Schwefel was assiduously created over a period of several months, in tandem with other large abstract works present in Richter’s Cologne studio. As art historian, Roald Nasgaard notes: “Richter will begin a new group of paintings by placing a number of white canvases around the walls of his studio, eventually working on several or all of them at the same time “like a chessplayer simultaneously playing on several boards." (Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings, Toronto, 1988, p. 108) Thereafter, Richter follows a meticulous process to realize his spectacular abstract compositions, of which Schwefel is a quintessential example. First, Richter applies a soft ground of color to the canvas, a deep earthy green in the case of the present work. Second, the artist alters this simple composition with a first form, such as “a large brush stroke, a track of color drawn out with a squeegee, a geometric shape.” (Ibid.) Gradually, the composition takes shape evolving through many stages, each stage giving rise to a unique ordering of colored forms. According to Richter, the painting is finished “when there is no more that I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with.” (Ibid.) Unlike the radical spontaneity seen in mid-century Abstract Expressionism, such as in Pollock’s drip paintings, Richter’s abstract paintings are constructed with great deliberation, exhibiting the artist’s utter dedication to the medium and process-driven approach. The artist’s protracted painting process also explains the dense layering of color that appears in the right-half of Schwefel. Richter, however, allows a certain degree of chance in his process. For example, his adept use of the squeegee, evident in the ethereal forms that dominate the right side of the canvas, mediate the unplanned effects of the instrument with the artist’s pictorial calculations. As the artist put it: “I control being spontaneous.” (Gerhard Richter quoted in Michael Danoff, Gerhard Richter Paintings, Toronto, 1988, p. 12)
Richter's entirely abstract vernacular first emerged in earnest in 1977, building upon the artist’s earlier photo-realist works produced in the previous decade. In the early phase of his career, Richter adopted a nihilistic worldview, using his art to model the elusiveness and uncertainty of reality. The photo-realist paintings, noteworthy for their blurred quality, allude to reality’s ambiguity and ephemerality, urge viewers to contemplate the nature of perception, and, in particular, the delicate relationship between what something is and how that thing is represented. In these early works, Richter emphasizes the importance of neutral, impersonal expression as an appropriate interrogation of the external world, hence his affinity for photographic visuals. However, in 1976, after he painted a series of grey monochrome paintings, Richter reached a critical turning point in his trajectory, switching focus from the reality of the external world to his inner world, the realm of his emotions and personality. As Richter states: “the abstract works are my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions.” (Ibid., p. 9) Schwefel thus embodies a critical period in Richter’s oeuvre, one in which he shifts gears toward a completely abstract mode of painting, while retaining evidence of his earlier photo-paintings inthe blured haze of color gradation that dominates the lefthand part of this masterful canvas. Furthermore, expressionistic appearance of Schwefel represents Richter coming to terms with the unintelligibility of reality, deciding to celebrate the complexity and richness of life rather than acquiesce in existential despair. Viewed in this manner, each painting Richter produces functions as a conscious act of self-affirmation, a way to assure himself of his own existence, despite his uneasiness about the incomprehensibility of reality.
Schwefel occupies a fascinating, unprecedented, and almost paradoxical position in the art historical canon. Evoking the grandeur of historical genre paintings and the experimental rigor of the avant-garde, Richter’s work gracefully merges the traditional practice of painting with the vanguard sensibility of formal experimentation. Furthermore, Richter’s paintings engage in an unapologetic search for beauty, going against the postmodernist emphasis on irony and subversion. As the artist remarked: “’Beauty has become a downgraded word, but that shouldn’t be the case, because we would all like to be healthy, perfect, fulfilled – the opposite of war, crime and sickness. I see beauty in all the works we cherish.” (Gerhard Richter quoted in Michael Danoff, Gerhard Richter Paintings, Toronto, 1988, p. 12) These qualities gift Schwefel with a self-renewing timelessness, evidencing the artist’s conceptualist diligence, subtle romanticism and distinctive reworking of art history.
Conveying unspeakable but universally acknowledged truths, Richter’s Schwefel articulates the possibility for art to transcend its social context. In the artist’s words: “With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can neither be seen nor understood because abstract painting illustrates with the greatest clarity, that is to say, with all the means at the disposal of art, 'nothing'… we allow ourselves to see the un-seeable, that which has never before been seen and indeed is not visible.” (Gerhard Richter quoted in Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings, Toronto, 1988, p. 107) Viewed from this perspective, Richter’s existentially oriented paintings daringly probe the epistemological boundaries of human existence. Playful in its extroverted color palette yet sincere in its philosophical commitments, Richter’s Schwefel is a testament to the artist’s inimitable skill and unyielding intellect.
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