By the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter’s reputation as one of the most influential contemporary painters was already well-established. Having developed an artistic language that was increasingly understood as a conceptual approach to the medium, incorporating both photorealist and abstract paintings, the artist was confident in a dazzling variety of painterly styles. However, after more than a decade dedicated to exploring the nature of painting, Richter had become dissatisfied with his recent experiments. Following a series of eight identical grey monochromes for the Städtisches Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, the artist felt that his explorations into this reductive formalism had reached their logical conclusion. This conscious departure from the monochromatic grey paintings was to become one of the most fruitful and significant developments in Gerhard Richter’s multi-faceted oeuvre, culminating with the celebrated Abstrakte Bilder of the 1980s and 1990s - and started with the cycle that includes the present work. Painted in 1976, Abstraktes Bild (398-5) followed the large-scale Construction (398), the very first of Richter’s colourful abstract paintings. As the title of the work indicates, Richter felt ambiguous about the overly composed appearance of Construction, leading him to experiment with the five subsequent canvasses in the cycle - amongst which the present work. As the first canvasses to bear the title Abstrakte Bilder, these works were to become the basis for the abstract paintings over the years to come, thus crucially establishing the foundation of Richter’s mature career. Their incredible significance is reflected in their presence at prestigious institutional exhibitions, as various paintings from this first series have been included in exhibitions such as Panorama at the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and inGerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington.
© Dietmar Elger, Courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden
Gerhard Richter’s ambiguous use of the word bilder (images) is particularly significant here, as the early Abstrakte Bilder were the result of a process of carefully pre-meditated compositions, aided by photographs and drawings. Richter’s early work had already consciously attempted to undermine a singular painterly programme, both through his widely varying stylistic approach and his famous use of photographs as source images - and he continued to do so in his early abstract paintings. By mediating the directness of painting through an engaged dialogue with photography and drawing, the artist distanced himself from the gesturalism of expressionist painting and instead treated these works as consciously constructed images. Indeed, the artist’s continuous negotiation between photography and painting has become one of the cornerstones of his practice, giving the present work an incredible art-historical cachet. Richter’s limited output at this time (he only made around 30 paintings a year between 1976 and 1980) makes Abstraktes Bild (398-5) of paramount historical importance as one of the very few, and one of the earliest, of Richter’s experimentation in colourful abstraction that signalled the height of his creative genius and would become one of the most iconic bodies of work in contemporary painting