie’s sold it for him in 2008 for $14.8 million.
Today, the museum, called the Me Collectors Room, rises from a narrow street in Berlin’s bustling Mitte neighborhood. "I still wish I’d been able to keep that painting," Mr. Olbricht said. "Today, it would be worth $20 million."
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