Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London
Paolo Vedovi, Paris/Brussels
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1995
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Gerhard Richter 1988/89, 1989, n.p., illustrated in colour
The dramatic cascading sweep of Gerhard Richter's vivid Untitled exhibits a truly resplendent and dynamic symphony of painterly abstraction. Comprising a powerfully graphic black and white schema of duotone swathes of paint, this virtuoso painting essays an elegant dissipation of tonal variation that belies any superficial monochromism: ranging from vivid jewel-like exposures of orange, yellow and red to a subtle profusion of sapphire blue, the masterful balance between sensitive tonality and sharp contrast posit this work as among the most compelling and exquisite of Richter's production. Executed in 1989, this work accompanies some of the most ethereal and stunning of Richter's astounding opus of abstraction. Closely comparable in chromatic splendour to the sequential three part series November, December and January 1989 housed in the Saint Louis Art Museum, the present work exhibits a spectacular painterly stratum that ranks among the most enchanting of the exceptional Abstrakte Bilder.
Contained within the graphic profusion of corrugated paint, Richter's mercurial production is brought full-circle: the dramatic yet measured layers of black, white and the incumbent variegation of greyscale casts an allusion back to the Photo Paintings that first brought Richter critical acclaim in the early 1960s. Mirroring the central conceit of these blurred photographic works, Richter's abstract duotone sweep concurrently conceals and provides an intimation of that which lies beyond and behind the veil. Indeed, during a recent interview with Nicholas Serota, Richter outlined: "Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings and landscapes that don't exist, but they create the impression that they could exist. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 19). Conferring a dramatic push and pull between masking and revealing, the mechanical and the manual, the Abstrakte Bilder exhibits an intellectual suspension between the scientific and the expressive to deliver the very apotheosis of Richter's pre-eminent examination of painting within an age saturated by photographic reproduction.
After decades of scrutinising painting in relation to competing visual cultures, the emergence of the Abstrakte Bilder stand as the crowning achievement in Richter's mercurial oeuvre: as propounded by Benjamin Buchloh, Richter withholds a position of "incontrovertible centrality in the canon of abstraction in the present" (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh in, Exhibition Catalogue, Cologne, Museum Ludwig and Munich, Haus der Kunst, Gerhard Richter Large Abstracts, 2009, p. 9). Within Richter's outstanding career, the abstract works represent the most demanding feat of the artist's craft; described as "complicated, messy, a bit of a battle", these works embody the culmination of Richter's life-long scrutiny of painting (the artist in: Ibid., p. 16). Disparate to working from a photographic model or preparatory drawing, Richter's deferral of quantifiable and predictable control requires a ritualistic and ordered process of preparation: "mixing the colours, finding the right hues, the smell, all these things foster an illusion that this is going to be a wonderful painting" (Ibid). A number of primed white canvases are installed on the walls of the artist's studio, onto which Richter often works simultaneously, moving from one painting to another and back again. Over a protracted period of execution the works undergo multiple variations. Performed to sublime effect in the present work, each new sweeping accretion of paint brings colour and textural juxtapositions that are reworked until an optimum painterly threshold is achieved. Within this process, grounds of arresting pigment are applied only to be effaced and drawn out by large track-like strokes of the squeegee. Though spontaneous in their lyrical grandeur, these overlaid marks are in fact scrutinised and cerebrally laboured. Representing a conflicting balance between artistic agency and autonomous contingency, Richter's Abstrakte Bilder masterfully problematises and yet mediates a relationship with the instinctual, spontaneous and the arbitrary.
In this respect, Richter's work most readily strikes an art historical affiliation with the paradigmatic Abstract Expressionist painting of Jackson Pollock. Within Pollock's densely layered paint splatters and energetic accumulation of drips, scientists have empirically discovered a parity between the fractal dimension of myriad patterns observed throughout the natural world and Pollock's spontaneous profusion of mark making. By inviting chaos into the execution of the work and arbitrating and directing its aesthetic trace, the work of Pollock and Richter alike, capture something of the compelling beauty and mystery of the unknowable. Nonetheless unlike Pollock and the heroic paroxysmal gesture of 'action painting', Richter's methodical almost clinical calculation and detachment have consistently maintained a cool critical distance from his chosen medium.
From the very start Richter has called into question the conceptual underpinnings of painting, which at times to quote Robert Storr, "has resembled a dissecting table on which the medium has been laid out and systematically flayed" (Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: The Cage Paintings, London 2009, p. 64). By vivisecting the canon of abstraction with the deliberation of a forensic scientist, Richter invites a wavering dialogue between an intimation of "something on a higher plane" whilst un-picking its claims to metaphysical truth (the artist in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011' Op. Cit., p. 19). Markedly removed from the project of Pollock and other attendants of abstract expressionism, Richter powerfully and deliberately wields a suspension between accident and facture.
Here, the theatrical yet cool Untitled resplendently embodies Richter's theory of abstraction for which "there is no order, everything is dissolved, [it is] more revolutionary, anarchistic" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, 1988, p. 108). His Abstract Paintings are designed to have a non-identity whereby the total deconstruction of perception - interrogating and dismantling themes of representation, illusion, communication - engender a sublime chaos. In wielding the squeegee as an intermediary tool to physically deploy and inform compositional and chromatic distribution, Richter summons a language of abstract self-referentiality founded in chance, which in turn philosophically invokes a transcendental inquiry into the unknowable and inexpressible realm that lies beyond the visual terms of representation.
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