Gerhard Richter in his studio, 1970
Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden

“I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence.”
G. Richter cited in: ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986’, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 148.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, c.1845
Tate Collection, London
Image: © Tate, London 2020

Radiating golden hues as though viewed through a window frame, Gerhard Richter’s Wolken (fenster) is a work of celestial and immersive beauty. Heir to a long and familiar art historical legacy, the present work instantly conjures an encompassing transhistorical field of references whilst remaining resolutely contemporary. Readily evocative of the Romantic sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable’s famous cloud studies, the atmospheric light-effects of Turner, as well as drawing on the cloud’s symbolic value as heavenly furniture in Renaissance and Baroque painting, this panoramic work also broaches a postmodern dialogue regarding chance and agency. Indeed, while undoubtedly evocative of a religious and Romantic ancestry, this painting telescopes notions of pure abstraction and a denial of authorship in artmaking. Ever changing, fluid and ephemeral, clouds are – to Richter – nature’s own form of abstract painting. By painting a photograph of a cloud formation (the source for the present work is documented on sheet 213 of the artist’s Atlas archive) Richter looked to both embrace a rich art historical legacy and find relevance for painting in an age of image saturation and endless mechanical replication. Considered a deeply important facet within the overarching trajectory of Richter’s career, many of the Cloud Paintings reside in numerous prestigious collections worldwide, including The Museum Folkwang, Essen, Fondation Carmignac in Paris, and The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. As one of the most evocative, unashamedly beautiful and encompassing of Richter’s subjects, the Cloud Paintings, more so than any other series in Richter’s oeuvre, straddle the readily drawn schism that separates the artist’s 1960s black and white Photo Paintings and the pseudo-expressionism of the 1980s Abstrakte Bilder. Across the arresting expanse of Wolken (fenster), religion, history and artistic inheritance are embroiled in the complex debate for painting’s legitimacy in the later Twentieth Century.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Image: © Bridgeman Image

Since the Medieval period and familiar to the frescoed masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, clouds have played a central function in visually portraying the miraculous and heavenly – their vaporous forms withheld the potential for dissolving architectural boundaries to communicate the divine light of the infinite. Operating as the mid-point between the terrestrial and the celestial in countless frescoed church interiors, clouds are the traditional emblems for spiritual presence. Across his corpus of Cloud Paintings, Richter makes a direct concession to devotional tradition by employing the triptych or multi-panelled format: multi-part works such as the present and held in the National Gallery of Canada impart an organisational schema rooted in the history of the altarpiece. Richter has acknowledged the primacy of tradition in his own work, explaining to Benjamin Buchloh in 1986: “I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence” (G. Richter in: ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986’, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 148).

“A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is ‘good’, it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we ostensibly defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, ‘today’, we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did.”
G. Richter, ‘Letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann, February 1973’ in: H. U. Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 81.
The present work in the artist's studio, 1970
Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden

In contrast to other artists who also looked to reinvent the history of landscape painting in ways palpably rooted in the contemporary moment – such as Lichtenstein’s comic-book benday dots for his cloudscapes or Blinky Palermo’s planar colour field abstractions to represent horizon lines – Richter’s unashamedly beautiful, poetic landscapes appear somewhat outdated, verging on the passé. Though contemporaneous with Robert Smithson’s pioneering Land Art, Richter’s clouds ostensibly share more commonalities with Constable’s masterful rendering of the sky or Turner’s treatment of atmospherics – ideologies rooted in specifically nineteenth century expressions of Sublime Nature. Nonetheless, the subversion and contemporaneity of Richter’s works subtly operates via a remarkable double-speak. In 1986 Richter described his landscapes as “cuckoo’s eggs”, making explicit their inherently untruthful or misleading character (G. Richter, Ibid., p. 163). Art historian Hubertus Butin expanded on this concept in 1994: “Richter’s landscape paintings do not go back to any religious understanding of Nature, for him the physical space occupied by Nature is not a manifestation and a revelation of the transcendental. In his pictures there are no figures seen from behind inviting the viewer to step metaphorically into their shoes or sink reverentially into some sublime play on Nature” (H. Butin, ‘The Un-Romantic Romanticism of Gerhard Richter’, in: Exh. Cat., Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy and FruitMarket Gallery; London Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790-1990, 1994, p. 462). By employing the sublime visual language founded in Caspar David Friedrich’s pantheistic paintings and passing it through the photographic, Richter systematically de-romanticises the genre, making it resolutely contemporary. This particularly stands for the Cloud Paintings. Executed and exhibited in series, these are not celestial clouds supporting divine figures or concealing an intimation of a heavenly beyond; though undeniably beautiful as a painted artefact, Richter’s clouds are indifferent, isolated, fragmented and evacuated of an emphatic human element.

Gerhard Richter in his studio, 1970
Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden
Atlas page, featuring source material for the present work, 1970
Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Munich
Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden

Following the irreconcilable events precipitated in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Richter confronts the impossibility of continuity: by invoking the Romantic tradition directly, Richter looked to “make visible the caesura separating his age from Friedrich’s” (Ibid., p. 80). In 1973 Richter acknowledged this strategy: “A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is ‘good’, it concerns us – transcending ideology – as art that we ostensibly defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, ‘today’, we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did” (G. Richter, ‘Letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann, February 1973’ in: H. U. Obrist, Ed., The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 81). At first appearing incommensurate with a heavyweight contemporary art practice, Richter’s Clouds are detached and evacuated of sentiment via the serial and mechanical to ensure a legitimate form of landscape painting that is also intensely beautiful. In Richter’s oeuvre clouds are emptied of their poignant Christian affect; historically evocative yet emotively absent, the intoxication and sublime wonder of God’s creation is replaced by the fragmentary and generalised: “Never spiritual, these totally secular clouds were rendered as merely divisible or repeatable motifs: minimalist clouds” (M. Godfrey, ‘Damaged Landscapes’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 84).

(Left) John Constable, A Cloud Study, Sunset, c.1821. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.
Image: © Bridgeman Images. (Right) John Constable, Study of Cirrus Clouds, c. 1822, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image: © Bridgeman Images.

As a minimalist motif, Richter's Clouds also serve an intriguing and strikingly central function in the artist’s exploration of anti-painting and chance. Very much aligned with the Colour Charts and Grey Paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s – Richter’s most pronounced concessions to Minimalism – the Cloud Paintings represent the perfect natural analogy for a repudiation of artistic, gestural or stylistic choices: “I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no programme, no style, no directions. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery, I steer clear of direction. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty” (G. Richter, Notes 1964 in: The Daily Practice of Painting, op. cit., p. 73). As an artistic mission statement, Richter is categorical in his resolve for indeterminacy. What’s more, by their very metamorphic configuration and vaporescent nature, clouds represent anti-matter aspiring to form. In painting clouds from photographs Richter not only evokes Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic Equivalents (1927) by employing the cloud as a Duchampian readymade, but also selects a model from nature perfectly equivalent to the central effect of the Abstrakte Bilder.

(Left) Gerhard Richter, Eis (1) (Ice (1)), 1989. The Art Institute of Chicago. Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden. (Right) Gerhard Richter, Eis (3) (Ice (3)), 1989, The Art Institute, Chicago Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden.

Richter’s Large-Scale Wolken

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel, 1534-41, Vatican Museums and Galleries, Vatican City. Image: © Bridgeman Images.

First initiated during the early 1970s alongside paintings of photographs of close-up paint swirls, Richter’s Clouds offered a natural model for the indefinite and utterly indeterminate – an equation later inverted within the very nascent abstract works via their semblance of natural phenomena. Indeed, this semblance would later confer naturally referential titles upon many of Richter’s abstract paintings, such as Rain (1988), Eis (1989) or Forest (1990). Speaking of the latter in 1990 Richter explained: “I want to end up with a picture I haven’t planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture … by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of Nature (or Readymade) always possesses” (G. Richter, Ibid., p. 218).

Gerhard Richter, Eisberg, 1982
Private Collection
Image/ Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2020, courtesy Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden

As both abstract forms and photorealist paintings, the Clouds represent the most metamorphic and multidimensional of Richter’s career – significantly, it was this body of work that conceptually furnished and facilitated the artist’s transition into full painterly abstraction in the late 1970s. Visually defining ontological openness, the present work simultaneously stands among the most beautiful and stunning of Richter’s career whilst representing the most transgressive, symbolically redolent and conceptually pluralistic motifs ever translated by the artist into paint. All aspects of the artist’s philosophical, historical and aesthetic concerns are subtly concentrated into the glorious miasma and ethereal sfumato that constitutes Gerhard Richter’s Wolken (fenster).