“I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no programme, no style, no directions. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery, I steer clear of direction. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.”
Gerhard Richter, Notes 1964 in: The Daily Practice of Painting, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., London 1995, p. 73.
The celestial and immersive beauty of Gerhard Richter’s Wolke (Cloud), 1969, is cut abruptly short by the interjection of elusive graphite markings to the top segment and bottom third of the canvas. Painted with meticulous photographic accuracy, the top centre of the painting depicts a solitary cloud formation drifting through an azure sky. Above and below, the sketch-like workings of Richter’s immediate hand-to-canvas thought process are exposed in graphite pencil, creating a magnificent juxtaposition between hyperreality and scrawled ambiguity. The work is based on a photograph that can be found in an Atlas sheet (Richter's vast photographic compendium of source material), used as a plan for the artist's monumental Cloud Triptych (1970) housed in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The present painting is indeed an early work from the artist's acclaimed series of Cloud Paintings, further of which reside in prestigious museum collections worldwide. In its formal and redolent beauty, Wolke evokes the third painting in Richter's seminal triptych, which formed a centrepiece in the touring Panorama retrospective in 2011-12. Undeniably beautiful, these works present a painstaking sense of near-perfection in their hyperreal exactitude, while Wolke remains forever incomplete, existing elusively in that indeterminate space that hovers between the precision of representation and the chaos of abstraction.
The question of unfinished, or non finito, painting is one that has captivated, enthralled, and haunted both artists and spectators alike from time immemorial. Evoking a uniquely raw and primal intensity, unfinished paintings offer a visceral glimpse into the mind of the artist through their immediacy of brain to hand, thought to canvas. Such was the subject of a compelling 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, entitled ‘Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible’, that displayed uncompleted works by artists including Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, and Richter himself. In Wolke, Richter draws the viewer into a luminescent skyscape only to shatter the illusion before our eyes. As the shape-shifting graphite marks undulate at the bottom of the canvas like rippling waves, the painting lays bare the skeletal structure for many of the works which have come to define Richter’s potent visual language. An artist of exceptional bravura and skill, Richter is a master of both figurative and abstract painting. In the Cloud Paintings, more so than any other modality in his vast pantheon of subjects and media, Richter forcefully straddles the readily drawn schism separating his abstract works from his hyperreal Photo Paintings. Signifiers of metamorphic transformation due to their intangible materiality, clouds function as poignant metaphors for evaporation, dispersion, chance, and change. In Wolke, this metaphor is intensified to new heights as the painting shifts mesmerically between the representational and the abstract.
Dislocated from terra firma, Richter’s fair-weather fragment of sky is a masterwork of vaporescent forms and delicate sfumato brushwork, combined with roughly sketched pencil markings. Emanating ethereal sunlit hues filtered through a harmonic miasma of soft ephemeral forms, this painting is indebted to a long and familiar legacy of art historical heritage. Readily evocative of the Romantic and sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable’s famous cloud studies, the atmospheric light effects of Turner, as well as drawing on the cloud’s symbolic value as heavenly furniture in Renaissance and Baroque painting, the present work instantly conjures an encompassing transhistorical field of references, whilst remaining resolutely contemporary. Though drawing on a nineteenth-century Romantic lineage and inescapably evoking a religiously loaded semiotic legacy, the artist’s fascination with clouds extends into an exploration of chance in painting – the ultimate expression of which was later refined from the 1980s onwards via the Abstrakte Bilder. Invoking both dreamlike contemplation and wondrous awe, Wolke represents one of the most transgressive, symbolically redolent and conceptually pluralistic motifs ever translated by the artist into paint.
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