The Gerhard Richter Website Reveals All. Almost All.

Oh, why did I ever doubt you?
Last February, while holed up in the Snowpocalypse, I thought the hell out of the Serpentine Gallery’s catalogue for Richter’s 4900 Colours. The work consists of 25 enamel color squares arranged randomly on 196 5×5 aluminum laminate panels, and it relates very closely to the random, pixel-like stained glass window the artist created for the Cologne Cathedral in 2007, which was in turn related to an earlier color grid painting Richter did in the 1970s.
The frontispiece of the catalogue [above] shows the artist, nattily dressed, with brush and paint in hand, contemplating the final yellow square on a 25-square panel. Yet the text describes the actual production process for 4900 Colours, which involved random color placement determined by computer [the same program used to create the window], and mass production of enamel tiles, which were assembled and bonded to the aluminum substrate.
How to reconcile this apparent contradiction: Benjamin Buchloh praising the work’s industrial facture, while the making of photo captures The Touch of The Master’s Hand? And to complicate matters–or to solve the paradox–the grid on the painting Richter was photographed working on does not match any of the 196 panels in the piece.
The answer was right there on all along. Almost. A search for all paintings made in 2006 and 2007, around the time of the cathedral window and 4900 Colours, turns up ten paintings, all 2007, titled 25 Colours, which have identical dimensions and materials, and which appear to have identical colors, as the 196 panels in 4900 Colours.
Thanks to the artist’s catalogue-raisonne-as-you-go numbering system, we can see the order in which they were created, and their apparent relationships or context. The Cologne Cathedral window is actually listed under paintings as CR:900, and is followed by four 25 Colours works, CR:901-1 through 901-4. Then comes 4900 Colours, CR:902, and six more 25 Colours numbered–wait for it–CR: 902-29, -31, -37, -39, -49, and -50. Which sounds like a series of four works, plus a series of panels, 196 of which go together, and 6 of which become autonomous works.
But. The photo Richter’s painting up top doesn’t match any of these ten, either. And if sharing a CR number means anything about their production, then the six 902 paintings are made exactly like 4900 Colours: at an auto body shop. Are CR:901’s handpainted? Is the photo in the book of a reject, or a study, a 900.5 whose handpainted facture didn’t pass muster? I guess we still don’t know.
This chronological view, though, adds another dimension to the context of Richter’s process, and it ties together three major projects involving randomness: 4900 Colours, the Cathedral window, and a suite of six large abstract paintings named for John Cage. There are 25 more squeegee paintings in between the window and the Cage paintings, but they are listed under only two CR numbers: 898 and 899. If I understand my Richter process, that means he worked on them in two batches, which might have taken “weeks.”
I’d completely forgotten that the installation video for 4900 Colours reminded me of Cage’s incredible exhibition-as-performance, Rolywholyover.
But I remembered watching Rob Storr talk about the Cage Paintings, though he doesn’t project their relationship forward. Or sideways. Richter’s window was dedicated in 2007, but the design was unveiled, fabrication had begun, and fundraising had been completed in September 2006. Which means Richter was working on the window and the Cage Paintings concurrently.
Storr quotes Cage on how, whatever randomness exists in your process, what’s not “an accident is what you decide to keep.” Which is about as close an answer as I can get for what happened to that grid painting up top.
So did the need for window randomness lead Richter to Cage, or did Cage lead Richter to randomness? I guess I’ll have to start digging.