"The semblance that concerns Richter is of a 'second nature'… a culture-become-nature bathed in the glow of the media, a semblance permeated with photographic, televisual, and now digital visulalities."
Hal Foster, ‘Semblance According to Gerhard Richter’, in: Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, p. 126.
Chromatically arresting and compositionally complex, Abstraktes Bild is a masterwork from Gerhard Richter’s incredible opus of abstraction - an aesthetic investigation that reached its mature zenith surrounding the moment this work came into being during the mid-1990s. Executed in 1994, Abstraktes Bild stands as the final and most authoritative work in the four-part series numbered 809 in the artist's Catalogue Raisonné. Indeed, the mastery of Abstraktes Bild's painterly form visually outstrips the preceding work in the series, 809-3, a painting that prestigiously resides in the joint collection of the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. Monumentally scaled, breathtakingly enveloping and visually resonating in primaries of red, yellow, blue and green, the exuberant cacophony of the present painting positions it firmly within the very highest tier of Richter's Abstracts. The compositional and chromatic power of Abstraktes Bild readily matches those held in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as the astounding four-part Bach series housed in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Delivering an arresting display of seemingly endless variegation and layered painterly process, Abstraktes Bild possesses an aesthetic authority of the very highest calibre within Richter's oeuvre - a status that unassailably earns its position among the most outstanding works by Gerhard Richter ever to have appeared at auction.
Embodying the apex and culmination of his overarching pictorial agenda, the abstract works represent the furthest limit in Richter’s lifelong pioneering scrutiny of painting – a trajectory that necessitates consideration to account for the Abstrakte Bilder as Richter’s crowning achievement.
By the early 1960s, long since the advent of Marcel Duchamp and Modernism’s declaration of painting’s death, Richter took up the continuing debate head on, foregrounding the apparent obsolescence of painting into an inquiry that would revolutionise and reenergize its problematic practice. In the context of and a reaction to photography, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art, Richter’s Photo Paintings – the body of work that was to launch him to critical acclaim – instigated a groundbreaking re-examination of painting in the face of technological means of mass production and the glorified pseudo-religiosity of abstract art. By translating artless black and white amateur photographs with indifferent photo-realist veracity onto canvas, Richter looked to the possibility for collusion between the oppositional binary of abstraction and resemblance, in search of a means for painting to objectively say something more than either could individually offer. Immaculately blurred while the paint remains wet, the Photo Paintings rendered explicit a simultaneous interpenetration of and tension between the three-dimensional space captured by the photograph and the flat pictorial space of painting. With these works, Richter bridged the gap between abstract painting and photographic figuration; a turn that at once, via an investigation of photography’s margins, undoes and affirms photography whilst legitimizing painting despite of this. Herein, these works laid the formative ground that would further engender Richter’s systematic negation of painting as the means by which he affirmed its currency.
Towards the end of the 1960s, with the Colour Charts and Grey Paintings – Richter’s most pronounced concession to ‘anti-painting’ and Minimalism – the serial and systematic erasure of gesture, artistic agency and privileging of chance compositional structures gave rise to Richter’s movement into pure abstraction from 1972 onwards. While the first of these took the form of abstract paintings based on photographic details of paint strokes, by the early 1990s Richter’s mastery of the squeegee to facilitate a quasi-mechanical palimpsest of layered and scraped down colour, promulgated the possibility of exquisite lyrical painting within distinctly photographic terms.
As redolent in the present Abstraktes Bild, the sheen of immaculate colour and endless permutations mimic the aesthetic of a cibachrome print, while a distinctly photographic quality is compounded by the out-of focus consistency in the sweeping accretions of paint. Evoking a blurred, half-seen or remembered image and imploring the same cognitive viewing experience as his Photo works, the hazy coagulation of endlessly scraped pigment forms an extraordinary repost to the canon of abstraction via the photographic, mechanical and the aleatory.
The dialectical execution of the Abstrakte Bilder call for a suspension of Richter's own artistic will, as a result the artist starts with a ritualistic and ordered process of preparation: “mixing the colours, finding the right hues, the smell, all these things foster an illusion that this is going to be a wonderful painting” (the artist cited in: ‘I Have Nothing to Say and I’m Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicolas Serota, Spring 2011’, Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 16). Over a protracted period of execution the paintings undergo multiple variations in which each new sweeping accretion of paint brings colour and textural juxtapositions that are reworked until an optimum threshold of harmonious articulation is reached. Within this process grounds of arresting pigment are applied only to be effaced and drawn out by large track-like strokes of the squeegee. Although spontaneous in their lyrical grandeur, these overlaid marks are in fact cerebrally laboured. This complex intellectual, and often frustrating procedure, described by Richter as “a bit of a battle” (Ibid.), is comparable to a convoluted and analytical game of chess, in which Richter takes time to ruminate the situation of each work until finally, in the artist’s own words, “I enter the room and say, Checkmate” (the artist cited in: Michael Kimmelmann, ‘Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms’, The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.).
Richter holds no presuppositions in the devising of these works, rather it is by, “letting a thing come, rather than creating it – no assertions, constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies” that Richter looks to “to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive: to what is beyond my understanding” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Notes 1985’ in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, p. 119). Herein, as formulated by Bridget Pelzer, the Abstracts prove that what cannot be articulated, can be made, shown and seen: “Richter’s painting explores the enigmatic juncture of sense and non-sense. His paintings encircle, enclose the real as that which it is impossible to say: the unrepresentable” (Birgit Pelzer, ‘The Tragic Desire’ in: Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, p. 118). Here, we would not be mistaken for taking Richter’s abstractions as retroactively analogous with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, or Yves Klein and their collective dialogue on the sublime transcendental power of pure colour and form. Nonetheless, as Richter points out, these imposing and enveloping works have nothing to do with an intimation of some higher being or the sublime, rather they picture and implicate that which lies outside of and beyond our conceptual faculties. In keeping with the entirely contradictory nature of Richter's production however, this apparent arrest is attended by chaotic discord. As identified by Benjamin Buchloh, the evocation of nothingness and the void is immediately counteracted by the unrelenting complexity and turbulence of Richter’s abstract compositions: "...the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely it's always cancelling itself out. With so many combinations, so many permutational relationships there can't be any harmonious chromatic order, or composition either, because there are no ordered relations left either in the colour system or the spatial system" (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Ibid., pp. 23-24). What’s more, within the sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture these paintings emit an extraordinary wealth of enigmatic yet recognisable evocation. The incessant erasure and denial of formal resolution induces a reading of phenomenal forms associated with those found in nature. Readily evoking natural experiences such as rain or water erosion, the Abstract works derive their affect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us, if only elusively, to a reading of figuration.
As made explicit by Kaja Silverman, Richter has made claims to paint “like a camera” even when photographic content is absent from his work (the artist cited in: Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, California 2009, p. 173). In 1972 Richter explained: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph… I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means… [T]hose of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs” (Ibid). In making this analogy with the camera, Richter embraces the fact that perception and the way we view the world today is entirely mediated by the photograph and its technological proliferation. Thus, as outlined by Richter, where the camera “does not apprehend objects, it sees them”, the Abstrakte Bilder elicit the capacity of painting to propagate a true semblance of perception and appearance. To quote Hal Foster: “The semblance that concerns Richter is of a “second nature”… a culture-become-nature bathed in the glow of the media, a semblance permeated with photographic, televisual, and now digital visulalities” (Hal Foster, ‘Semblance According to Gerhard Richter’, in, Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Op. cit., p. 126). Redolent across the endless exposures and variegation of the present work, the presence of crackling, distortive fuzz and slick gelatinous layers of colour as glaring artificial light, Richter's pure non-referential abstraction unmistakably bears the mark of photography.
As though in homage to his abstract forbearers Mondrian and Barnett Newman the essential colour palette of Richter's canvas evokes Minimalism's dogmatic restriction to the elemental primaries of red, yellow and blue. Nonetheless, despite paying sophisticated reverence to the history of abstraction, the interference of variegation undercuts a reading of 'cool' detachment. Fundamentally comprised of the primary and additive primary colours of red, yellow, blue and green, this painting thematises the essential components that optically inform human sight and the appearance of the visible world. Invoking the effects of Dan Flavin's isolation of light as his principle material, the colour mixtures brought forth by Richter's endless sweeps of the squeegee invoke similar luminescent effects in paint. The elemental choice of primary pigment and the unanticipated facture of its execution induce an analogy to the RGB colour model - the essential framework through which the three principle light wavelengths (red, green and blue) are manipulated for the sensing of images in electronic systems as well as in traditional photography. Herein, the present work illuminates an encompassing photographic analogy that further underlines the very height of Richter’s intellectual sophistication.
Idiosyncratically compatible with the detached, disenchanted mechanical age of contemporary visual culture, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild represents an all-enveloping evocation of a distinctly post-modern semblance. The simultaneous negation and affirmation of contingency, expressivity, detachment, and transcendence comprises an encompassing host of contradictions that posit this painting as a masterpiece of calculated chaos and paradigm of Gerhard Richter’s mature artistic and philosophical achievement.