By the lights of many in the international art world, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke are the leading painters of our day, though it’s hard to find anyone who will declare them equally great. (I’m an exception.) Their careers are intertwined by biography and circumstance. Both are from the former East Germany: Polke, who is sixty-seven, left with his family when he was twelve; Richter, seventy-six, fled, after fitful success in state-run art programs, in 1961, just before the Wall went up. They met at the seminal Düsseldorf Art Academy and, in 1963, collaborated in a brief, trenchant movement that responded to American Pop art with painted imagery drawn from magazine and newspaper ads and photographs, family snapshots, cheap fabric designs, and other desultory sources, which Richter adapted with deadpan gravity and Polke with sardonic élan. A jokey photographic print by Richter, from 1967, shows them sharing a bed in Antwerp. (Their host for a show there had provided scanty accommodations.) They ascended to prominence in the early nineteen-eighties—stunning American art circles, which had been largely oblivious of creative doings in Germany—as twin masters who dramatically expanded the resources and resonances of painting, an art dismissed as moribund by most of that time’s avant-garde. Each has made visually glorious, conceptually seismic pictures. Both live and work in Cologne. But their differences are profound. Richter, reflective and deliberate, is a family man of temperate tastes and orderly habits. His studio is one of two elegant rectilinear buildings—the other is his house—in a large, walled, lushly gardened compound. Polke, restless and impulsive, is an unreconstructed bohemian, inhabiting cluttered expanses in a shabby industrial building.
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