Galerie Liliane & Michel Durand-Dessert, Paris
Achenbach Art Consulting, Dusseldorf
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1991
Jürgen Harten, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Bilder 1962-1985, Cologne 1986, p. 89, no. 208-1, illustrated
Angelika Thill et al., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, Vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, n.p., no. 208-1, illustrated
(Gerhard Richter cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002-03, p. 50)
Encompassing a total of seven intriguing canvases, Säulen is one of the largest and most ambitious works of Gerhard Richter's early career. Unprecedented in scale, the grandeur of the present work is only compounded by Richter’s masterful engagement with colour tonality and space, achieving Surrealist optical effects that are aesthetically aligned with the reduced formal repertoire of Minimalist and Conceptual artists such as Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, and Richard Serra. The late 1960s represent a pivotal moment in Richter’s multifarious oeuvre, as it was during this decisive period that his radical experimentations on canvas began to redefine the pre-existing parameters of painting. At this pioneering moment, Richter started to express a marked interest in architectural forms, which found material expression in his seminal series of Townscapes and the epic canvas Domplatz, Mailand. The present work forms part of an eclectic corpus, which includes the celebrated and highly conceptual sculpture 4 Glasscheiben (4 Glass Panes) as well as the Curtains, Windows and Shadow paintings. While Richter painted several versions of the latter motifs, Säulen is truly unique in that it is the only painting of that subject matter.
An impressive polyptych brushed in varying gradations of grey, the present work depicts the optical effect of six columns and their respective shadows cast on a wall creating an arcade of sensory experience, Säulen invites the viewer to immerse themselves in a perceived three-dimensional space. Composed of smooth and liquescent swathes of paint that oscillate from pure white stripes to soft grey tones, Säulen alludes to the tonal rigour of Richter’s Colour Charts, which the artist first began in 1966 and would reintroduce into his works in 1971. Through the simple technique of shading to suggest low relief in what is nevertheless essentially an abstract, almost Op art, composition, Richter achieves an unprecedented sense of optical effects and eye-trickery. These effects are also reminiscent of Bridget Riley’s celebrated black-and-white paintings. Where Riley engaged in mesmerising visual effects through the scientific arrangement of colour fields, in Richter’s works from this period the eye is goaded into a sense of false depth and tangibility through the subtle interplay of light and shadow. This is further accentuated in the present work by the deliberate engagement of the painting with its physical limits, the edges of each canvas, which serve as vertical compositional elements in the depiction of the columns. In its crisp and clear geometric schema, Säulen speaks to the pure geometry and clean lines of the grid, which was brought to critical acclaim by artists such as Sol Lewitt and Frank Stella. By appropriating the rectilinear forms that dominate Stella’s famous Black Paintings such as The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959, Richter ultimately resolved the stark contrast of black enamel and white canvas to create a vertiginous allusion through tonal shifts of grey. Richter’s engagement with architecture and subsequently light and movement prompted the artist to produce the pioneering work 4 Glasscheiben in 1967, in which four panes of glass are aligned side by side each suspended in an iron frame that rotates on a horizontal axis. Similar in its simplicity and transparency, the present work is a projection of Richter’s preoccupation with space transposed from a sculptural level to a two-dimensional picture plane. The illusory effect creates a phantasmagorical sense of directional movement from left to right that is almost cinematographic. Indeed, Richter’s interest in the moving image was strongly embedded in the artist’s early oeuvre from the early 1960s and can be traced back to his little-known but highly influential experimentation with black-and-white films with blurred images.
Situated between the artist’s figurative and abstract paintings, the present work stands at the very epicentre of Richter’s highly innovative practice, and its sheer scale is testament to the exceptional confidence that the artist gained in these years of utmost creative potency. Emerging after years of painting photo-realist depictions from actual photographs, the present work is purely derived from preparatory sketches and drawings. The artist remarked himself: “At some point, it no longer satisfied me to paint photographs; I took the stylistic devices of photos – the accuracy, lack of focus, illusion-like quality – and used them to make doors, curtains, and tubes” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2010, p. 145). Heralding a turn in the artist’s oeuvre towards a constructed rather than copied subject matter, the present work is a reaffirmation of the painterly medium and its expanded possibilities. As masterfully presented in Säulen, Richter’s engagement with the notions of perception and illusion innovatively scrutinise the very nature of objectivity and subjectivity, a debate that also stands at the core of photography versus painting. Richter himself elaborated on the works from this period: “[the works] are metaphors of despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us to apprehend things, but at the same time restricts and partly precludes our apprehension of reality” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, Cambridge 1995, p. 98).
Richter’s tireless and continuous exploration of painting to redefine the medium from within is even more astonishing given the general stance against painting at the time. Towards the end of the 1960s, painting had been declared obsolete by a new generation of artists and curators. Harald Szeeman’s seminal exhibition When Form Becomes Attitude deliberately separated painting from other forms of artistic expression, thus echoing the general consensus of the avant-garde, which was aptly summarised by the title of a work from 1966 by the German Neo-Expressionist Jörg Immendorff: Hört auf zu malen (Stop painting). Richter, however, was strongly opposed to any sort of dogma and totalising systems. As a former East German that came to the West, he defiantly rejected ideological mandates that were imposed by self-proclaimed authorities. The artist himself remarked: “I just went on painting, but I clearly remember that this anti-painting mood did exist. At the end of the 1960s the art scene underwent its great politicisation. Painting was taboo, because it had no 'social relevance' and was therefore a bourgeois thing” (Ibid., p. 153).
Presenting an endlessly engaging and perplexing trompe l’oeil work composed of a reduced monochrome palette, Säulen is a seminal work in which the use of a system to create space through visual distortions is only exacerbated by its epic scale. Though responding to a contemporaneously prevailing minimalist aesthetic, Richter nonetheless persevered with the traditional medium of painting and achieved an unparalleled level of innovation that positions him as one of the greatest and most radical painters of the Twentieth Century.
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