“The complex weave of textures, colors and rhythms in these new paintings…results in a literal presence that is fuller, richer, more all-inclusive than in his previous abstract works.” Jill Lloyd in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Gerhard Richter: The London Paintings, 1988, n.p.
The sweeping extent to which Gerhard Richter is responsible for maintaining the vitality and essential currency of painting during the course of recent Art History is undeniable and inescapable. 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. Belonging to the group of abstract paintings created for Richter’s 1988 show The London Paintings at Anthony d’Offay Gallery—his first major commercial exhibition in London—Richter’s extraordinary monument A B, St. James is a paragon of this series of early Abstrakte Bilder indefatigably tied to their host city. Acquired by the present owners directly from d’Offay in 1989, A B, St. James has remained in the same collection since the year after its debut in the 1988 exhibition of The London Paintings. From this corpus of fourteen so-called London Paintings created in response to a trip Richter made to London in 1987, A B, St. James is one of only five executed in the dramatically panoramic horizontal orientation. Testament to the remarkable caliber of this series, a number of these paintings now reside in prestigious institutional collections across the globe; most notably, each of the other horizontally oriented London Paintings today belong to significant collections: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington., D.C.; Tate, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and La Caixa Foundation, Barcelona.
A B, St. James looms in exquisite swathes of the richest red accented with strident kaleidoscopic underlayers of aquamarine blue, sunset orange, canary yellow and verdant green. Sumptuous impasto passages of viscous oil paint cover and reveal magnificent sediments of intense chromatic strata; an effect that conjures organic weathering and an atmospheric intimation of the painting’s urban title. Possessing an atmospheric power connected to famous British architectural monuments and generating a viewing experience that evokes the atmospheric effects of Claude Monet, A B, St. James sublimely registers beyond our sphere of cognition to deliver a rich poetic riposte to the sights and sounds of historic London. The painting references a direct geographic connection in alluding to the central district in the City of Westminster. As with the extant thirteen works in this ground-breaking series, each follows a particular quality which is enforced by Richter’s subsequent titling. Each work from the series is named after the various towers of the Tower of London and the chapels of Westminster Abbey, providing a sense of place that roots the abstract handling of paint in the real world. Alongside other works in this corpus, Richter conjures a mixture of evocations that complexly negotiate ecclesiastical and cultural references whilst at the same time eschewing literal interpretation. Indeed, far from performing a narrative function, these names operate within an intensely imaginative dimension rooted in Richter’s experience and anticipation of his London exhibition. In the catalogue essay for the d’Offay show, Jill Lloyd singles out the present work as a highlight from the series: “The rich and spectacular appearance of the new abstract work—St James, St Andrew, Flint Tower are some of the best examples—is the result of this complex balancing act of process, that extends over a period of time and is broken by periods of inactivity and consideration, when Richter physically and emotionally steps back from the compelling presence of his work.” (Jill Lloyd in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Gerhard Richter: The London Paintings, 1988, n.p.)
Though entirely disconnected from referentiality in both method and conception, Richter’s abstractions nevertheless elusively evoke natural forms and color configurations. As outlined by the artist: “The paintings gain their life from our desire to recognize something in them. At every point they suggest similarities with real appearances, which then, however, never really materialize.” (the artist 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 color 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 Elger, Op. Cit., 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 color. 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 A B, St. James 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 color 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 Exh. Cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Gerhard Richter: Abstrakte Bilder, 2008, p. 37)
Richter’s London Paintings revel in pure abstraction while conjuring a very specific feeling of place. Herein, the astounding abstracts presented in The London Paintings were the very first to fully draw a bridge between Richter’s very nascent foray into the dialectic between painting and photography. Coming full circle from the earliest Photo Paintings, the present work witnesses the full induction of the squeegee as the principle compositional agent. This in turn invited the method 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) As redolent in A B, St. James, the sheen of immaculate color and endless permutations mimic the aesthetic of a cibachrome print, while a distinctly photographic quality is compounded by the out-of focus consistency in the sweeping accretions of paint. Evoking a blurred image and imploring the same searching cognitive viewing experience as his photo-works, the hazy coagulation of endlessly scraped pigment forms an extraordinary riposte to the canon of twentieth-century abstraction via the photographic, mechanical and the aleatory. Within the sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture these paintings emit an extraordinary wealth of enigmatic yet recognizable evocation. The incessant erasure and denial of formal resolution induces a reading of phenomenal forms associated with those found in nature. Readily evoking natural experiences such as rain, water erosion, or architectural weathering, the abstract works derive their affect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us to a suggestion of referential representation.
Intriguingly, Richter’s show at d’Offay also included a suite of landscape paintings which, at first viewing, strike the viewer as natural successors to an art historical lineage of British landscape painters as epitomized by Turner, Constable or, as is oft mentioned, the sweeping panoramas of German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. This, however, is to simplify Richter’s highly conceptual relationship with image-making in all of its guises (both representational and abstract), which, rooted in the recognizable tropes of art history (from Romantic landscape painting through to Abstract Expressionism), looks to drive the possibility of painting into the Twenty-first Century. Ultimately, however, Richter’s achievement was without direct precedent. A B, St. James 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 A B, St. James becomes independent of the artist and acquires its own inimitable and autonomous individuality.
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