One of the new Telstra CEO's favourite artists is a modern art star whose works are worth $60 milion

The Richter abstract, which belonged to Eric Clapton, sold in 2012 for £21.3 million. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

British-born Andrew Penn, a high school drop out who moved to Australia two decades ago and will now fill David Thodey’s boots as Telstra CEO in May, likes to relax by painting, but confessed “I paint, very badly, oils and acrylics”.

And like all budding artists, Telstra’s current CFO looks to the greats for inspiration, citing JMW Turner, the great English Romantic landscape painter, as one of his favourites.

But the other artist he’s chosen, Gerhard Richter, offers a more interesting psychological insight into the incoming CEO’s head.

Gerhard Richter, 83, is the hottest living artist in the world today. Three of his paintings, sold in the last three years, have set world record prices for a living artist. The latest record came earlier this month at Sotheby’s in London, when a decorative abstract, Abstraktes Bild (599) sold for £30.4 million ($AU60.1 million) to an anonymous American buyer.

The 1986 work, bought in May 1999 for $607,000, was estimated at £14–20 million.

Another abstract, bought by guitarist Eric Clapton for £2 million in 2001, set an earlier record when it sold 11 years later for £21.3 million.

Ego and money are now fighting over paintings that mean nothing, made with a home-made squeegee and layers of paint, rubbed and scraped to reveal patterns that at best, offer a neutral beauty.

In trying to explain their appeal, The Telegraph’s art market editor, Georgina Adam said:

Richter’s late, abstract works are particularly sought after because of their broad appeal: colourful abstracts which can fit into any interior, cannot offend anyone (unlike some of his tougher earlier works which deal with death or politics) and are recognizable trophies which give the owner immense bragging rights.

Everyone wants one, but don’t be afraid of missing out, because over the past three decades, Richter has painted thousands of abstract works.

Are these the works Penn likes? Or is he drawn more towards Richter’s early works – the photo realism, his provocative female nudes that leave little to the imagination, his landscapes from the 1960s, the over-painted photos or perhaps his more political works, exploring the leftist terrorist group Red Army Faction and Baader-Meinhof? For collectors on a budget, there’s always Richter’s Pop Art-esque signed, limited edition prints of the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Mao.

Some critics have pondered whether Richter is a parodist with his abstracts. Is he just taking the mickey? He is, after all, the atheist who said, “Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world,” then in 2007, designed an abstract stained glass window for Cologne Cathedral. Cologne’s Archbishop boycotted its unveiling saying he preferred something more religious.

When asked about the prices his works fetch at auction, the artist responded, “It’s just as absurd as the banking crisis. It’s impossible to understand and it’s daft!” And when a retrospective of his work was held at the Tate Modern 2011 and he was quizzed about the changing role of the artist Richter responded, “It’s more entertainment now. We entertain people.”

There’s no doubt Gerhard Richter is one of the most important painters of the 20th Century, but he has some important advice for would-be artists, saying that painting should lead to obsession and the belief that “one might change human beings through painting”.

“If one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is idiocy,” Richter said.

NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.