Gerhard Richter’s unprecedented art of abstraction stands as ultimate culmination 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. Variously evoking something of Rothko’s exuberance of transformative color, Pollock’s instigation of autonomous composition, and de Kooning’s transferal of the figural to the abstract, Richter’s abstraction is ultimately without comparison. That Blau is a definitive Abstraktes Bild masterpiece by Richter is incontrovertible: in palette, technique and gesture, this monumental triumph epitomizes the full force of his art. Some indication of its seminal preeminence is given by the fact that every abstract painting of equal or greater scale that Richter has made since Blau resides today in a museum.
As one of the foremost masters of the past century, it is difficult to conceive of another artist as celebrated as Gerhard Richter. His prodigious artistic output has earned unparalleled international acclaim, and over the course of a fifty-year career his work has been honored with numerous retrospectives by the most prestigious institutions. In the past five years alone there have been seventy-six major solo exhibitions of Richter’s work held in over twenty countries around the world, from the United States to Japan, Brazil to Switzerland, and Mexico to South Korea. In recent years these have famously included shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, the National Portrait Gallery, the Musée du Louvre and Centre Georges Pompidou in addition to many others.
Each tesserae of Blau’s immense architecture contributes to its astounding character. The composition spans the entire color spectrum and traverses the full tonal scale, from deepest blacks to brightest whites. Dominated by the primaries of red, yellow and, of course, blue, it also encompasses every fractional permutation of hue in between. Streaked and smeared passages of once-semi-liquid material have been fixed on the surface; the shadows of their former malleability caught in a perpetually-dynamic stasis. Staccato ridges, crests and peaks of impasto punctuate this underlying fluidity in variously pronounced chromatic contrast, creating a powerful sensation of depth. The interchangeability of light and dark hues in front and behind, respectively in unified smeared swathes and broken thick accretions, such as deepest dark crimson on brilliant bright cyan in the top left versus vivid cadmium yellow on opaque rich umber in the bottom left, radically destabilizes this sense of depth. At the same time, 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 the 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 Richter’s tireless process of addition and subtraction becomes 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 creation of Blau necessitated a conscious suspension of the artist’s artistic will and assertion of judgment. Over a protracted period of execution, the painting underwent multiple variations in which each new sweeping accretion of paint brought new color and textural juxtaposition that were reworked until the optimum threshold of harmonious articulation was reached. Within this process, grounds of arresting pigment were applied only to be effaced and drawn out by large track-like strokes. Although spontaneous in their lyrical grandeur, these overlaid marks were in fact cerebrally labored. Yet Richter holds no presuppositions in the devising of his abstract paintings: in his own words it is by “letting a thing come, rather than creating it – no assertions, constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies” that Richter looks “to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive: to what is beyond my understanding.” (Gerhard Richter, ‘Notes 1985’ in Hans-Ulrich Obrist ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, p. 119) Indeed, as formulated by Birgit Pelzer, Richter’s abstract works, as epitomized by Blau, prove that which cannot be articulated: “Richter’s painting explores the enigmatic juncture of sense and non-sense. His paintings encircle, enclose the real as that which it is impossible to say: the unrepresentable.” (Birgit Pelzer, "The Tragic Desire" in Benjamin D. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts, 2009, p. 118)
Benjamin Buchloh has identified a perennial relationship between absence and content in Richter’s abstract paintings, so that any evocation of nothingness or the void is immediately counteracted by unrelenting complexity and turbulence: "the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely it's always cancelling itself out. With so many combinations, so many permutational relationships there can't be any harmonious chromatic order, or composition either, because there are no ordered relations left either in the colour system or the spatial system." (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Ibid., pp. 23-24) Within its sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture, Blau emits 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 or water erosion, this work derives at least part of its effect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder by way of Blau return us, if only elusively, to a reading of figuration.
By the early 1960s, long since the advent of Marcel Duchamp and Modernism’s declaration of painting’s demise, Richter took up the continuing debate head on, foregrounding the apparent obsolescence of painting into an inquiry that would revolutionize and reenergize its problematic practice. In the context of and as a reaction to photography, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop Art, Richter’s Photo Paintings – the body of work that was to launch him to critical acclaim – instigated a groundbreaking re-examination of painting in the face of technological means of mass production and the glorified pseudo-religiosity of abstract art. By translating artless black and white amateur photographs with indifferent photo-realist veracity onto canvas, Richter looked to the possibility for collusion between the oppositional binary of abstraction and resemblance, in search of a means for painting to objectively say something more than either could individually offer. Immaculately blurred while the paint remains wet, the Photo Paintings rendered explicit a simultaneous interpenetration of and tension between the three-dimensional space captured by the photograph and the flat pictorial space of painting. With these works, Richter bridged the gap between abstract painting and photographic figuration; a turn that at once, via an investigation of photography’s margins, undoes and affirms photography whilst legitimizing painting despite of this. Herein, these works laid the formative ground that would further engender Richter’s systematic negation of painting as the means by which he affirmed its currency.
Towards the end of the 1960s, with the Color Charts and Grey Paintings – Richter’s most pronounced concession to ‘anti-painting’ and Minimalism – the serial and systematic erasure of gesture, artistic agency and privileging of chance compositional structures gave rise to Richter’s movement into pure abstraction from 1972 onwards. While the first of these took the form of abstract paintings based on photographic details of paint strokes, by the early 1990s Richter’s mastery of the squeegee technique to facilitate a quasi-mechanical palimpsest of layered and scraped down color, promulgated the possibility of exquisite lyrical painting within distinctly photographic terms. As made explicit by Kaja Silverman, Richter has made claims to paint “like a camera” even when photographic content is absent from his work (the artist cited in Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, California, 2009, p. 173). In 1972 Richter explained, “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph… I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means… [T]hose of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs.” (Ibid.) In making this analogy with the camera, Richter embraces the fact that perception and the way we view the world today is entirely mediated by the photograph and its technological proliferation. Thus, as outlined by Richter, where the camera “does not apprehend objects, it sees them,” the Abstrakte Bilder elicit the capacity of painting to propagate a true semblance of perception and appearance. To quote Hal Foster, “The semblance that concerns Richter is of a “second nature”… a culture-become-nature bathed in the glow of the media, a semblance permeated with photographic, televisual, and now digital visulalities.” (Hal Foster, "Semblance According to Gerhard Richter," in Benjamin D. Buchloh, ed., Op. cit., p. 126) Redolent across the endless exposures and variegation of the present work, the presence of crackling, distortive fuzz and slick gelatinous layers of color as glaring artificial light, Richter's pure non-referential abstraction unmistakably bears the mark of photography.
Idiosyncratically compatible with the detached, disenchanted mechanical age of contemporary visual culture, Gerhard Richter’s Blau represents an all-enveloping evocation of a distinctly post-modern semblance. The simultaneous negation and affirmation of contingency, expressivity, detachment and transcendence comprises an encompassing host of contradictions that posit this painting as a masterpiece of calculated chaos and paradigm of Gerhard Richter’s mature artistic and philosophical achievement.
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