Pursuing the Essence of Pure Abstraction
Widely recognised as zenith of Gerhard Richter’s career, the artist’s Abstraktes Bild
(abstract painting) series is a material culmination of his artistic enquiry regarding what constitutes an abstract work of art. Like many of his Post-Modernist contemporaries, Richter was not spared from the bind of his predecessors when abstract paintings created at the time were often read in relation to the earlier Modernist abstraction. Thus stated, the Post-Modernist abstract works were constantly trapped in ambiguity between being considered true abstractions and representations of that. Acknowledging this inescapable dilemma, Richter throughout his artistic career relentlessly interrogates the nature of human perception and pushes the boundaries of representation. In 1976, he began to employ Abstraktes Bild
as a formal title for his abstract paintings, through which he rapidly identified a modus operandi that not only becomes his artistic trademark but also opens up the possibility of getting one step closer towards attaining what he perceived as pure abstraction, that is, to let a thing come rather than creating it.Abstraktes Bild (679-2)
is part of Richter’s cycle of abstract works executed in 1988, during which the artist created over seventy abstract paintings. It is the second of the six paintings that comprise the series numbered 679. Typical of Richter’s abstract compositions, the current work on canvas is a riot of vivid, mesmerising colours applied with a squeegee in innumerable swaths and layers. With the great traction and drag of a hard-edged spatula, Richter sculpted in oil paint this majestic waterfall of iridescent colours. Pouring haphazardly from an untraceable source is this glorious hue of lemon, its seemingly high velocity is accentuated by the irregular streaks, crests, and impasto of brilliant whites, pinks and blues, so hastily smeared onto the work’s surface as if to mimic the splashing rush of water. The highly texturised painterly surface reflects light and casts shadows in the most intricate manner, creating a luring sensation that exhausts the viewer’s eyes in search for a point of focus, only to be met with a greater expanse of tonal abyss. The spanning tract of bright yellow subtly shifts into a buttery shade, gradually fusing with a lime green, diffusing into a duller blue and subsequently reducing into fine weavings of grey. A peculiar sense of interchangeable depth is evoked by the vibrant stripes and patches of crimson, burgundy and browns, seeping through the soft curtain of lighter hues as the viewer’s gaze follows and combs through the funnelling pigments. Destabilised by the dynamic striations of lustrous contrasting colours, the sense of recession becomes indefinite. The viewer’s eyes are forced to repeatedly readjust in attempt to comprehend the constantly shifting perspective of this extreme chromatic topography. Contrary to Fontana’s slashes that ‘unveil’ the realm of infinity into and beyond the two-dimensional picture plane, Richter’s painting builds up and reaches out into the viewer’s space, offering a different immersing visual experience.
The fruition and success of Richter’s corpus of abstract paintings owe to its lineage tracing back to the artist’s earlier career when he was predominantly exploring abstraction through his blur photo paintings. Painting images culled from mass media such as newspapers and photographs, Richter smudges his compositions so that the depicted subject appears as a blur. This mode of painterly conclusion in deconstructive gestures foreshadows the artist’s later tireless artistic process of continuous adding, scraping, layering and reducing employed in his abstract series.
‘I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant,’ Richter wrote, ’Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information.’ (Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007
, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p. 33) It is evident that Richter challenges the ability of any representation to faithfully reproduce a depicted subject while to represent is already an act of creating an ‘abstract’ from its original source. In an interview with Anna Tilroe, Richter further testified his stance regarding representations, ‘In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colours fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.’ (Ibid, p.198) Tilroe during their conversation raised the fact that Richter’s abstract paintings seem to elude the presence of landscapes captured at a glance. It is, therefore, not surprising that Richter’s abstract series is often compared to Impressionist landscapes such as those painted by Claude Monet, as Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza had done so in their exhibition Monet and Abstraction
back in 2010 when they displayed works by these two artists side by side.
Opposing to the conventional art community in France that hailed classically idealised paintings produced in studio settings, Monet and his Impressionists counterparts embraced painting en plein air. Capturing the transience of urban life and nature through painting the passing of pedestrians and carriages, changing weather and shifting daylight, their chosen subjects were in constant motion that could not be foreseen or planned. This process of artistic production subjective to the artist’s cognitive senses at a particular moment in time and space is something that Richter developed and adapted in his own artistic practice. ’I want to end up with a picture that I haven't planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture...I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things I can think out for myself.’ (Richter interviewed in 1990, in Hubertus Butin and Stefan Gronert, Eds., Gerhard Richter. Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné
, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p. 36)
Abandoning any form of spatial logic, Richter would begin creating an abstract painting by working freely on a canvas with a colour or a shape that comes into mind at the time. In a conversation between the artist and Nicholas Serota, Richter described how quickly he would then lose satisfaction with the pictorial outcome, soon followed by ceaseless repainting, eradicating and layering guided by his instincts as well as spontaneous responses towards his own painterly reactions. (Gerhard Richter: Panorama. A Retrospective,
Tate Publishing, London, 2011, p. 17) As a result, chance is not only explored as a theme but also a method of artistic creation in Richter’s abstract series. In order to maximise the role of chance as the primary ‘medium’ driving the formation of his abstract paintings, Richter has replaced the usual paintbrush with a homemade squeegee as his preferred painterly tool since the 1980s.‘With a brush you have control. The paint goes on the brush and you make the mark. From experience you know exactly what will happen. With the squeegee you lose control.’ (Ibid, p.27)
As early as 1966, Richter has been experimenting on chance as a medium through his colour chart paintings whereby his friend Blinky Palermo would pick and call out a colour at random which Richter would then apply to his work. However, Richter soon understood that his abstract paintings can never be created at random as every scrape and incision is to various extents a result of his artistic intention and interpretation. Even so, Richter seems to have found a form of consolation through painting his abstract series:
‘I began in 1976, with small abstract paintings that allowed me to do what I had never let myself do: put something down at random. And then, of course, I realized that it never can be random. It was all a way of opening a door for me. If I don't know what's coming – that is, if I have no hard-and-fast image, as I have with a photographic original – then arbitrary choice and chance play an important part.’ (Interview with Sabine Schütz, in Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007
, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p.256)
Widely regarded as the preeminent living artist of our time, Richter’s works continue to spark academic interests and discussions. In the year 2017 alone, the artist had exhibited and is scheduled to participate in ten solo and forty group exhibitions involving notable galleries and museums such as Grand Palais in Paris and the National Gallery in London. Equally as active in the art market, the artist’s works have been setting records after records over the past decade. Having been off from market for over twenty years, Abstraktes Bild (679-2) is undoubtedly a jewel to behold as a great exemplifier of Richter’s artistic genius.