Gerhard Richter’s cycle October 18, 1977 consists of 15 paintings and was created between March and November 1988. The paintings are the result of his fascination with terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF), which had been active in Germany since the beginning of the 1970s. The group tried to draw attention to their grievances about capitalist society by means of armed robberies and bomb attacks. The leading members of the first generation of the group were arrested in 1972. Their terrorist activities, their unparalleled pursuit by the police force and their joint suicides provoked heated discussion in Germany for a long time.
The title of the series, October 18, 1977, refers to the date on which Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found dead in their cells in Stuttgart-Stammheim prison. More than ten years later, Gerhard Richter chose to approach the subject in his work, explaining his reasons as follows: “The deaths of the terrorists, and the related events both before and after, stand for a horror that distressed me and has haunted me as unfinished business ever since, despite all my efforts to suppress it”. (Notes for a press conference, November – December 1988 in: Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p. 202) The unveiling of the paintings in 1989 caused a stir that shows that the matter was not resolved in the eyes of the German general public either.
The exhibition, entitled October 18, 1977 and held at Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany, presented the paintings for the first time to the public. Following this exhibition the cycle was shown in different exhibitions worldwide for two years. After being on a ten-year loan to the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main the pictures were sold to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1995, where they have been on display since 2000.
The paintings were created in different formats, but the consistent reduction to tones of grey underlines their conception as a series. The grisaille palette refers also to newspapers of that time, which were mostly printed in black and white. All paintings except Youth Portrait [CR: 672-1] are based on documentary photographs, including press photographs and pictures taken by the police. Richter’s examination of the photographs, which he took from newspaper archives, is reflected in his compendium Atlas [Sheets: 470–479] and in a separate study album. In addition to the actual source photographs, he collected more than 100 pictures related to the RAF in these two albums.
By using photographic source material and his painterly modification of these sources, Richter was revisiting a method that had dominated his early works. After choosing a section of the photograph, he depicts the subjects with accuracy but also using his discretion. Following this he blurs the imagery using a variety of techniques, thereby creating paintings that are reminiscent of out-of-focus black-and-white photographs.
Due to the extensive and continued presence of the RAF in the media it can be assumed that the audience who saw the works around the time they were created would easily have made a connection between Richter’s paintings and the activities of the RAF – despite the blurred imagery and neutral titles. As with this series of work, the artist often refers to images that have entered the collective memory, ensuring a renewed remembrance of past events and inviting new perspectives on them.