Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 122
An electrifying example of masterful coloration and superb painterly ingenuity, Ziege is archetypal of a vital moment of conceptual transition in Gerhard Richter’s inimitable career. For more than fifty years, Richter has persistently and deliberately reinvented the terms by which we define, absorb, and experience painting as a contemporary medium. Following two decades of acclaim as a skilled photorealist painter, in the early 1980s he embarked upon an unprecedented investigation into a new frontier of abstraction, focusing his formidable talent upon a vibrant series of canvases that radically reached new heights of innovation. Captivating in their dynamic juxtaposition of vibrant color, complex space, and explosive mark-making, these works are strident affirmations of their creator’s technical abilities as a master painter. Executed in 1984, the chronological apex of the seven year period in which Richter’s iconic abstract lexicon began to principally occupy his creative energies, Ziege is exemplary of a moment of profound visionary breakthrough in Richter’s prodigious career.
In a pyrotechnic explosion of primary and secondary color, Ziege transmits a visual dynamism that has become the hallmark of Richter’s early abstract paintings. Painted between 1980 and 1986, these complex pioneering works broadcast space as an illusion constructed through the repetitive layering of soft diffusive marks, geometric shapes, and free-hand strokes. Diaphanous veils of lilac and cyan imbue Ziege with an indomitable lightness, while the striking vertical crimson passage at center left serves to ground the composition as it develops into a structured mass of dense green, scarlet, and shadowy grey toward the upper edges of the canvas. This struggle between solidity and whimsical buoyancy is absolutely central to our perception of Ziege and makes for a truly captivating visual experience. Simultaneously joyful and cataclysmic in their vibrant, energetic abstraction, Richter’s paintings of the 1980s were a stark departure from the poignant nostalgia and exacting photorealism of his Photo Paintings and landscapes; likewise, these works bear no resemblance to the artist’s earlier experimentation with anti-painting in the Farben and Grau works. Instead, this fundamental corpus bears witness to Richter becoming increasingly fascinated with the juxtaposition of purposeful representation and impulsive spontaneity within painting. During this time, the squeegee became a critical component of his artistic practice, allowing Richter to streak and smear passages of semi-liquid pigment, meanwhile retaining resolute control over the finished composition. Executed on the cusp of his full espousal of the squeegee as the decisive painterly tool, the staccato ridges, crests, and peaks of impasto that punctuate Ziege express Richter’s own acknowledgement of this instance of creative genesis.
While fully autonomous in their groundbreaking originality and transformative reinterpretation of the very limits of abstraction, many of the best examples of Richter’s early Abstrakte Bilder evoke, in their incandescent expression of abstract form, the painterly dynamism of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism. The complex illusion of depth, created by the geometric fields of effervescent color that shimmer across the surface of Ziege, echoes the luminosity of Mark Rothko’s soaring portals to the sublime. Likewise, Richter’s deft use of the squeegee recalls the muscular gestural abstraction of Franz Kline, whose primal marks are mirrored in Richter's stabilizing diagonals of bright pigment. Yet, while the sheer presence and visual power of Richter’s Abtrakte Bilder echo the work of his Abstract Expressionists forebears, his artistic project is utterly without precedent. Indeed, Richter is acutely aware of the limitations facing the trailblazing artists that preceded him: “The Abstract Expressionists were amazed at the pictorial quality of their productions, the wonderful world that opens up when you just paint…But the problem is this: not to generate any old thing with all the rightness and spontaneity of Nature, but to produce highly specific pictures with highly specific messages.” (Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 122) Seeking a solution to the problem of abstract painting—to the insurmountable paradox between meaningful substance and spontaneous expression—Richter produced a form of abstract painting unlike anything that had come before.
Applying his tremendous skill as a photorealist painter to the frontier of abstraction, Richter sought the means of “letting a thing come, rather than creating it; no assumptions, constructions, preparation, invention, ideologies—to come closer to the actual, richer, more lifelike, to that which is beyond my comprehension.” (Peter Moritz Pickhaus, “Gerhard Richter. Abstrakte Bilder 1976-1981,” Kunstforum International, April/May 1982, p. 250) Unlike the wild abandon of his Neo-expressionist contemporaries, Richter approached his abstract paintings with painstaking care, obsessively seeking the conceptual boundary between purpose and chance in painting. Upon viewing Richter’s new abstract works at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld in 1982, one critic remarked on the unique nature of Richter’s project: “A floor full of very colorful paintings—paint, like a fist in your eye, finger thick and criss-crossing everywhere, shouting and garish, as if there really were a new spirit in painting. But everything is only half as wild; with Gerhard Richter it only appears that way, it is not at all what is meant. Even now his painting is neither sloppy nor of the unreflective subjectivity like that which is circulated abroad today as ‘new German Chic.’ Richter’s chaos is calculated.”(Ibid., p. 220) The artist achieved this state of provocative visual turmoil by applying chromatic color in careful layers, only to scrape, smudge, and squeegee the pigment back, transforming the visual field in a constant battle against his own mark. The sum of all these accretions and reductions, of Richter’s tireless process of addition and subtraction, is a strident chaos of pigment that engulfs the viewer in a euphoric whirlwind of mesmerizing hues. Speaking in 1984, the very same year he created this work, Richter clarified: "A picture like this is painted in different layers, separated by intervals of time. The first layer mostly represents the background, which has a photographic, illusionistic look to it, though done without using a photograph. This first, smooth, soft-edged paint surface is like a finished picture; but after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, till there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished. By then it is a something which I understand in the same way it confronts me, as both incomprehensible and self-sufficient… It is a highly planned kind of spontaneity." (Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” Op. Cit., p. 112)
As an early archetype of what was to become the definitive mark of his artistic identity, Ziege demonstrates the exceptional innovation and unique nature of Richter’s captivating abstract paintings of the 1980s.Though reminiscent of earlier works of Abstract Expressionism in its broad gestural execution and indomitable spirit, the present work most brilliantly encapsulates Richter’s unparalleled ability to temper enrapturing gestural abandon with logical graphic calculation, setting them upon another plane entirely. Standing before Ziege, the viewer experiences the true innovation of Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder: the sensation that beneath the vivid pigment, blurred gradation, and diaphanous veils of color, there remains a specific, transcendent something to be known.
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