Forming a conceptual keystone of his oeuvre since the late 1960s, Richter’s iconic Abstrakte Bilder have performed a prolifically sustained philosophical enquiry into the medium of painting and the foundations of our contemporary visual understanding. Peculiar, almost alien, to the history of painting as a result of Richter’s unique methodology, A B, Still offers a staunch provocation to consider the phenomenology of the medium. We are asked to dissect the superficial appearances of the vibrant visual stimuli presented to us, as well as the ability of the artist to conjure moments of ocular deception that endow the canvas with a sense of depth that is not inherent to the physical oil paint itself. Distinguished from the inherent illusionism of the artist’s iconic photo-realist paintings, Richter’s extraordinary odyssey into the realm of a pure abstraction also shows his most extreme engagement with the ontology of the medium; a raw examination of the very nature of paint itself as a physical substance in both its original and manipulated forms. As such, the Abstrakte Bilder are often regarded as the culmination of Richter’s aesthetic inquiries and as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has rightfully highlighted, Richter's position within the wider canon of abstraction is one of “incontrovertible centrality.” (Exh. Cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Gerhard Richter: Large Abstracts, 2009, p. 9)
Within Richter’s immense abstract corpus, the definitive compartmentalization of works into a discreet series is extremely rare. Whilst the artist meticulously catalogues his works and labels with successive numbers to indicate the temporal sequence of production, few are adorned with unique titles; the majority fall under the moniker of Abstraktes Bild. The present work however is part of a minority of select works in which a specific title is linked to a particular emotive evocation. Furthermore, the use of the A B prefix abbreviation marks it as an important precursor to the seminal series of fourteen London Paintings created in response to a trip Richter made to London in 1987 and which were shown at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1988 – his first major commercial exhibition in London. Exhibited a year before in New York by Marian Goodman – who acted as a crucial mentor from the early 1980s – the present work originates from a period of soaring international success for the artist, heralding the production of what are considered to be the most arresting and extraordinary abstract pictures of his career. Attesting to their extreme significance, other early A B paintings from 1986 currently reside in international museum collections including: A B, Confus, at the Museum of Modern Art New York; A B, Courbet, currently housed at the MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg; A B, Mediation, in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; and A B, Mohn, housed in the Maramotti Collection, Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Here, we find the early summoning of a distinctly ecclesiastical vision. Broad vertical and diagonal motions give an architectural integrity that demarcates the canvas as a sacred cerebral space. A rich and precious spectrum of pigments glow with the dignified solemnity of stained glass, as profound and mystical visions emerge from the shadowy demarcation of a subtly permeating black under-layer. Graced with a cascade of divine white light from the top of the canvas, this Caravaggio-esque drama of luminosity binds the work to the Baroque and Renaissance ancestry of illusionistic painting. Yet, far from performing a narrative function, the work operates within an intensely imaginative dimension rooted in Richter’s sensory experience and his almost spiritual engagement with the paint; no sound, no signs, just pure visuality.
What sets Richter apart from both his contemporaries and forebears is his abandon of the traditionally soft and nimble brush, surrendering instead to the uniformly firm rubber edge of the large scale squeegee - a groundbreaking technique that the artist had, by this point, mastered to yield hypnotic results. Tracts of color are dragged across the canvas, so that the various strains of malleable pigment suspended in oil are fused together and smudged first onto the canvas, and then layered on top of each other as the paint strata accumulates at different speeds and thicknesses. It is this remarkable technical aptitude that has cemented Richter’s reputation as one of the outstanding painters of our age. The present work marks an important point of transition away from free form and floating abstract shapes that delineated the corpus of nascent abstractions executed between the years of 1980-85. From 1986 onward Richter would relinquish any planned compositional elements favoring the indeterminate scrape and accretion of his tool. It is this striking treatment of the surface as a bound whole that allows a peculiar sense of illusionary depth to develop within the piece.
Working in mystical synthesis with the artist’s idiosyncratic mastery of the squeegee, A B, Still embodies the profound balance of color which endows this majestic corpus with a unique aesthetic charisma. Vibrating with the abrupt tonal variations which are compacted into the painted surface at the point of its creation, the work boasts of distinct formal zones of block background colors which subtly imbue it with tectonic weight and structural gravity. The left side of the painting is dominated by a deep, fiery red. Primal in its luscious appeal to the base emotions this is galvanized by a cool blue that dominates the right side of the picture. The presence of yellow is more evanescent as it is scattered across the picture plane in various directions and permutations of wetness, so that it enlivens its tonal counterparts with both discreet highlights and voluminous blend. The overall sense of harmonious balance that Richter achieves through his intelligent composition of color seems curiously at odds with the incalculable results of his methodology; a revolutionary mode of painting which enlivens the medium with an almost Dada or ‘anti-art’ veneration of chance, faith and process. Whilst Richter could predict and anticipate effects based on the colors he used, the thickness of paint and the pressure he applies, an inescapable element of chance permeates the process and stands as crucial to his conceptual engagement with the medium as a whole.
To understand the significance of chance in his practice, a counter-intuitive turn back to the artist’s other renowned visual mode – the photo-realist paintings – might be necessary. Whilst their soft clarity and uncanny realism seems distant from the Abstrakte Bilder, Richter’s most poignant innovation within this field was the crucial act of drawing a brush horizontally across the wet surface to give a now-iconic faded effect. This not only parallels the motion of the squeegee, but also reveals the crucial discourse of objectivity that drives Richter’s practice. The effacement of recognizable brushwork and pursuit of uniform gestural treatment in Richter’s Photo Paintings endows them with a crucially unexpressive and unbiased analysis of the subject, fulfilling both his desire and claims to paint “like a camera” (the artist cited in Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, and Jon L. Seydl, Eds., Gerhard Richter. Early Work 1951-1972, Los Angeles, 2010, p. 161) In the present work, however, we witness an uninhibited confrontation between this idea of objective representation and the subjective passion associated with contemporary painting. Absorbed by the vast surface area of the canvas, the experience of viewing the work is evocative of confronting a monolithic masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. As a profound monument to their moment of execution, the color choices express a deep personal sentiment and the uninhibited expression of the artist, yet his simultaneous abandon to the will of his tools allows Richter to draw his abstracts into the realm of the photographic record, in which aesthetic choices are filtered through the mechanical interpretation of an instance. This immeasurably influential turn invited the means through which Richter was able to instigate “photography by other means.” (the artist cited in "Interview with Rolf Schön, 1972" in Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Eds., Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 73)
Embracing an element of automatism, kinetic energy is literally compounded into the painterly surface of A B, Still as Richter draws his far reaching tool across the canvas in successive layers. Subtly alternating direction as well as the density of paint application, the viscosity of the painted movements, and the drying time between each wipe, Richter indulges in an infinite and unknowable number of permutations born out of the precise interaction between the oil pigments. The detailed combinations of construction, modification and erasure to the color fields all stand to be manipulated by the intuitively felt variations of pressure and direction enacted by Richter as he draws the rubber face of the squeegee across this dense landscape. The resultant surface is boldly corporeal in its profoundly textured complexion, yet it simultaneously toys with our phenomenological capacities for viewing its structure, based on the historic visual tendency for viewing the painted plane as an illusory realm of depth. Richter performs a sensory shattering of the Renaissance idea of the painting as a clear window into a reality, as his distinctly cerebral abstract fields construct a peculiar sense of unstable spatial configuration.
With an acute eye for the sensational interactions between colors, Richter advances the optical theories developed in the Nineteenth Century and most prominently harnessed in the pointillist paintings of French Neo-Impressionist maters such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Identified by Michel Eugène Chevreul, the law of simultaneous contrast describes the way in which the placement of two colors next to each other will affect our perception of them, made most noticeable with the juxtaposition of two colors from opposite ends of the color wheel. In A B, Still, Richter’s insistency on the primary colors of red, blue and yellow allows raw and untainted examples of simultaneous contrast to occur. The semi-triangular block of red that envelops the left side of the canvas is the most consistent zone of color within the piece. Yet at intermittent points it is starkly interrupted by the glare of a rich turquoise – an oppositional tone on the color wheel. This mutual proximity enacts a vibrant enlivening of both colors which calculatedly plays with our perception of depth within the piece. The wash of marine blue that electrifies the right is dusted with strains of caustic yellow that seem to be instantly repelled and dance across the surface in kinetic frenzy. It is this harnessing of contrast that allows Richter’s surface to positively shimmer. In the words of Roald 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.” (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 110)
This decisive focus on primary colors also serves a profoundly symbolic function as Richter alludes to the very nature of the practice of painting itself. Employing the three base tones which a painter mixes to create his spectrum, Richter performs an astute analysis of the medium as he tears apart its very DNA. More elusive in their presence, yet crucial in their ability to anchor and enliven the composition, we also witness an ethereal wash of white that is contrasted with an adjacent band of black that filters out to structure the registers of color from behind. As two key harbingers of light and dark within the practice of painting, the presence black and white aids this staunch dissection of the visual mechanics of a painting, endowing the interacting tones with depth, mystery and a sense of monumentality that anchors this interminable state of visual flux. With the happenstance of chance centralized in its execution and visualized in its appearance, the painterly triumph of the present work becomes somewhat independent of the artist and acquires its own aesthetic autonomy. In sum, A B, Still beautifully encapsulates Richter’s theory that with abstraction “there is no order, everything is dissolved, more revolutionary, anarchistic.” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 108) Yet in its ability to dissect within its painterly surface the very nature of perception and cognition, A B, Still instigates a philosophical enquiry that encompasses the entire history of painting, the legacy of image-making technologies, and our very relationship with what it is that we consider to be a ‘picture.' Thus reinstating and elevating the significance of the art form within wider visual culture, Richter's profound contribution to the history of painting firmly ranks him amongst the greatest artists of our time.
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