Since the outset of his career during the early 1960s, Gerhard Richter has called into question the conceptual relevance of painting within a visual age governed by photography and mechanical reproduction. Navigating a systematic trajectory of incredibly disparate yet thematically related painterly approaches, Richter has ceaselessly pursued the paradoxical aim to paint ‘like a camera’. In the early 1960s Richter began his professional career by producing impersonal black and white Photo Paintings, later moving on to a series of Colour Charts and monochrome Grey paintings in order to detach authorial gesture and subjective expression from the painterly act. By the mid-1970s however Richter had reached a dead-end: “My paintings became more and more impersonal and general until nothing was left but monochrome grey or colours next to each other, unmodulated colour. Then I was totally outside my paintings. But I didn’t feel well either. You can’t live like that and therefore I decided to paint the exact opposite” (the artist cited in: Camille Morineau, ‘The Blow-Up, Primary Colours and Duplications’ in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 123). The years between the last Colour Charts and the creation of the present painting mark a period of experimental ground-work through which Richter discovered, via the squeegee, the legitimacy of free abstraction without the requisite of a photographic source.
Prior to the execution of 456-1, Richter made a series of paintings from photographs depicting thickly applied oil paint and smaller painted brushstrokes. Monumentally blown up yet painted with photorealist veracity, these zoomed in details took on the appearance of strange landscapes or sfumato abstractions. Camille Morineau cogently illuminates this period of Richter’s career as informed and propelled by the ‘Blow-Up’, the stylistic means through which “the figurative can become abstract and the abstract figurative through being enlarged or reduced” (Camille Morineau, ‘The Blow-Up, Primary Colours and Duplications’ in: Ibid., pp. 126-27). To this end, it was directly following the execution of one of Richter’s largest works, Stroke (on Red) for a school in Soest, that the present painting, modestly scaled in comparison, took on revelatory importance in Richter’s pursuit of abstraction. Using a small yellow brush stroke dragged across a one-metre wide piece of cardboard as a starting point, Richter enlarged and projected a photograph of this onto two monumental canvases - copying in paint the original brushstroke at an enlargement spanning twenty metres. Seen from a distance the image falls into perfect figurative sense, yet viewed up close, the yellow line dissipates into a veil of droplets partially revealing and concealing the card beneath. Executed shortly following this colossal blow-up, the present work can thus be seen as an intriguing counterpart.
At this point in Richter’s career, the squeegee was a totally new and unfamiliar device. The effect of its scrape and accretion of yellow paint across the canvas’ surface imparted a veil of disintegrating exposures and concealments that for Richter directly correlated with the appearance of the enlarged brush stroke at Soest. As explained by Morineau: “Richer would have noticed that the squeegee produced an image that looked like the blown-up stroke: a veil of colour that partially hides, partially reveals what is underneath. That is to say, Richter’s very modestly sized first squeegee painting, CR: 456-1, a mere 80cm wide, resembles the massive yellow Stroke. It was made without any source image, but it looked similar to paintings made by inflating such an image. In other words, the first squeegee painting mimics the appearance of a ‘blown-up’ stroke even though it was made completely differently. From this point onwards, Richter would have understood this lesson: an abstract painting could be made without any starting image […]” (Ibid., p. 127). Using the squeegee as a means to achieve photographic verisimilitude without a source image, the ensuing years witnessed an extraordinary progression towards Richter’s primary intent to paint ‘like a camera’.
As embryonically redolent in the present Abstraktes Bild, not only did these thick tracts of paint echo the appearance of blown-up paint details, but their application would increasingly begin to mimic a kind of representation tied to forms found in the natural world. The comingling of colours and often unpredictable compositional configurations would hereafter implore the same cognitive viewing experience as his Photo works, in which a blurred, half-seen or remembered image is evoked within a field of ceaseless chromatic and textural permutations. Abstraktes Bild, 456-1 is thus the very subject of a radically important turning point in Richter scholarship. Marking the advent of a new era, in many ways the present work signals the artist’s achievement of true semblance through totally free and subjectless painting. Indeed, dormant within the present work are the seeds of an immense achievement that would utterly revolutionise the notion of abstract painting for a post-modern televisual age at the turn of the Twenty-First Century.
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