"A picture like this is painted in different layers, separated by intervals of time. The first layer mostly represents the background, which has a photographic, illusionistic look to it, though done without using a photograph. This first, smooth, soft-edged paint surface is like a finished picture; but after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, till there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished. By then it is a something which I understand in the same way it confronts me, as both incomprehensible and self-sufficient… It is a highly planned kind of spontaneity." (Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 122
A stunning and archetypal example of rich coloration and superb artistic prowess, Kerzenschein (Candlelight) exemplifies Gerhard Richter’s ingenious mastery at a critical moment of conceptual transition in his inimitable career. For more than half a century, Richter has continued to challenge, reinvent, and reshape the terms by which we define, understand, and experience painting as a contemporary medium in a culture saturated by new media. Following two decades as an acclaimed photorealist painter, in the 1980s, Richter explored a new frontier of abstraction, focusing his unique aesthetic and skill upon a series of vibrant canvases that reached new heights of innovation. Captivating in its dynamic juxtaposition of brilliant color, layers of space, and furious mark-making, Kerzenschein (Candlelight) boldly asserts Richter’s profound painterly virtuosity. Executed in 1984, the present work embodies the abstract lexicon that defined this breakthrough moment in Richter’s prodigious career.
Kerzenschein (Candlelight) erupts across the canvas in an explosion of electric color, transmitting the visual dynamism that has become the hallmark of Richter’s best-known paintings. Executed between 1980 and 1986, this specific body of works broadcasts space as an illusion constructed through the repetitive layering of soft diffusive strokes, forceful pulls of his signature tool, the squeegee, and free-hand painterly marks. Veils of chartreuse and yellow imbue the present work with an indomitable light, literally bringing to life and evoking the flickering of the titular Kerzenschein (Candlelight) Accretions of saturated yellow paint spackled across the more diaphanous passages flicker in sparks across the canvas in staccato bursts of pure pigment. Red and orange seethe to the surface in warming brushstrokes, bleeding into ivory and ochre, and quite literally illuminating the painting. Balancing this luminous vista of dancing pigment are darker axes of indigo and royal blue, which provide an architectonic structure of brushwork in perfect equilibrium. Simultaneously joyful and cataclysmic in their effulgent, vigorous abstraction, Richter’s paintings of the 1980s are a stark departure from the poignant nostalgia and exacting photorealism of earlier years; likewise, these works bear no resemblance to the artist’s earlier experimentation with anti-painting in the Farben and Grau works. Instead, this fundamental body of work bears witness to Richter’s increasing fascination with purposeful representation, impulse, and spontaneity within his medium. During this time, Richter began to master the use of his squeegee, a critical component of his artistic practice that allowed him to streak and smear passages of semi-liquid pigment across the canvas in accumulated strata of different speeds and thickness. The crests, ridges, and peaks of impasto pitched across the surface of the canvas express Richter’s own acknowledgement of this instance of creative genesis.
The complex illusion of depth, created by the geometric fields of effervescent color that shimmer across the surface of Kerzenschein (Candlelight), echoes the luminosity of Mark Rothko’s soaring portals to the sublime. Likewise, Richter’s deft use of the squeegee recalls the muscular gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose primal marks are mirrored in Richter's stabilizing diagonals of bright pigment. Yet, while the sheer presence and visual power of Richter’s output echoes the work of his Abstract Expressionist forebears, his artistic project is utterly without precedent. Indeed, Richter is acutely aware of the limitations facing the trailblazing artists that preceded him: “The Abstract Expressionists were amazed at the pictorial quality of their productions, the wonderful world that opens up when you just paint…But the problem is this: not to generate any old thing with all the rightness and spontaneity of Nature, but to produce highly specific pictures with highly specific messages.” (Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 122) Whereas the artist’s photo paintings fall away into abstraction, Kerzenschein (Candlelight), however abstract, returns us to a suggestion of representation.
Applying his tremendous skill as a photorealist painter to the frontier of abstraction, Richter sought the means of “letting a thing come, rather than creating it; no assumptions, constructions, preparation, invention, ideologies—to come closer to the actual, richer, more lifelike, to that which is beyond my comprehension.” (Peter Moritz Pickhaus, “Gerhard Richter. Abstrakte Bilder 1976-1981,” Kunstforum International, April/May 1982, p. 250) Unlike the wild abandon of his Neo-expressionist contemporaries, Richter approached his abstract paintings with painstaking care, obsessively seeking the conceptual boundary between purpose and chance in painting. The artist achieved this balance of provocative visual chaos and carefully controlled execution by applying paint in careful layers, only to scrape, smudge, and pull the pigment back, transforming the visual field and radically destabilizing any sense of depth. The sum of all these accretions and reductions, of Richter’s tireless process of addition and subtraction, is a strident maelstrom of pigment that engulfs the viewer in a euphoric whirlwind of mesmerizing hues. Speaking in 1984, the very same year he created the present work, Richter noted: "A picture like this is painted in different layers, separated by intervals of time. The first layer mostly represents the background, which has a photographic, illusionistic look to it, though done without using a photograph. This first, smooth, soft-edged paint surface is like a finished picture; but after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, till there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished. By then it is a something which I understand in the same way it confronts me, as both incomprehensible and self-sufficient… It is a highly planned kind of spontaneity." (Gerhard Richter, “Notes, 1985,” The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 112)
As an early archetype of what was to become the definitive mark of his artistic identity, Kerzenschein (Candlelight) demonstrates the exceptional innovation and unique nature of Richter’s captivating abstract paintings of the 1980s. Though reminiscent of earlier works of Abstract Expressionism in its broad gestural execution and indomitable spirit, the present work most brilliantly encapsulates Richter’s unparalleled ability to temper enrapturing gestural abandon with logical graphic calculation, setting them upon another plane entirely. Standing before Kerzenschein (Candlelight), the viewer experiences the true innovation of Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder: the sensation that beneath the vivid pigment, blurred gradation, and diaphanous veils of color, there remains a specific, transcendent something to be known.
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