Kaleidoscopically pulsating with towering and spectacular waves of dramatic colour, Gerhard Richter's magnificent Abstraktes Bild is one of the most vivid, superlative and optically commanding works from the artist's astounding opus of abstraction. Comprising a graphically powerful schema of towering vertical stripes layered over strident sweeps and fractious linear markings, this work belongs to the cycle of abstracts executed in 1992 in which Richter implemented the squeegee with swelling linear paroxysms of sweeping pressure. First exhibited in Rome the same year of its execution in 1992, this painting was prestigiously shown alongside an exclusive selection of Richter’s finest work from that year, a corpus that today stands as the most beautiful and dramatic body of abstract paintings ever created by the artist. This exhibition was to be among the very first in a long line curated by Zerynthia: Associazione per l'Arte Contemporanea, a collaborative and not-for-profit cultural venture founded in 1991 that today continues to promote contemporary art in Italy. Entitled Montagne the show featured seven monumental paintings from Richter’s striated abstract corpus and drew a conceptual dialogue between the photographic and the abstract. The juxtaposition of Richter’s Val Fex, an overpainted photograph of a Swiss Mountain pass, with these towering and densely layered monumental paintings foregrounds the dialectic between Photography, Nature and Abstraction that marks Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder as the most important contribution to the history of painting at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. Within Montagne the present work was installed in sequence with two similarly magnificent paintings numerically subsequent to and from the same series. When considered as an ensemble these works confer an incredible chromatic cogency: the present Abstraktes Bild (769-1) represents an astonishing composite and extraordinary merger of these two divergent and tonally oppositional works. In combining the pearlescent pastel tonalities of the delicately resplendent 768-3 with the staggering hyper-colourism of 769-2, the present painting is utterly unprecedented and unparalleled across the span of Richter’s abstract investigation. The breathtaking compositional facture invokes a superb equilibrium between a delicate Monet-esque palette and a striking expressionistic vibrancy of cherry pink, red, orange and strident yellow. Standing in the company of fellow examples from 1992 housed in prestigious museum collections worldwide, the present work equally rivals and even surpasses those held in the Sprengel Museum, Hannover; San Francisco MoMA; National Gallery of Art, Washington; and the Hamburger Kunsthalle alongside numerous others. Indeed, Abstraktes Bild belongs among the most structurally and chromatically compelling within Richter’s spectacular inquiry into the realm of abstract painting – an inquiry initiated in the late 1970s and perfected surrounding the very moment of this work’s creation.
Texture, colour and structure are deployed in Abstraktes Bild with spectacular force and sensitivity to engender a seductive painterly synthesis visually aligned to an exquisite and strikingly atmospheric evocation: structural stripes and impasted ridges of thick oil paint delineate a schema of painterly revelations and under layers of diaphanous blue, green and purple that are punctuated with sunset flashes of yellow, orange, red and pink. Herein, the present work draws a uniquely evocative dialogue with late Nineteenth Century landscape painting from a distinctly contemporary perspective. Invoking an utterly self-referential language of abstraction, Abstraktes Bild nonetheless shares aesthetic and atmospheric congruencies with Monet’s late Nympheas, Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like treatment of the Austrian landscape, and Seurat’s proto-scientific treatment of light and colour. Indeed, Richter’s breathtaking Abstraktes Bild captures an atmosphere akin to a post-impressionistic translation of landscape scenery. Ostensibly superficial, such a comparison with landscape painting in fact has particular ramifications for illuminating Richter’s complicated, interminable and often contradictory oscillation between detachment and expressivity, representation and abstraction.
Though entirely disconnected from referentiality in both method and conception, Richter’s abstractions nevertheless elusively evoke natural forms and colour configurations. As outlined by the artist: “The paintings gain their life from our desire to recognise something in them. At every point they suggest similarities with real appearances, which then, however, never really materialize” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 267). Thwarting the artist’s own compositional preconceptions, these works are forged by a reactive and aleatory dialogue via the means of their execution: the squeegee. The layered excavation and resonant accumulation of gossamer colour imparts an eroded surface reminiscent of myriad natural forms. Like a sunset, glorious and luminescent in reflecting the chromatic intensity of stunning optical effects, Richter’s canvas evokes the beauty frequently called forth by the contingency of natural phenomena: “amid the paintings’ scraped and layered pigments” describes Robert Storr, “shoals, riptides and cresting waves” reinforce an impression of venturing beyond abstraction (Robert Storr cited in: Dietmar Elgar, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. XIII). Such a reading is very much linked to Richter’s methodological dialogue with chance. Dragged across an expanse of canvas the pressure and speed of Richter’s application ultimately surrenders to the unpredictability of chance in informing composition and colour. It is this separation of the artist from direct expression that bestows Richter’s paintings with their inherently natural look. The shimmering and harmoniously artful orchestration of paint within Abstraktes Bild vacillates between an act of intense evocation and a simultaneous effacement of painterly form: ingrained within the present work’s destructive and unpredictable formation is an undeniable reflection of Nature itself. As outlined by Beate Söntgen; Richter’s method “joins the painted traces of the tools together with the layering and intersections of colour to form structures that are figural or landscape like in appearance, without ever solidifying into an object that is once again recognizable” (Beate Söntgen, ‘Work on the Picture: The Discretion of Gerhard Richter’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Gerhard Richter: Abstrakte Bilder, 2008-2009, p. 37).
Comparative in both beauty and affect to Monet’s atmospheric and optical translation of his garden at Giverny, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild is nonetheless analogous to a wholesale inversion of the Impressionist master’s late practice. Correspondingly expansive, enveloping and utterly breathing colour, Richter shares Monet’s tropospheric yet abyssal chromatic impact. In the work of both it is the cognitive and sensory act of looking informed by a dense chromatic structure that drives visual affect. Clement Greenberg identified this as Impressionism’s most revolutionary insight, and it is this which Richter invokes and advances in his Abstracts. Where for Monet, Nature was a point of departure to link the experiential stimulus of the outer world with an ineffable inner world of sensory perception, Richter’s outwardly incomprehensible plane of abstraction projects the purely sensory back into the realm of the naturally referential. Rather than a perceptual and intensely subjective documentation of nature that verges on the abstract, Richter’s exercise in ostensibly objective and pure abstraction skirts the peripheries of lyrical and expressive topography. Herein, it is perhaps with the work of post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat that a Nineteenth Century parallel with Richter is most suited.
The painstakingly administered layers and dense stratum of intense chromatic pigment, sequentially masked and exposed by the squeegee’s sweeping graze, incites an optical engagement akin to Seurat’s pointillist and atmospheric espousal of scientific colour theory. During the late Nineteenth Century the empirical investigation of chromatic and luminary effects postulated that in juxtaposing individual colours as opposed to mixing the pigments together, a heightened intensity of colour and light could be attained. Within the shimmering layers and scraped chromatic juxtapositions of Richter’s canvas, Seurat’s portrayal of landscape in terms of pure and harmoniously mediated colour is particularly reminiscent. From a present day perspective, where Seurat’s landscapes visually prophesize the technological advent of digital pixilation, Richter’s abstractions can be viewed as incorporating the terms of our media saturated contemporary moment. Executed at the close of the Twentieth Century, the hyper-distortive and interference-like surfaces of Richter’s paintings confer both a visual and conceptual allusion to the photographic and televisual.
As made explicit by Kaja Silverman, Richter has made claims to paint “like a camera” even when photographic referents are 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 photographic and televisual proliferation. Thus, as Richter explains, 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 visualities” (Hal Foster, ‘Semblance According to Gerhard Richter’, in, Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Op. cit., p. 126). The presence of interference-like, distortive fuzz and slick gelatinous layers of colour, posit Richter's pure and non-referential abstraction as visually congruent with that of a cibachrome print. Like a developing photograph visual analogies emerge miraculously from within these dense towering layers of scraped pigment.
Delivering a visual experience akin to looking through or past a veil or curtain, the works created in 1992 explicitly converse with a collective reflex to discern referential or symbolic meaning contained within or beyond their abstract surfaces. Present within the graphic corrugation of sweeping painterly strokes, Richter's mercurial production is brought full- circle: the dramatic yet measured profusion of the squeegee and blurred variegation casts an allusion back to the Photo Paintings that first brought the artist critical acclaim in the early 1960s. In particular, Richter's Abstraktes Bild casts a metaphorical and formal parity with the early cycle of Curtains executed in 1965. By reversing their central conceit, where these photo-realist works hover on the verge of abstraction, Richter's pure painterly abstractions evoke the photographic and referential. While formally mirroring the vertical folds of Richter's blurred photographic translation, the sweeping squeegee and structured vertical columns concurrently conceals and provides an intimation of that which lies beyond and behind the veil: "Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings and landscapes that don't exist, but they create the impression that they could exist. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen" (the artist in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011' in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 19). Inherent within the two-dimensional picture-plane of both series, the notion of the curtain provides a somewhat ironical comment on the notion of painting as illusion. Where Richter’s blurred photo-realism suspends our understanding of a referential Photo source and thwarts recognition of the curtain itself, Abstraktes Bild, created over 20 years later, registers passages of recognition and semblance to natural phenomenon present within utterly non-referential compositional facture forged via a methodological dialogue with chance.
The complexity and unparalleled brilliance of Richter’s abstractions surrounding 1992 coincided with a period of personal turbulence for the artist. Within Richter’s earlier abstractions created in 1982-83, Dietmar Elger identifies a jubilant and explosive mood as linked with the happy early years of his relationship with fellow artist Isa Genzken. However, surrounding their second separation and final split in 1993, Richter’s work began to reflect an increasingly complex and destructive painterly composition: “playful lightness in the application of paint and the transparency of the colours give way to a more compact formal structure… the total impression is disrupted and contradictory; individual elements collide. The paint application has a heavy force, and the intense colouration is disrupted by dark intermediate tones” (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, p. 268). The intense and potent force wielded by Richter during this period is reflected in the vigorous construction of Abstraktes Bild – a methodology moreover echoed in a passage from Richter’s notes of the same year: “Scraping off. For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again. In this process I don’t actually reveal what was beneath. If I wanted to do that, I would have to think what to reveal what was beneath, I would have to think what to reveal (figurative pictures or signs or patterns); that is; pictures that might as well be produced direct. I would also be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect… The process of applying, destroying and layering serves only to achieve a more varied technical repertoire in picture-making” (Gerhard Richter, ’22 September 1992’ in: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Text, London 2009, p. 278). Redolent within the gouging linear sweeps and criss-cross dispensation of Abstraktes Bild, the powerful, destructive and vigorous scraping was tied to both aggression and injury surrounding the difficult disintegration of his relationship with Genzken. Comprising extraordinary ridges of thick impasto delineating boundaries between dynamic layers of dramatically deployed paint, the present work incites an extraordinary and rare balance of aggressive facture and high contrast against harmoniously flowing and lyrical chromatic transitions.
Encapsulating the artist’s very highest achievement, the abstract paintings stand at the furthest point of an artistic inquiry spanning over fifty years, in which Richter has deconstructed, recapitulated and revitalised the full gamut of visual languages running through the grand historical narrative of painting and representation. Standing at the very apotheosis of the conceptually astounding and visually breathtaking body of abstract work, Abstraktes Bild exhibits a superlative philosophical and visual equilibrium between the natural and the mechanical, erasure and construction, veiling and revealing to impart an immersive, boundless and utterly spectacular aesthetic encounter.