G erhard Richter once declared: “Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate” (quoted in Michael Kimmelmann, ‘Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms’, The New York Times, January 27, 2002). Whatever the climate of our current epoch, it has witnessed the towering force of Richter’s own timeless heroism. Reversing the wanton capriciousness of 1950s Abstract Expressionism, the elegant chromatic logic of Richter’s abstract works embody a new kind of artistic revolution: one that marched beyond not just the paradigm of abstraction but that of painting itself.
Leading the Hong Kong Contemporary auctions this fall is one such brilliant example. The delectably spectacular Abstraktes Bild (679-2) from 1988 hails from the most sought-after period of Richter’s oeuvre, during which his paintings realized new heights of sophistication. With quiet majestic grace, 679-2 cascades downwards via vertical squeegee strokes whilst simultaneously exuding a horizontal vector, evoking the subliminal cadences of a waterfall or organ tune.
GERHARD RICHTER, ABSTRAKTES BILD (679-2), 1988. ESTIMATE HK$32,000,000–48,000,000.
For many, Richter’s abstract paintings capture an aesthetic akin to that of Impressionistic painting; the current lot’s earthy palette in particular resonates with that of an entrancing Monet gardenscape. Departing from Monet’s hazy surfaces, however, the dense impeccable sheen of Richter’s paintings embodies a distinctly photographic quality, recalling that of a cibachrome print. The repeatedly layered and scraped pigment conjures an out-focus yet paradoxically precise finish – a half-seen, half-remembered or digitally tainted image – that implores the same cognitive viewing experience as the manipulated photo works that preoccupied the artist during his earlier years.
Thus lies the inimitably riveting allure of Richter’s abstract paintings. Organically atmospheric yet photographic, abstract yet probing and evocative, the series is the magnum opus of a dedicated painter whose rigorous, meticulous dexterity on canvas is rooted – counterintuitively – in the conceptual foundations of photography. Such a foundation purges the artist’s – and by extension the viewer’s – gaze of all sentimentality, alongside any vague grand notions of spirituality and authenticity. Richter is concerned neither with representation nor its antithesis – abstraction per se – but with the ontological act of ‘showing’ or ‘making known’: the creation of vision and moments of pure visual pleasure.
As many a Richter scholar has pointed out, the collective title for the series Abstrakte Bilder is more closely translated as ‘Abstract Pictures’ rather than ‘Abstract Paintings’. By his own admission, Richter is making not paintings but pictures, insodoing interrogating the acts of showing and looking and the technologies through which such acts take place. Recalling that one of the artist’s first jobs after graduating was that of a darkroom assistant, one cannot help but re-contextualize his painterly processes of scraping, erasing and blurring as extended lifelong experimentations with the chanced coagulations of color and form that first enamored him in the darkroom.
The maestro once said: “I want to reject this notion of the heroic artist”. And yet, the Abstrakte works – now symbols of status for collectors worldwide – constitute a gallant affirmation of abstraction 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). Such a feat constitutes much-needed heroism for the future of painting and art itself: an extraordinary riposte to the canon of abstraction.