Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art: Part I, 18 May 1999, Lot 42
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
East Berlin, Neue Berliner Galerie im Alten Museum; Dresden, Albertinum, Galerie Neue Meister Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; and Hanover, Sprengel Museum, Positionen: Malerei aus der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1986-87, p. 185, illustrated in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1996, p. 626, illustrated in colour
Peter Krueger, Ed., Art Bridge: New York-Cologne-New York, 50 years of Transatlantic Dialogue, Berlin 2001, p. 405, illustrated in colour
Gerhard Hoffmann, From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction, New York 2005, illustrated in colour on the front cover
Tony Godfrey, Painting Today, London 2009, p. 141, no. 166, illustrated in colour
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1976-1987, Vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit 2013, p. 507, no. 599, illustrated in colour
Birgit Pelzer, ‘The Tragic Desire’ in: Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, p. 118.
Chance, layering, erasure, chromatic power and compositional counterpoint are wielded to sublime effect in Abstrakes Bild from 1986. Following a corpus of nascent abstractions executed between the years of 1980-85, the present work heralds a decisive break and undeniable landmark achievement; from 1986 onwards Gerhard Richter would relinquish any planned compositional elements of form and structure in favour more predominantly of the indeterminate scrape and accretion of the ‘squeegee’. As laid down in the present work across seemingly photographic layers of pearlescent underpainting (more prominent towards the lower half of the composition), Richter has waged a battle between the squeegee and the brush. Horizontal veils of stuttering paint present a riposte to the vertical drag of wide brush-strokes, both of which are punctuated by finer and more angular accents. The result is a mesmerising field in which painterly elements both spar against and complement each other while the paint’s chromatic value injects this piece with an undisputed brilliance. Broadcasting deepest blue through to acidic yellow and red, along with all the possible permutations that exist in between these primary values, Abstraktes Bild imparts glorious light effects that verge on the experiential. In the centre, a vertical band of radiant green is pierced and intercut by a stream of luminous colour to impart a reading akin to light flooding ecclesiastical architecture or sunlight coursing through the soft miasma of cloud. Indeed, the balance between hard and soft, structural solidity and phosphorescence, photographic and the abstract, finds an apogee in this enveloping work. Towering in strident swathes of luminescent and kaleidoscopic paint, Abstraktes Bild is not only one of the largest abstract paintings by the artist, it is also one of the most chromatically, compositionally and redolently astounding. Having been on extended loan to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, during the 1990s, this painting is a remarkable exposition of the very apogee of Richter's abstract canon.
Texture, colour and structure are deployed in Abstraktes Bild with spectacular force and sensitivity to engender a seductive painterly synthesis visually aligned to an exquisite and strikingly atmospheric evocation: structural strips and impastoed ridges of thick oil paint delineate a schema of painterly revelations and under layers of diaphanous blue, green and purple that are punctuated with sunset flashes of yellow, orange, red and pink. Herein, the present work draws a uniquely evocative dialogue with late nineteenth-century landscape painting from a distinctly contemporary perspective. Invoking an utterly self-referential language of abstraction, Abstraktes Bild nonetheless shares aesthetic and atmospheric congruencies with Monet’s late Nympheas, Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like treatment of the Austrian landscape, and Seurat’s proto-scientific treatment of light and colour. Indeed, Richter’s breathtaking Abstraktes Bild captures an atmosphere akin to a post impressionistic translation of landscape scenery. However, Richter has frequently spoken of aspects of his work as ‘cuckoo’s eggs’ in that his paintings are often mistaken for something they are not, or not fully. Where this most aptly applies to the artist’s take on the sublime landscape, it is also at stake within his response to both an evocation of an Impressionist landscape and the sublime abstraction of the Twentieth Century’s great American painters.
Though comprising seemingly infinite tonal variations and intimations of abyssal layers beyond the picture plane, Abstraktes Bild is nonetheless a cancellation of the kind of transcendental sacred image space pioneered by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and perhaps most apt for the present work, Franz Kline. Ineluctably glorious in its enveloping celebration of colour, an experience of unbridled structure and boundless chromatic affect is nonetheless disrupted and offset by an enshrouding static drone. As outlined by Benjamin Buchloh: “[I]f the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely its always cancelling itself out. With so many combinations, so many permutational relationships, there can’t be any harmonious chromatic order, or compositional either, because there are no ordered relations left either in the colour system or the spatial system” (Benjamin Buchloh, ‘An Interview with Gerhard Richter’ (1986) in: Benjamin Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, pp. 23-24). Much like a palimpsest in its layered surface and repeated working over, the present work resembles a restless confluence of many paintings at once. The exuberant strata of paint bear the ghosts of previous accretions and colour juxtapositions applied, erased, remade and obliterated over again. Such chromatic and compositional negations represent Richter’s rebuttal of the bold idealism of 1950s abstraction: "Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate" (Richter quoted in: Michael Kimmelmann, ‘Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms’, The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). Rather, the climate we do have, and the climate Richter’s entire production concerns itself with, is our contemporary age of the photographic.
Coming full circle from the earliest Photo Paintings, the present work witnesses the full induction of the squeegee as the principal compositional agent. This in turn invited the means through which Richter was able to instigate “Photography by other means” (Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, California 2009, p. 173). As redolent in Abstraktes Bild, the sheen of immaculate colour and endless permutations mimic the aesthetic of a cibachrome print, while a distinctly photographic quality is compounded by the out-of focus consistency of the sweeping accretions of paint. Evoking a blurred, half-seen or remembered image and imploring the same cognitive viewing experience as his photo works, the hazy coagulation of endlessly scraped pigment forms an extraordinary repost to the canon of abstraction via the photographic, mechanical and the aleatory. Within the sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture this painting emits an extraordinary wealth of enigmatic yet recognisable evocation. The incessant erasure and denial of formal resolution induces a reading of phenomological forms associated with those found in nature. Readily evoking natural experiences such as rain, water erosion, or in this case light streaming through a window, the Abstract works derive their affect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us to a suggestion of referentiality.
As made explicit by Kaja Silverman, Richter has made claims to paint “like a camera” even when photographic content is absent from his work (Gerhard Richter quoted in: ibid.). Speaking in overarching terms of his wider painterly project, 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 visualities” (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 crackling, distortive fuzz redolent within Richter’s endlessly applied layers of pigment unmistakably bears the aesthetic mark of photographic reproduction. Indeed, Abstrakes Bild and its oleaginous layers of unrestrained colour delivers an effect that is at once utterly evocative of natural phenomena and photographic exposure.
As many scholars of Richter’s work have pointed out, it is apt to note that the collective title for the abstract paintings, Abstrakte Bilder, is not a straightforward translation; rather, the closest equivalent to the original German is Abstract Pictures: by his own admission, Richter is not creating paintings but instead making images. The abstract works thus picture a post-photographic painterly image space nascently forged within the blur of the Photo Paintings and fully articulated in the large-scale squeegee abstractions. As art historian Peter Osborne outlines: “Richter’s abstract images are images of this image space itself. In this respect they are still ‘photo paintings’, but in an ontologically deeper sense than the phrase conveys when used as a designation for the earlier, more particularistically ‘photo-based’ work” (Peter Osborne, ‘Abstract Images: Sign, Image and Aesthetic in Gerhard Richter’s Painting’ in: Benjamin Buchloh, Ed., op. cit., p. 109). Abstraktes Bild is a consummate example of the type of ‘videotic’ effect mentioned by Osborne. Via a crackling, distortive fuzz redolent within miraculous sheens of colour, this painting's purely abstract field of painterly variegation unmistakably bears the mark of televisual opticality. Having sought new ways to paint that rally against “redundant” figuration and the “inflated subjectivism, idealism, and existential weightlessness” of Modernist abstraction, Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder picture an assertion of abstract painting, not only in the face of photography which lies at the root of painting’s crisis, but immersed in its digital glow (Peter Osborne, ‘Painting Negation: Gerhard Richter’s Negatives’,October, vol. 62, Autumn, 1992, p. 104). Furnished by the mechanistic dissemination and destructive scrape of the squeegee, the present work possesses the irrepressible beauty of a Franz Kline that has been processed through Richter’s de-sublimatory lens and transfigured into a glorious post-conceptual affirmation of painting for the televisual age.
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 Monet’s translation of his garden at Giverny, Rothko’s exuberance of transformative colour, Kline’s structural expressionism, Pollock’s instigation of autonomous composition, and de Kooning’s transferal of the figural to the abstract, Richter’s abstraction is ultimately without comparison. Herein, the vast expanse of Asbtraktes Bild is utterly replete with the most spectacular colour, form and texture; a sheer cliff face of unadulterated expression as delivered by the world’s greatest living painter. Within the field of this canvas, acts of unfathomable chaos have touched something not quite of this realm, creating, in short, something that is phenomenal.