The Striking Colours of Richter's Abstract Series
S otheby’s is honoured to present three extraordinary paintings by Gerhard Richter from the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection. Held in this esteemed private collection for over thirty-five years and acquired only one year after each works’ execution in 1985, this seminal group of paintings mark a moment of exceptional mastery within Richter’s enthralling six-decade career.
Illuminating magnificent vistas of electrifying colour, S.D., Abstraktes Bild (576-1) and Abstraktes Bild (576-2) were created in the artist’s Cologne studio at the same pivotal moment, and as a result they are recorded nearly in sequence in the catalogue raisonné, the three only separated as a group by one other painting entitled Stuhl (575-3). A number of highly comparable compositions executed between 1984 and 1986 are held in prestigious museum collections, among them Abstraktes Bild (567, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart), Athen (573-3, FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais Collection, Dunkerque), Atelier (574, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Neue National-galerie, Berlin), Station (577-2, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh), Billard (583-1, Stifterkreis Kunsthalle zu Kiel), Abstraktes Bild (594-1, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), and Ölberg (598, The Saint Louis Art Museum). The works in the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection exemplify Richter’s aesthetic and conceptual investigations into painterly abstraction. These three transcendent paintings are testament to Richter’s status as one of the most significant painters of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.
The present paintings’ execution follow a period of remarkable production and a number of solo exhibitions at prestigious museums, among them Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977), the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (1978 and 1980), Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (1979) and the Straatsgalerie Stuttgart (1985). During the late 1970s and early 1980s Richter’s painterly output was diverse as he excelled in a broad range of genres, from still life and landscape to chromatic abstraction. S.D., Abstraktes Bild (576-1) and Abstraktes Bild (576-2) are preceded by the Kerzen (Candles) and Schädel (Skulls) from 1982 and 1983 respectively, works that rank among Richter’s most significant and widely recognised. Some of his most exquisite landscapes were executed between 1979 and 1982, among them the superb large-scale Davos (1981, The Art Institute of Chicago) and Eisberg im Nebel (Iceberg in Mist) (1982, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco). The Abstraktes Bilder from the Helga and Walther Lauffs collection indeed rank among the masterpieces from this important and highly productive moment in Richter’s career.
Richter discovered the squeegee in 1979, an artistic revelation that would have a lasting and profound impact on his aesthetic language throughout the remainder of his career. Richter did not begin using the squeegee as his sole painting tool until one year after the present works were executed, and therefore the Lauffs’ paintings are extraordinary in their demonstration of a multifaceted painterly technique, in which Richter continued to use the traditional paint brush alongside the experimental squeegee. Richter himself described his new approach to abstraction during this seminal period: “So I set out in the totally opposite direction… I put random, illogical colours and forms… colourful, sentimental, associative, anachronistic, random, polysemic, almost like pseudopsychograms, except that they are not legible, because they are devoid of meaning or logic… An exciting business, at all events, as if a new door had opened for me.” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter. Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 3, 1976-1987, Ostfildern 2013, p. 16).
COMPARABLE WORKS IN MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
Employing vibrant, primary colours, S.D., Abstraktes Bild (576-1) and Abstraktes Bild (576-2) are compositionally complex in their varying spatial suggestions. Sequences of solid colour on the canvas grounds – applied uniformly with a brush – exude a distinct sense of flatness, while the use of the squeegee and a fine brush dragged through layers of wet paint imbue each composition with a three-dimensionality unique to the Abstraktes Bilder of this period. By scraping away layers of pigment, Richter reveals a multitude of exquisite colours, each passage of colliding paint more dynamic than the next. On the surface of S.D., plumes of yellow, green and white interrupt passages of thicker crimson and blue brushwork, while the trajectory of the squeegee is palpable in bold horizontal and vertical cross-sections. The plexiglass blade of the squeegee often dragged a new layer of pigment across the surface of the canvas, yet Richter also employed the blade as a means to excavate the top layers of paint, scraping away pigment to reveal chromatically resplendent underlayers. The present works exude this endless process of doing and undoing, mark-making and obliteration. Curator and Director of the Gerhard Richter Archive, Dietmar Elger describes this highly repetitive process: “He can move the squeegee more or less firmly, faster or slower across the canvas, while at the same time changing the angle. If the underlying paint is still damp, it mixes differently with the new layer of squeegeed paint than if it is already dry. The process can result in a coherent, monochromatic surface, the damp colours can smear together, or a spotted track can be found on top of the existing surface. Sometimes Richter uses the edge of the squeegee to scrape off the underlying layers of paint again… he can never fully control the process. The results always contain an aspect of coincidence and surprise” (Dietmar Elger, Ibid., p. 20).
Indeed, subconscious and uncalculated mark-making prevail on the surface of the present works, and Richter himself explains his submission to the dynamism of chance: “This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: It has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself” (Gerhard Richter in conversation with Sabine Schütz in: Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interview and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 256). Richter called the works executed in the early 1980s ‘free abstracts’, a name aptly conveying an open embrace of movement and irregularity. His radical use of the squeegee as painterly tool builds upon a number of contemporary art historical precedents, not least Andy Warhol’s revolutionary silkscreening technique begun in the 1960s, but also Jackson Pollock’s highly physical mode of action painting a decade earlier in the ‘50s. Like Warhol and Pollock before him, Richter too, engaged in a complex painterly process that was at once highly energetic and corporeal, the use of the squeegee often requiring the strength of the artist’s entire body to move pigment across the surface of a large-scale canvas.
Gerhard Richter’s unprecedented abstract oeuvre stands as 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. The artist’s corpus of abstraction is at once esoterically dense and strikingly beautiful. In converging hues of brilliant crimson, cerulean, orange, and emerald green, the vast expanses of S.D., Abstraktes Bild (576-1) and Abstraktes Bild (576-2) convey an oscillation between conscious control and chance central to Richter’s conceptual approach to painting, an approach that is inevitably unrivalled and without comparison. Symphonies of frenetic colour and imposing beauty, the three paintings from the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection signify a defining moment of painterly mastery within Richter’s artistic production of over half a century, in turn illuminating the magnitude of the artist’s visionary contributions to contemporary art.