Private Collection, Erkrath (acquired from the above in 1971)
Sotheby's, London, 29 June 2011, Lot 71 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above)
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Exh. Cat., Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Gerhard Richter: Bilder / Paintings 1962-1985, Cologne 1986, p. 99 and p. 373, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Bonn, Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Gerhard Richter, Vol. III, 1993, n.p., no. 224-7, illustrated in colour
Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1968-1976, Vol. 2, Berlin 2017, p. 132, no. 224-7, illustrated in colour
The present work heralds the artist’s emphasis on heavier impasto and gesture, as would be seen in works that would follow during the 1970s, such as the Vermalung, Grau, and the first Abstrakte Bilder. From a distance Stadtbild appears to be a discernible arrangement of houses viewed from an aerial perspective; however upon approaching the canvas, these marks progressively morph into an amalgamation of abstract brushstrokes. A departure from the blurred yet figurative subjects of Richter’s earlier works, Stadtbild stands on the cusp between figuration and abstraction: seemingly neutral objectivity is here replaced by the viewer’s individual and fluid interpretation of a given image. As such, Stadtbild touches upon the very cornerstones of Richter’s oeuvre, which has consistently scrutinised the potential of the painted image in a photographic age.
Based on contemporary aerial photographs, the Stadtbilder depict bird's-eye views of the post-war boom in the urban concrete landscape. And yet, as exemplified by the present work, staccato brushstrokes evoke the disturbance and devastation wrought by the bombing of major European cities during World War II. While the neutral colours and the rational block-like composition of these works seem to indicate an absence of emotional involvement, Dietmar Elger has postulated that “feelings and memories have always had their place in his work, in the choice of motifs as well as in certain technical experiments… he later acknowledged, the fusion of motif and impasto [in the Stadtbilder] reminded him of certain images of the firebombing of Dresden, his birthplace” (Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 163). Conceived in varying shades of grey ranging from pale, dove through to dark slate, this architectural landscape is loosely articulated in bold daubs of paint that teeter on the very edge of pictorial sense. In the absence of any vantage points or orientational anchors, Richter creates a spatial illusion that masks its relation to the source image; only the painting’s colour palette hints towards its black-and-white photographic origin.
Commenting on the supposed neutrality of the Stadtbilder, Richter explained that these paintings were intended as a “rejection of interesting content and illusionist painting. A spot of paint should remain a spot of paint, and the motif should not project meaning or allow any interpretation” (Gerhard Richter cited in: Dietmar Elger, ibid., p. 158). In its move towards gradual abstraction, Stadtbild can be viewed as Richter’s attempt to free himself from the figurative reality of his earlier paintings and their associated, preconceived, interpretations.
The Stadtbilder were conceived in response to a major commission from the Siemens Corporation who asked Richter to paint a large scale work for their Milan office. Richter saw this as an opportunity to abandon the now acclaimed style of his established Photo Paintings. Though still employing photographs for his base motif, the artist started to create a monumental abstract painting of Milan's cathedral square using thickly impastoed brushstrokes. While Siemens requested a painting in the typical photo-realist style of his previous work, Richter replaced the blurred, out-of-focus figuration with the gestural abstraction of grey-scale splotches. Unsatisfied with the outcome of this large-scale painting however, he eventually dissected the canvas into nine smaller works – these paintings marked the very beginning of the Stadtbilder and introduced a completely new pathway for Richter’s practice. Although the artist went on to create a second painting for the Siemens commission, which was to become the iconic Cathedral Square, Milan (Domplatz, Mailand), the earlier experimentation had imparted a new, more gestural way of exploring the dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity in the relationship between photography and painting.
Signaling a decisive change in Richter’s practice and introducing a progressive shift away from blurred figuration and towards abstraction, the Stadtbilder ushered in a new approach to gestural painting as subject to the objectivity of photography. A hallmark within this important series, the present work is as conceptually rigorous as it is aesthetically enthralling.
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