Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1990)
Sotheby’s, New York, 13 November 2012, Lot 34 (consigned by the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Sperone Westwater Gallery, Gerhard Richter: New Paintings, February 1990
Dietmar Elger, Ed., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1988-1994, Vol. IV, Ostfildern 2015, p. 199, no. 685-2, illustrated in colour
As an artist who has relentlessly scrutinised the potential of representation in paint within our photographic age, Richter’s complex and deeply conceptual practice often loops back to art history’s rich past. In a conversation with Benjamin Buchloh in 1986, Richter stated as much: “I do see myself as the heir to a vast, great, rich culture of painting – of art in general – which we have lost, but which places obligations on us. And it is no easy matter to avoid either harking back to the past or (equally bad) giving up altogether and sliding into decadence” (Gerhard Richter in conversation with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (1986) in: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 148). Often Richter would exhibit works from the Abstrakte Bilder alongside photo-realistic (yet typically blurred) landscape paintings to underline this point. The push and pull dynamic between these works – i.e. the evocation of figuration in the abstract paintings and the dissolution into abstraction of the photo-paintings – underscores the transgressive potential for slippage in the painted image. Thus Richter has sought to renew both abstraction and figuration in paint, not despite of, but because of photography. His work could thus be described as having pioneered a kind of post-photographic painterly practice.
Marking the culmination of an inquiry that started in the early 1960s with black and white photo-realistic works on canvas, the Abstrakte Bilder herald the way in which Richter has been able to produce “photography by other means” (Gerhard Richter in conversation with Rolf Schön (1972) in: Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Eds., Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 73). As redolent in Split, endless permutations of colour possess the sheen of a cibachrome print, while a distinctly photographic quality is compounded by the out of focus consistency of sweeping paint accretions. Evoking a blurred image and imploring the same searching cognitive viewing experience as his photo works, the hazy coagulation of endlessly scraped pigment forms an extraordinary riposte to the canon of twentieth-century abstraction via the photographic, mechanical, and the aleatory. Within the sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture these paintings emit an extraordinary wealth of enigmatic yet recognisable evocation. Aside from the gestural abandon of Abstract Expressionism, the incessant erasure and denial of compositional resolution also induces a reading of forms associated with those found in nature. Readily conjuring an experience of the natural world, such as that of rain, ice, or being in a forest, the abstract works derive their affect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us to a suggestion of representation.
The painting’s title, Split underlines this referential association. In German the word ‘split’ is reminiscent of naturally occurring debris from a rockfall: the painting’s slick cascade of white pigment thus conjures avalanches or melting snowscapes atop vast mountain ranges. However, when considering the date of this painting’s execution, the word ‘split’ takes on a secondary meaning; indeed, the English translation of the word – ‘rubble’ – further underlines this association. Created in the months prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, Split resonates with socio-cultural import. The tumbling weight and downwards drag of slick oil paint seems to anticipate and foreshadow this historical event. At once replete with gravitational painterly pull and socio-political timeliness, Richter’s painting cannot help but announce the end of the Cold War era.
Richter has long flirted with the political dimension inherent within much of his work. From the early black and white painting of his Uncle Rudi dressed proudly in an SS uniform during the Second World War (Onkle Rudi, 1965), through to the Stadtbilder and their implication of bomb ravaged cities (1968-70), Richter has often courted a reading that confronts the challenge of German identity in the post-war era. Indeed, where his mountain ranges or seascapes ostensibly appear as a saccharine rejuvenation of German Romanticism – specifically in relation to the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich – Mark Godfrey has argued that they instead underline the chasm that has opened up between Germany’s lost past and its post-war present by offering “indirect reflections on history and nationalism” (Mark Godfrey, ‘Damaged Landscapes’ in: Exh. Cat., London, Tate Modern (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011-12, p. 79). Unlike Friedrich's landscapes, which were championed by some Nazis as a precursor for National Socialist art, Richter’s offer no redemption, no resolution, and no promise land beyond the horizon line; instead they are disorientating and impenetrable, sparse and lonely (Ibid.). Split thus belongs to this profound subset of Richter’s oeuvre in which secondary layers of meaning impart deeper political resonance; a body of challenging and important work that includes Richter’s momentous series of paintings after the Baader Meinhoff Group, October 18, 1977 housed in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Richter’s abstract paintings undoubtedly sign-post the furthest most point in an artistic inquiry that spans over fifty years. Having deconstructed, recapitulated, and revitalised the full gamut of art history in paint – starting with the early Photo-Paintings, into the conceptual Grey Paintings and Colour Charts, through the ‘romantic’ landscapes and into the blown up brush strokes – the Abstrakte Bilder posit a resounding philosophical and visual equilibrium between the natural and the mechanical, and as in the present work, the abstract and the political. At their best, these stunning works impart nothing less than immersive, boundless, and utterly spectacular, aesthetic encounters.
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