Among the very first of Gerhard Richter's Abstrakte Bilder, the resplendent Abstraktes Bild from 1977 is an exhilarating testament to the artist’s career-long negotiation of the relationship between representation and abstraction. One of four canvases executed in 1977 after a photograph of the artist's first Abstraktes Bild, the present work also illustrates Richter’s ceaseless investigation into obligations and unreliability of the mediums of photography and painting. The three sister canvases in this series reside in the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and a distinguished corporate collection. Abstraktes Bild is a pristinely rendered painting of a painting, expertly executed in the modern vocabulary of photorealism.
Abstract though it is, the present work is an appropriation and indeed a representation of a different Abstraktes Bild, painted the year prior. In the source painting, Richter applied thick brushstrokes of violet and white pigment across a dynamic, vibrant and colorful abstract composition. The juxtaposition of assertive and meticulously executed brushstrokes seemingly sitting ‘on top of’ the hazy background of color negates the illusion of space and depth and draws attention to the nature of the medium of painting, a reflexivity that characterizes the very best of Richter’s output. Following the execution of this expressive oil on canvas, Richter used a camera to take snapshots of various details, zooming in on particular passages and capturing various detail photographs of the painting. The present work represents a detail of the 1976 Abstraktes Bild, in which Richter focuses closely in on the upper left hand corner of his original painting. Richter’s source image reveals the actual path the brush took across the canvas, each bristle and the accidental blending of white and purple paint clearly articulated in an effort to draw attention to the medium. In the present work, however, Richter breaks down this insistence, instead using thinly veiled washes of pigment to build up a nearly obscured image, as if viewed through frosted glass; the brushstrokes so precisely defined in the 1976 work fuse into one another in a sublimely illusionistic swath of colors. Abstraktes Bild showcases Richter at one of the many peaks of artistic genius within his decades-long career; here, we see an artist who, through his deft handling of paint, achieves an immaculate composition that is both visually stunning and intellectually demanding - a decidedly postmodern, self-reflective take on the gestures of abstraction. Bars of white and dark purple abut one another in a technically challenging blur across a diaphanous wash of color: a bright red cherry bar running the length of the painting, light pink blending into green, bleeding into yellow and orange.
Since the mid-1960s, Richter has been assembling and arranging photographs, sketches, newspaper clippings, and ephemera onto loose leaf paper into an enormous compendium titled Atlas. Comprising a range of pictures, from a banal photograph of a toilet roll to landscape pictures and personal family photographs, this visual treatise offers significant insight into Richter’s artistic process and his approach to creating imagery. For its complexity, Atlas is considered to be an independent artwork, adding yet another layer into the evolution of the present work. Indeed, sheet 405 of Atlas presents photographs the artist captured of his 1976 Abstraktes Bild, illustrating details of the painting. From these photographs catalogued in Atlas, Richter created the present work, inserting it into an intricate and complex dialogue regarding the precarious position painting occupies in this narrative. The present work sprung from a photograph that exists in a separate artwork and represents an original painting, an ancestry that underscores the self-consciousness and skepticism of Richter’s career: “I don’t believe in the absolute picture. There can only be approximations, experiments and beginnings, over and over again.” (The artist cited in Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p. 199)
Richter’s brilliance as a painter and prowess as a philosopher are on full display in Abstraktes Bild; his finesse with paint recalls the sublimity of Mark Rothko, whose translucent colors radiate incandescently from the surfaces of his canvases. The intellectual exploration into the authenticity of a work of art is part of a larger narrative whose champions included figures such as René Magritte and Jasper Johns. Within Richter’s oeuvre, Abstraktes Bild also reflects the tension between the two most prolific aesthetic modes of the artist’s oeuvre: photography and painting. As both photographer and painter, Richter challenges the authenticity and reliability of each, the elaborate puzzle and tension between which is elegantly unraveled in the present work.
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