“If you wish to advance into the infinite, explore the finite in all directions.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, epigram, David Luke, Goethe: Selected Verse, 1964
“In Richter’s work there is a demonstration of the ways in which painting’s resources are constantly replenished by the very problems it seems to pose, both for the painter and the viewer. Nobody in our own time has posed them better or solved them more inventively than Richter.”
Glenn D. Lowry, Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Ricther: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 7
"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, Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 110
The sweeping extent to which Gerhard Richter is responsible for maintaining the essential currency of painting during the course of recent Art History is today undeniable and inescapable. Undeniable because for more than five decades Richter has continually reinvented the terms by which painting has been relevant to a continually transforming audience: inescapable because there are exceptionally few artists working today whose reputation inspires anything close to comparable veneration. More than one million visitors attended the travelling retrospective exhibition Gerhard Richter: Panorama in London, Berlin, and Paris between 2011 and 2012 and the sheer scope and diversity of Richter’s leviathan artistic achievement is now well-recognized the world over. Ever since Vasari introduced the concept of a codified hierarchy of artistic aptitude, a line of masters from da Vinci and Michelangelo to Rembrandt, Turner, Monet, and Rothko have been celebrated as preeminent within their successive eras. Gerhard Richter is, quite simply, the master painter of ours. As the director of the Museum of Modern Art Glenn D. Lowry wrote in the foreword to the 2002 exhibition Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, “No other artist has placed more intriguing and rigorous demands upon specialists, interpreters, followers and average viewers alike – nor upon himself… In Richter’s work there is a demonstration of the ways in which painting’s resources are constantly replenished by the very problems it seems to pose, both for the painter and the viewer. Nobody in our own time has posed them better or solved them more inventively than Richter.” (Glenn D. Lowry, Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Ricther: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 7)
Abstraktes Bild is the consummate example of Richter’s cycle of abstract works executed in 1992 that are characterized by highly-distinctive schemas of striations. It is the last of the four paintings that comprise the series numbered 780, the other three being respectively housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco, and the Daros Collection, Zurich. It is also one of eleven paintings of this cycle to exceed eight feet in height, with nine of those being housed in institutional collections, including the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the Duisburg Modern Art Museum and Moderna Museet in Stockholm, in addition to those listed above.
Across the primed vastness of this empty canvas and with the great traction and drag of a hard-edged spatula, Richter streaked and smeared passages of semi-liquid material, fusing and dissecting wide tracts of oil paint. The shadows of the medium’s former malleability are caught now in a perpetually-dynamic stasis; cast as staccato ridges, crests, and peaks of impasto that punctuate an underlying fluidity in variously pronounced chromatic contrast. This creates a powerful sensation of depth. The interchangeability of light and dark hues in front and behind, respectively in unified swathes and broken accretions, such as deepest crimson on brilliant whites in the top left versus vivid cyan on opaque rich umbers towards the center right, radically destabilizes this sense of recession. This extreme textural topography creates an actual dynamism as the nature of the object subject to our vision constantly transforms with our shifting perspective and an ever-changing play of light across it. What is near and what is far becomes indefinite and our eye is forced to constantly readjust to attempt to comprehend the pure assault of pictorial data. Additional scrapes, smudges, and incisions in all directions carry us forward and back, beyond even the furthermost reaches of color and pigment in a way reminiscent of Fontana’s slashes and scything deconstruction of the picture plane into the infinity of space beyond. The sum of all these accretions and reductions, of Richter’s tireless process of addition and subtraction, is a record of time itself within the paint strata: the innumerable layers of application and eradication have left their traces behind to accumulate and forge a portrait of temporal genesis.
Richter’s corpus of abstract paintings has often been considered as the culmination of the manifold lines of artistic enquiry he has pursued throughout his career spanning, among others, the Photo Paintings, Gray Paintings, Color Charts, Photorealist Paintings, Landscapes, Seascapes, and Photorealist Abstract Paintings. Following this plethora of artistic exploration, Gerhard Richter’s unprecedented art of abstraction stands as the crescendo to the epic journey of his career, during which he has ceaselessly interrogated the limits of representation, the nature of perception, and the operations of visual cognition. However, with increasing historical perspective it is also apparent that Richter’s influence on the course of abstract art extends a critical line of art historical precedent, and his achievements further those initiated by various masters who came before. Indeed, contemporaneous appreciation of Richter’s antecedents, from J.M.W. Turner, through Claude Monet to Mark Rothko and the Abstract Expressionists, can provide revealing and insightful context for the relationship between Richter and his forbears. Considering the phenomenal visual impact of the present work, it is not surprising that this painting was recently installed alongside one of Monet’s majestic Nymphéas at the Fondation Beyeler. Indeed, arguably more than any other abstract painting that Richter has created, Abstraktes Bild evokes the essential atmosphere and spirit, radical innovation, and supreme disposition of color that characterizes the French master’s vast late masterpieces. In this context it is instructive to consider a contemporary description of Monet’s Nymphéas by the essayist Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, which though penned in 1909 prophetically foreshadows Richter’s painting executed more than eighty years later: "Water that is pale blue and dark blue, water like liquid gold, treacherous green water reflects the sky…Here, more than ever before, painting approached music and poetry. There is in these paintings an inner beauty that is both plastic and ideal." (Jean-Louis Vaudoyer in La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, 15th May 1909, p. 159, translated from French)
In a similar vein, a discussion of Turner’s paintings by John Ruskin in 1843 that talks of the “abstract question of color” provides some further parallels with Richter’s project. Ruskin described the English painter’s work in terms of “the perfect and unchanging influence of all his pictures at any distance. We approach only to follow the sunshine… and retire only to feel it diffused over the scene, the whole picture glowing like a sun or star at whatever distance we stand, and lighting the air between us and it.” (John Ruskin, Modern Painters,Volume I, Part II, Section II, Chapter I, 1843 in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin, London, 1903, p. 273) The sheer presence and enduring power of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild immediately brings this account to life, and the simultaneously articulated and cohesive sense of luminosity is higly reminiscent of passages of Turner’s best painting. A subsequent analogy can also be found in Clement Greenberg’s 1950 analysis of the mesmerizing effect of Mark Rothko’s sublime canvases: “their surfaces exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size itself. One reacts to an environment as much as to a picture hung on a wall.” (“‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955) cited in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 248) Again we are immediately reminded of the engulfing influence of the present painting and Richter’s ambition to immerse the viewer in a state of both visual and corporeal experience.
Ultimately, however, Richter’s achievement was without direct precedent. Abstraktes Bild possesses 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. Richter's cumulative technique depends on the random nature 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.