For more than fifty years, Richter has continually reinvented the terms by which we define, absorb, and experience painting as a contemporary medium. Following two decades of acclaim as a skilled photorealist painter, in the early 1980s he embarked upon an unprecedented exploration into a new frontier of abstraction, channeling his formidable talent into a vibrant series of canvases that reached new heights of innovation. Distinguished from the inherent illusionism of the artist’s iconic photorealist paintings, the Abstrakte Bilder reveal the artist’s intense engagement with the ontology of the medium – a raw examination of the very nature of paint itself as a physical substance in both its original and manipulated forms. In an explosive burst of pure chromatic ecstasy, Abstraktes Bild transmits a visual dynamism that has become the hallmark of this celebrated series. Wide orthogonals of cyan and teal collide with solar bursts of yellow and vermillion. Against the architectonic demarcations of line and brushstroke, sublime washes of thinned paint blur passages of yellow into green, green into blue, blue into burgundy. This tension between rigidity and buoyancy is critical to the Abstrakte Bilder and creates a truly captivating visual experience. Graced with a whisper of ivory paint in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas, this Caravaggio-esque drama of luminosity calls to mind the tradition of Baroque and Renaissance illusionistic painting. Dips and ridges of yellow spackle the surface of Abstraktes Bild, glittering across the composition in a shimmer of flecked light. Across this dizzying eruption of color, Richter pulls his squeegee, creating staccato accretions of paint that celebrate the work’s creative genesis.
Perhaps most distinctive to Abstraktes Bild is its descriptor and oftentimes alternate title, Cythera Skizze, which skates across the tongue in a satisfying and near dactylic pentameter. The onomatopoetic sizzle of syllables finds its visual equivalent in the rush of gold, slashes of red, and punctuations of yellow and green spangled across the canvas. Caressing the southern tip of the archipelago and strategically located within the Grecian islands, Cythera was an important crossroads for merchants, sailors, and conquerors, and has therefore played a critical role in the country’s long history. Furthermore, Cythera is the island where Aphrodite – the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and passion – is said to have risen from the sea’s foam, imbuing the present work with an additional layer of artistry and allure. As if echoing Aphrodite’s mythic origin from a tumultuous sea, Richter elicits a phenomenological and allegorical occurrence across his canvas – summoning a transcendent whirlwind of bewitching color. This dizzying maelstrom of spangled color also calls to mind the masterpieces of Henri Matisse, whose immersive focus upon color as subject would inspire Richter in his abstract paintings. Indeed, even the composition and color palette of Abstraktes Bild beautifully echoes Matisse’s crowning jewel, Luxe, calme et volupté; here, both artists revel in the warmth of a sun-dappled seascape, invoking the French Riviera for Matisse and a Grecian paradise for Richter.
Groundbreaking and wholly original as new means by which to interpret the limits of abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder remain tethered to the painterly tradition of the New York school of Abstract Expressionists. Richter’s complex illusion of depth, muscular gesture, performative execution, and enthusiasm for color tie the artist inextricably to the vigorous brushwork of Willem de Kooning, anarchic drip technique of Jackson Pollock, and sublime color fields of Mark Rothko. And yet, Richter forges ahead, shattering the limitations felt by his forebears. In his own words: “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) Seeking a solution to the insurmountable paradox between meaningful substance and spontaneous expression and execution, Richter produced a completely unprecedented form of abstract painting. Furthermore, Richter largely abandoned the paintbrush used by his predecessors, instead committing to the firm rubber edge of his squeegee – a revolutionary technique which, as seen here, yields hypnotic results. Although he could predict the results of his work – based on the colors he used, the thickness of the paint, and the pressure applied to the squeegee – there remains an inescapable element of chance that nevertheless resolves into a harmonious balance of light and color in the present work.
Simultaneously stirring elation and chaos in its energetic and wild abandon, Abstraktes Bild is a stark departure from the poignant nostalgia and exacting photorealism of Richter's early Photo Paintings and landscapes. Likewise, the Abstrakte Bilder depart from the artist’s earlier experimentations with anti-painting in his Farben and Grau series. As an archetypal example from the Abstrakte Bilder, which have continued to define Richter’s prodigious career, the present work underscores the artist’s insistent and exceptional innovation into the practice of painting. Though reminiscent of earlier Abstract Expressionist paintings in its gestural execution and indomitable spirit, Abstraktes Bild brilliantly captures Richter’s unparalleled ability to temper a fevered painterly passion with logical and balanced execution, creating an utterly rapturous painting that engulfs the viewer in a dramatic riot of dazzling color.
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