Collection Otto Haas, Elzach
Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin
Galerie Arno Kohnen, Dusseldorf
Galerie Denise René Hans Mayer, Dusseldorf
Acquired from the above by the previous owner in 1987
Berlin, Galerie René Block, Gerhard Richter: Städte, January - February 1969
Munich, Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Gerhard Richter – Städtebilder, April - May 1970
Berlin, Onnasch Galerie; and Cologne, Onnasch Galerie, 20 Deutsche, August - September 1971, n.p., no. 50, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gerhard Richter, Vol. III, 1993, n.p., no. 170-6, illustrated in colour
Dietmar Elger, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1968, Vol. I, Ostfildern 2011, p. 342, no. 170-6, illustrated in colour
By the late 1960s, Richter had entered an experimental phase in his career. Looking for a route out of his photo works, in 1964 he devised a series of monochromatic paintings echoing the appearance of curtains, tubes, and corrugated iron. The Siemens commission thus prompted Richter to take an alternate and unanticipated direction away from his trademark blur. As he explained, “Sometimes I’ve enjoyed doing commissioned work, in order to discover something that I wouldn’t have found of my own accord. And so, when Siemens commissioned my first townscape that led to all the townscapes that followed” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Cologne 2002, p. 158). Furthermore, it was only following the townscapes that Richter began his most pronounced concession to anti-painting with the series of monochrome grey works – indeed, the very first Grau in Richter’s cataglogue raisonne is in fact the overpainted Stadtbild M 8 (grau) which also once belonged to the same colossal painting as the present work.
In preparation for the commission and in an attempt to assuage the pressure, Richter prepared two huge canvases safe in the knowledge that he could always start again. Stadtbild M 6 thus represents what was the top right corner of the first version of the Siemens commission. The artist’s decision to segment this vast painting quickly arrived owing to the nature of the marriage of gestural brushwork and the canvas’s monumental scale. Divided into nine, the city motif became reduced in scope, while its abstract quality was made more intense and un-familiar by fragmentation. Furthermore, when comparing this sequence of 9 with the original source image (an aerial photograph that can be viewed on sheet 119 of Richter’s archive/artwork Atlas) it is clear that the designated numbers of each painting are not sequential but are instead random; a device that serves to further disassociate the image from its representational and photographic origin. Occupying the same corner as the view portrayed in Domplatz, Mailand (the work that was eventually submitted to Siemens as the finished commission) the present work depicts the Piazza del Duomo in front of Milan Cathedral in which the equestrian monument of King Victor Emmanuel II resides. On such an intimate scale, however, identifying this specific locality is nigh-on impossible; landmarks and geographical clues dissipate into thick daubs and dabs of paint. Indeed, evocative of El Lissitzky’s abstract compositions which looked to present an interchange between architecture and painting, Stadtbild M 6 abstracts its subject through a geometric pattern of buildings that enclose the square and the diagonal thrust of the road that encircles it.
Within the series at large, Richter used aerial photographs of cities culled from 1960s architectural books and magazines. From these sources he translated black and white birds-eye views into painterly matrices of richly textured thick horizontal and vertical brushmarks. Seemingly incongruous with the measured application of his earlier photo-paintings, the quickly applied brushstrokes nonetheless affect a comparable visual suspension between recognition and uncertainty. From a distance these scenes appear to resemble the super-real cogency of his previous corpus, but on closer inspection visual coherence entirely disintegrates into haphazard brushwork. The effect possesses something of the ‘all-over’ strategy pioneered by Abstract Expressionist painters in which a sense of perspective and focal point is repudiated in favour of a roving viewing experience.
While not mutually exclusive considering the social history behind the Ab Ex movement, the Stadtbilder have also been posited in terms of a response to the Second World War. Re-conjuring a dialogue with the history of inner-city destruction, these paintings signify a return of repressed national trauma. In Germany during the 1960s, so much energy was directed towards re-building and erasing traces of a troubled past that an acknowledgement of the bombings was greatly supressed in the nation’s collective memory. As Tate curator Mark Godfrey elucidates: “An extraordinary sequence of reversals takes place in the townscapes. Richter started with aerial photographs that were made to document the rebuilding of cities after the war and to celebrate the achievements of architects, town planners and labourers… Rendering the images of rebuilt cities in his brushy impasto, he effectively re-destroyed the cities, albeit in the imaginary field of painting” (Mark Godfrey, ‘Damaged Landscapes’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011-12, p. 76). The significance of this connection was likely only apparent following the commission, however, its relevance may explain the longevity of the project for Richter who continued to paint townscapes for a further two years. In a different light it is also apt to note the concurrent execution of a number of works based on aerial photographs of mountain scenery. Painted in a similarly gestural manner, these works form pendent pieces to the Stadtbilder and question the binary division of nature/man-made. Although coming into focus at a distance, when viewed up-close such differences between the architecture of Man and Nature dissolve into a panorama of exigent mark-making.
Offering multifaceted lines of inquiry that encompass his most pioneering and conceptually inward-looking scrutiny of abstract painting in the photographic age, the present work, and the extant paintings in the series of incipient Stadtbilder, signal a decisive turning point in Richter’s formative practice.
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