Helge Achenbach, Düsseldorf
Private Collection, Germany
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2004
"Abstract paintings are fictitious models because they visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude exists." Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter's striking Abstraktes Bild from 1991 is one of the most dynamically charged and visually arresting works from his dramatic and revolutionary series of Abstract Paintings that the artist focused on towards the end of the Twentieth Century. Executed in multiple streaking layers of deeply-charged red – a color synonymous with intense emotion such passion, anger, fear and lust – Richter embraced both color and the manipulation of his paint to create this beautiful polychromatic expanse. The intense coloristic harmony and lyrical resonance of Abstraktes Bild permeates an atmosphere of density, chaos and romance. The interplay of hues and the complex layering of thick impasto are deliberately ambiguous, seeming both to reveal and conceal at the same time: the viewer is invited to look both at and through the laminas of material due to the hues being simultaneously unveiled and hidden. The varied, dynamic and exciting composition of the present work has an emphasis on the vertical with streaks of paint running parallel, and is unlike many other examples from the series whose organizations are predominantly horizontal. The result of Richter's phenomenal technical aptitude that has led to his reputation as one of the outstanding painters of our era, and this work is testament both to his ceaseless technical explorations in the field of Abstraction and to the painterly and intellectual elasticity unique in his work.
Abstraktes Bild is also the most manifest expression of Richter's intensive skill as a colorist and on this basis it is difficult to imagine an artist greater than him in this discipline in modern art history. Choosing a panoply of bold reds, the surface of this painting is regularly interrupted to reveal tantalising glimpses of deep blues and creamy whites. Although spontaneous in their lyrical grandeur, this orchestra of overlaid marks are in fact carefully orchestrated, built up in powerful sweeps of thick impasto. Their colours seem to glide across the painting and enshroud the background in a beautiful atmosphere of trompe l'oeil which lends the painting an intriguing sense of depth. Additionally, this creates the impression of a three dimensional plane between the viewer and the picture ground which lies beneath. The relationship of the flat surface of this painting with its intensely harmonious colouring with the painterly gestures and the shapes beneath is intentionally never quite certain or mappable. The diversity of Richter's approaches within this single canvas reveals the tension between his physical enjoyment of paint on the one hand and his intellectual analysis of it on the other. For Richter, the art of painting is both a deeply problematic and moral obligation. Aside from being a compulsive channel for personal expression, it is a means for him to explore the easily overlooked concepts of perception, ideology and belief through which we construct the world surrounding us. Like his photo-based paintings which underline the role of pictures in understanding the fictive nature of reality, his abstract paintings similarly avoid and confront problems of representation simultaneously. They instantaneously expose their own artificiality and weaknesses, offering approximations of reality which are enigmatically familiar yet ones we can never truly comprehend.
Richter initially confronted abstract painting when he executed a group of vivacious and colourful sketches in 1976, and thus this work stems from well over a decade of his investigation of various technical and aesthetic abstract possibilities. Richter's working practice for his Abstract Paintings has been described as remarkably methodical: he begins by placing a number of white primed canvases around the walls of his studio, eventually working on several of them simultaneously and reworking them until they are completely harmonized. Tracts of colour are dragged across the canvas using a squeegee, so that the various strains of malleable, semi-liquid pigment suspended in oil are fused together and smudged first into the canvas, and then layered on top of each other as the paint strata accumulate. The painting undergoes multiple variations in which each new accretion brings colour and textural juxtapositions until they are completed. This process necessitates a lengthy production as the role of time obviates the dominance of a single creative identity: Richter's abstract works become truly the summation of a creative journey, trapping in their layers the shadows of wrought experience.
This objective approach to assembling Abstraktes Bild is mirrored in his scientific interest in exploring the evocation of emotion in the viewer. Although constructed to remain devoid of any explicit meaning, the kaleidoscope of colours and techniques act as subliminal triggers for emotional responses, revealing an innate colourist sensitivity. Despite their appearance, the reds, blues and whites have not been juxtaposed with chance, frenetic gesture but with the artful analysis of what emotional response these juxtapositions would provoke. This degree of control echoes the subtle manipulation of his photo-paintings, which although based around an arbitrary, found source images were frequently enhanced to affect their compulsive appeal to the viewer. During the 1960s, alongside his early Photo-based paintings, he had developed other, increasingly abstract modes for the examination of visual perception. The Cityscapes, the mirrors, the Grey paintings and Colour Charts – all of these represented different examinations of the mechanics of painting, each precariously balanced on the line conventionally separating abstract and figurative modes of expression. In Abstraktes Bild, Richter controls his composition though careful juxtaposition of colour and form, and deconstructs the process of painting to expose the false illusions underlying the notion of the artist as alchemist.
Richter's technique affords an element of chance that is necessary to facilitate the artistic ideology of the abstract works. As the artist has himself explained, "I want to end up with a picture that I haven't planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture...I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things I can think out for myself" (the artist interviewed in 1990 in: Hubertus Butin, Stefan Gronert, and the Dallas Museum of Art, Eds, Gerhard Richter. Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Verlag Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p. 36). With circumstance as a defining trait of its execution, the painterly triumph of the present work becomes independent of the artist and acquires its own inimitable individuality as the autonomous product of creative coincidence.
When Richter turned to painting his Abstract Paintings in the mid 1970s, he looked in detail at the history of abstraction. Not as a homage seeking to emulate abstract compositions in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists or the Ecole de Paris artists but rather to challenge the very form and relevance of their painterly vocabulary within the wider forum of the of the science of representation. Taking the pillars of abstraction - colour, gesture and form – and exploring them as formal rather than spiritual elements, he employed them in a more knowing Post Modern manner; one that was fully attentive to their evocative capacity and associative meanings. In much the same way that Roy Lichtenstein had taken the 'theory of the Brushstroke', isolated it and re-presented it to the point whereby it no longer represented an expressionist gesture but a carefully studied, subjective motif in itself, Richter too in his Abstraktes Bild paintings was quoting from his predecessors while demystifying paint's spiritual allusions and accentuating its material nature.
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