Gerhard Richter ATLAS: Photographs, collages, and sketches

The ATLAS largely consists of photographs, collages, and sketches. A work of art in its own right as well as an important document, it is also the foundation of Gerhard Richter’s work in painting and so occupies an eminent place in his oeuvre.

In the early 1960s, Richter started keeping clipped imagery and photographs of motifs in drawers and portfolios. Starting in 1969, he categorized the material, selecting groups of photographs, reproductions, and sketches and pasting them onto cardboard backings. The framed plates were first shown in an exhibition in 1972.

The ATLAS is intended as a work in progress and has steadily grown since its first presentation. The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus acquired the ATLAS in 1996, when it encompassed 583 plates, a number that has now risen to 783. On occasion of the exhibition ATLAS MIKROMEGA, Gerhard Richter added 19 new plates.


Project 2011

Based on experience gained during inspections of the plates conducted at regular intervals and the observation that their state of preservation had gradually changed over the years, it emerged that reframing the entire ATLAS would be a sensible conservational measure. Opening the frames, which had been hermetically sealed, also created an unprecedented opportunity to take high-quality photographs showing views unobstructed by framing glass panes for documentation and publication purposes.

In consultation with Gerhard Richter, we designed new frames that replicate the appearance (shape and material) of the old frames but incorporate significant conservational improvements in the technical details.

The only visible change entailed by the new frames is the insertion of a spacer between the object and the glass, eliminating the immediate risk of photographic emulsions sticking to the glass. Avoiding squeezing the plates between the glass and the backing also significantly reduces the risk of physical tension building within the material that may produce curling. Additional changes were made to the structure of the back frame: unlike the original frame construction, the use of a protective backing made of archive-proof corrugated cardboard allows for slow and steady air exchange, preventing the formation of a microclimate that may damage the photographs. Integrated into the back frame is a mounting rail that considerably facilitates installing the works for display. The back construction is fastened to the molding frame by screws to allow for easy access to the objects when necessary.

All 783 plates were reframed between June and December 2011. The Lenbachhaus’s photography department concurrently photographed the unframed plates for publication and documentation purposes, and the restoration department produced a detailed record of the physical features and state of preservation of each plate.


Project 2013

For aesthetic and conservational reasons, a set of 60 plates was completely recreated at the request of and in consultation with Gerhard Richter. The photographs in these plates, which were made between 1969 and 1976, had faded severely due to various exogenous and endogenous factors (decomposition of the yellow and blue pigments produced a strong red cast), and the motifs were increasingly hard to read (severe loss of contrast in the pictures). To recreate the plates, authorized new prints were made in accordance with the artist’s instructions from the original negatives (held in Gerhard Richter’s studio). Where necessary and requested by Gerhard Richter, the negatives or positives underwent color correction.

Further reading: A. Zweite, Gerhard Richter: Atlas (Munich: Fred Jahn, 1989).