“There are few artists in the contemporary art world whose work has a presence like that of Gerhard Richter's.”
Kasper König and Chris Dercon, in Ulrich Wilmes, Ed., Gerhard Richter; Large Abstracts, Cologne and Munich, 2009
"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 and Stefan Gronert, Eds., Gerhard Richter. Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Verlag Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p. 36
A majestic panorama of richly variegated paint cresting across a vast canvas, Abstraktes Bild comprises the epitome of Gerhard Richter’s astoundingly powerful art of abstraction. Simultaneously concealing and revealing spectacular accents of red, yellow and blue primaries, a sublime silvery-gray veil of lusciously viscous oil paint flows laterally across the canvas like a tide coursing across the geological strata of an ancient cliff face. According to the artist’s self-determined catalogue raisonné, this work was numbered as his first painting of 1990, the chronological apex of the 1988 to 1992 period when his creation of monumental essays in abstraction reached new heights. Indeed, at the start of a new decade and perhaps more than any single other, this moment witnessed his mastery of the long, hard-edged spatula ‘squeegee’ as the central instrument of his technical practice. The most comparable body of work immediately to precede this painting was the 1989 cycle of four abstract paintings entitled Eis, now a highly-prized component in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, which, though on canvases smaller in scale than the present work, stand as direct precursor for Abstraktes Bild. The scale of this work is exceptional and it is one of only eight paintings created in 1990 to exceed two and a half meters in height, with the others today housed in prestigious collections including the Tate (number 726); the Böckmann Collection, Berlin at Kunsthalle Hamburg (727); and The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (734). Works of this scale and quality are remarkably rare (only three paintings of this scale and format from the 1988-1992 period have ever before appeared at auction) and the appearance of Abstraktes Bild today, after more than twenty years in the same private collection is a major event.
The vast and intensely beautiful chromatic expanse of Abstraktes Bild stands as one of the most elegant and fully resolved exemplars of Richter's epic corpus. It embodies the fully-formed mature aesthetic of the artist's abstract vision, and is very much a paragon of "the compositionally complex, heavily impastoed and richly polychromatic Abstract Paintings" described by Roald Nasgaard (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 106) Seeping layers of brilliantly charged hues are dramatically scattered across the canvas, alternately coalescing and dissolving to defy conventional color patterns. Accumulations of innumerable streaking strata of lustrous oil paint forge a sublime symphony of dark and light blue-grey tracts punctuated by vibrant reds, yellows, blues and greens. This coloristic harmony and lyrical resonance broadcast an evocative atmosphere of density and chaos, while the interplay of hues and the complex smattering of thick impasto invite the viewer to look both at and through the laminas of material. We become immersed in color and movement as if confronting a natural phenomenon of the sea or sky. Absorbed by the vast surface area of the canvas, the experience is evocative of confronting a monolithic masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism by artists such as Rothko or Pollock. The result of Richter's remarkable technical aptitude, which has led to his reputation as one of the outstanding painters of our era, this work is testament to his ceaseless technical explorations in the field of abstraction and to his profoundly intellectual interrogation of the nature of images and perception.
Although the title Abstraktes Bild that Richter has given to the impressive works he has produced since the 1980s is typically translated as 'Abstract Painting', the curator Robert Storr restores the meaning of Bild as 'picture', implying something beyond mere painting, and as this "reinforces the impression...of shoals, riptides, and cresting waves amid the paintings' scraped and layered pigments" (in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. XIII) Here tracts of color are dragged across the canvas using the 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 color and textural juxtapositions until they are completed, as Richter himself declares, "there is no more that I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with." (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 108) This extensive process facilitates multiple facets of creativity: Abstraktes Bild becomes truly the sum of Richter's wide-ranging innovation.
Furthermore, 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 and Stefan Gronert, eds., Gerhard Richter. Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Ostfildern-Ruit 2004, p. 36) With the repeated synthesis of chance being a defining trait of its execution, the painterly triumph of the present work becomes independent of the artist and acquires its own inimitable and autonomous individuality.
Gerhard Richter's artistic contribution is internationally considered within the highest tier of this era; his inimitably diverse canon evidencing more than five decades of philosophical enquiry into the core natures of perception and cognition. Indeed, with its poignant critical reflections and groundbreaking advancements, it is undeniable that his output has opened up a wealth of possibilities for the future course of Art History. Since the early 1960s he has considered all genres of painting, delving into and pushing the boundaries of theoretical and aesthetic levels of understanding whilst exploring and challenging the fundamentals of their development. However, his extraordinary odyssey into the realm of abstract painting is often regarded as the culmination of his artistic and conceptual enquiries into the foundations of visual understanding. After decades of exploring the role of painting in relation to competing visual cultures; film and photography; and even painting itself, the emergence of the Abstraktes Bild stands as the crowning achievement of his oeuvre. As Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has highlighted, and as there can be absolutely no doubt, Richter's position within the canon of abstraction is one of “incontrovertible centrality.” (Exh. Cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Gerhard Richter Large Abstracts, 2009, p. 9)
In sum, Abstraktes Bild beautifully encapsulates Richter's theory that with abstraction "there is no order, everything is dissolved, more revolutionary, anarchistic" (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 108) As a collective corpus, the Abstraktes Bilder are destined to have a unique identity whereby the total deconstruction of perception - dismantling themes of representation, illusion, communication - becomes a sublime chaos. As a paradigm of this oeuvre the present work communes a subjective relationship with the viewer and becomes itself experience rather than object. Here Richter deconstructs the concept that abstraction demands logical framework, thereby advancing the pioneering achievements of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, and continuing the line of enquiry instituted by the Abstract Expressionists by delivering a visual experience of phenomenal psychological resonance. In the words of Nasgaard, "The character of the Abstract Paintings is not their resolution but the dispersal of their elements, their coexisting contradictory expressions and moods, their opposition of promises and denials. They are complex visual events, suspended in interrogation, and fictive models for that reality which escapes direct address, eludes description and conceptualization, but resides inarticulate in our experience" (Roald Nasgaard, Op. Cit., p. 110)