Emanating celestial light on a spectacular scale, the divine and immersive beauty of Gerhard Richter’s Wolke is utterly beyond reproach. Dislocated from terra firma, Richter’s fair weather fragment of sky is a masterwork of vaporescent forms and delicate sfumato brushwork. Radiating luminescent sunlit hues filtered through a harmonic miasma of soft ephemeral forms, this painting is undeniably indebted to a long and familiar legacy of art historical heritage. Readily evocative of the Romantic and sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable’s famous cloud studies, the atmospheric light effects of Turner, as well as drawing on the cloud’s symbolic value as heavenly furniture in Renaissance and Baroque painting, the present work instantly conjures an encompassing transhistorical field of references, whilst remaining resolutely contemporary. Though drawing on a Nineteenth Century Romantic lineage and inescapably evoking a religiously loaded semiotic legacy, the artist’s fascination with clouds extends into an exploration of chance in painting - the ultimate expression of which was later refined from the 1980s onwards via the Abstrakte Bilder. Considered a deeply important facet in the encompassing trajectory of Richter’s career, many of the Cloud Paintings reside in numerous prestigious museum collections worldwide. Bearing a great similarity to Wolken (1970) housed in the Museum Folkwang, Essen, the present work’s formal and imposing beauty also rivals the National Gallery of Canada’s Cloud Triptych (1970), a work that recently formed a centrepiece in the touring Panorama retrospective. Representing the most pluralistic of thematic inquiries, the Cloud Paintings, more so than any other modality in Richter’s vast pantheon of subjects and media, forcefully straddles the readily drawn schism separating Richter’s abstract works from the hyperreal Photo Paintings. All at once, the stunning appearance of Wolke foregrounds religion, history and artistic inheritance within the complex debate for painting’s legitimacy in the later Twentieth Century.
Since the Medieval period and proliferate within the frescoed masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, clouds played a centrally decisive function in visually portraying the miraculous and divine - their vaporous forms withheld the potential for dissolving architectural boundaries to communicate the divine light of the infinite. Operating as the mid-point between the terrestrial and the celestial in countless frescoed church interiors, clouds are the traditional emblems for spiritual presence. As a subject of painting therefore, clouds are somewhat encumbered by a degree of cultural baggage – an aspect undoubtedly at stake within Richter’s series. Intriguingly, and perhaps somewhat indicative as to why the present work is so compositionally appealing, the harmonic arrangement in Wolke shares a pictorial equivalence to the asymmetrical balance of the most iconic work in the history of devotional art, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (c. 1512). Indeed, across his corpus of Cloud Paintings Richter makes a direct concession to devotional tradition by employing the triptych format: multi-part works such as those held in the National Gallery of Canada and Essl Museum in Austria impart an organisational schema rooted in the history of the three-panelled altarpiece. Grouped with the corpus of Photo Paintings depicting vanitas subjects of candles and skulls initiated in 1982, it is clear that Richter invokes and confronts a tradition intended to orient the viewer away from the earthly to some spiritual higher realm. Richter identifies this in conversation with Benjamin Buchloh in 1986: “I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence” (Gerhard Richter in: ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986’, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 148).
Growing up in Dresden, Richter would undoubtedly have been familiar with Caspar David Friedrich – Dresden was the city in which the father of German Romanticism established his reputation in the early Nineteenth Century. The atmospheric vapour, ethereal and mysterious effect pronounced by Richter’s Wolke finds immediate visual parity with the transcendental light-metaphors laid down within any number of works by Friedrich, such as Large Enclosure (1832) or Morning in the Riesengeberge (1810). Within the Twentieth Century the endeavours of Richter’s contemporaries to revive the genre of landscape, such as Lichtenstein’s comic book sea and cloudscapes or Blinky Palermo’s Minimalist abstractions, confer a somewhat anachronistic reading upon Richter’s romantic vistas in comparison. Though contemporaneous with Robert Smithson’s pioneering of Land Art, at first glance these works appear to share more in common with Constable’s masterful rendering of the sky or Turner’s treatment of atmospherics – ideologies rooted in specifically Nineteenth Century concerns with truthfulness to nature or an expression of the Sublime. Nonetheless, the subversion and contemporaneity of Richter’s works subtly operates within a remarkable double-speak. Speaking in 1986 Richter described his landscapes as “cuckoo’s eggs”, making explicit their inherently untruthful or misleading character (Gerhard Richter in: ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986’, p. 163). Hubertus Butin critically expanded on this in 1994: “Richter’s landscape paintings do not go back to any religious understanding of Nature, for him the physical space occupied by Nature is not a manifestation and a revelation of the transcendental. In his pictures there are no figures seen from behind inviting the viewer to step metaphorically into their shoes or sink reverentially into some sublime play on Nature” (Hubertus Butin, ‘The Un-Romantic Romanticism of Gerhard Richter’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy and FruitMarket Gallery; London Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990, 1994, p. 462). By employing the sublime visual language founded in Friedrich’s pantheistic view and passing it through a mechanical photographic document, Richter systematically de-romanticises the genre, making it resolutely contemporary. This particularly stands for the Cloud Paintings. Executed and exhibited in series, these are not celestial clouds supporting divine figures or concealing an intimation of a heavenly beyond; though undeniably beautiful as a painted artefact, Richter’s clouds are indifferent, isolated, fragmented and evacuated of an emphatic human element.
Following the irreconcilable events precipitated in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Richter confronts the impossibility of continuity: by invoking the Romantic tradition directly, Richter looked to “make visible the caesura separating his age from Friedrich’s” (Ibid., p. 80). In 1973 Richter acknowledged this strategy: “A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is ‘good’, it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we ostensibly defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, ‘today’, we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did” (Gerhard Richter, “Letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann, February 1973” in: Hand Ulrich Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 81). At first appearing incommensurate with contemporary practices of high-art, Richter’s detachment and evacuation of sentiment via the serial and mechanical, and its infusion with the vicissitudes of recent history, ensures a legitimate form of landscape painting that is also intensely beautiful. In Richter’s oeuvre clouds are emptied of their poignant Christian affect; historically evocative yet emotively absent, the intoxication and sublime wonder of God’s creation is replaced by the fragmentary and generalised: “Never spiritual, these totally secular clouds were rendered as merely divisible or repeatable motifs: minimalist clouds” (Mark Godfrey, “Damaged Landscapes” in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011-2012, p. 84).
As a minimalist motif, the cloud paintings also serve an intriguing and strikingly central function in Richter’s exploration of anti-painting and chance. Very much aligned with the Colour Charts and Grey Paintings - Richter’s most pronounced concession to Minimalism - the Cloud Paintings represent the perfect natural analogy for a repudiation of artistic, gestural or stylistic choices: “I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no programme, no style, no directions. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery, I steer clear of direction. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty” (Gerhard Richter, Notes 1964 in: The Daily Practice of Painting, Ed., Hans Ulrich Obrist, London 1995, p. 73). As an artistic mission statement, Richter is categorical in his determination for indeterminacy; what’s more by their very metamorphic configuration and vaporescent nature clouds as a subject represent anti-matter aspiring to form. In painting clouds from photographs Richter not only evokes Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic Equivalents (1927) in employing the cloud as a Duchampian readymade, but also selects a model from nature perfectly equivalent to the central impetus that would later drive the Abstrakte Bilder.
First initiated during the early 1970s simultaneous with the group of Photo Paintings of close-up paint swirls, Richter’s Clouds offered a natural model for the indefinite and utterly indeterminate; an equation no less inverted within the very nascent abstract works via their semblance of natural landscape – a precedent that would later confer naturally referential titles upon many of Richter’s abstracts, such as Rain (1988), Eis (1989) or Forest (1990). Speaking of the latter in 1990 Richter explained: “I want to end up with a picture 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 … by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of Nature (or Readymade) always possesses” (Gerhard Richter, Notes 1990, in: Ibid., p. 218).
As both abstract forms and photorealist paintings, these works represent the most metamorphic and multidimensional of Richter’s career – significantly, it was this body of work that conceptually furnished and facilitated the artist’s transition into full painterly abstraction in the late 1970s. Visually defining ontological openness, the present work simultaneously stands among the most beautiful and stunning of Richter’s career whilst representing the most transgressive, symbolically redolent and conceptually pluralistic motifs ever translated by the artist into paint. All aspects of the artist’s philosophical, historical and aesthetic concerns are subtly concentrated into the glorious miasma and ethereal sfumato that constitutes Gerhard Richter’s Wolke.