In Grat (5), the palpable tension between opposing linear motions creates a dynamic force, with the darker vertical backdrop of the composition counteracted by a sweeping horizontal progression of varying white opacities. It is this contrast between both light and dark and vertical and horizontal that evokes a cataclysmic energy, forcing our eye to constantly readjust in attempting to comprehend the picture’s potentially infinite expansions and permutations. Using the trademark squeegee as his principle compositional instrument, Richter glides and drags malleable oil paint across the surface of the canvas to create tantalizing silver alloys that are pooled and concentrated in the center of the picture plane. Just as Richter’s squeegee is an agent of creation, in Grat (5) it is likewise a tool of archaeological excavation that scrapes away history and time to reveal striking fossils of primary color, such as buried layers of bold cerulean blue, cadmium red, naples yellow, and sap green. By this method, the canvas bears the imprint of Richter’s layering and reworking, illustrating where he thoughtfully applied the paint, as well as where he relinquished control to chance interactions between the squeegee and pigment. Elaborating on this process, Richter saw his working method as allowing a “particular type of picture to emerge but never a predetermined one.” He stated, “The individual picture should therefore develop out of a painterly or visual logic which happens out of necessity. And by not planning the result I hope to be able to realize rather a correctness and objectivity which any piece of nature (or a ready-made) always possesses.” (Gerhard Richter cited in Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2009, p. 22)
Emerging from an exceptionally unique period of Richter’s output, the present work was executed following a period of several months in 1988 when Richter broke with his typical studio practice of creating abstract works to focus on a seminal fifteen-painting figurative series called October 18, 1977 that depicted the deaths of members of German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction). Following this unusual caesura in his oeuvre, Richter acknowledged that resuming his Abstract Paintings would be difficult; referring to the October series, he said: “I realize that these pictures set a new standard, set a new challenge to me.” (Ibid., p. 20) Grat (5), therefore, exemplifies the renewed vigor of Richter’s return to abstract painting in late 1988 through 1989, characterized by a fervent embrace of the role that chance, randomness, and impulse played in his creative process. As Dietmar Elger perceives, Richter embarked on this new phase in his painting by “...interrupting the processes of arbitrariness and destruction that emerged when he spread the paint across the canvas with the squeegee, only to scrape it off again with the spatula, with more controlled phases. Yet as each layer of paint was applied it called into question the previous one. In this way, the final result evolved through an alternation akin to the swinging of a pendulum between phases of coincidence and planning.” (Ibid., p. 21) The significance of Richter’s development at this particular moment in his career is further reinforced by his first commercial show in London held at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1988. In this exhibition, Richter presented his blurred landscape paintings alongside his abstract paintings to actively juxtapose the two styles against one another. This presentation serves as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of Richter’s source imagery and solidifies the way in which he harmoniously coagulates photography, landscape, and abstraction. Operating within this precise synergy, Grat (5) stands firm as a gemlike snapshot of Richter’s most ardent intent in the painting process—interrogating and dismantling themes of representation, illusion, communication to engender a painterly chaos that borders on the sublime.
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