Richter’s enduringly iconic abstract works have formed a conceptual keystone of his oeuvre since the late 1960s. Polarized with the disquietingly naturalistic illusionism of the photo-realist paintings that he developed in tandem, it is in the abstract works that Richter enacts his most profound examination of the painted medium; both its corporeal state as raw pigment appended to the page and its cerebral capacity to conjure the artifice of illusion. During the 1980s, Richter became increasingly prolific in his abstract practice, initially indulging in a myriad of free floating and delineated abstract shapes for the first half of decade. The year of 1986 signified a turning point however as the artist embarked upon an intense period of experimentation after which he relinquished planned compositional elements in favor of the indeterminate scrape of the rubber squeegee. Arguably there is no other place that this impassioned moment investigation is made more visible than in the eight outstanding works on paper created during the month of April and of which the present work is a definitive paragon. Harmoniously blending brush and squeegee with a sense of unparalleled dynamic veracity, Untitled (5.4.86) reveals the full breadth of the artist’s idiosyncratic painterly alchemy.
Here we see Richter playfully dissect the pictorial mechanics that historically underpinned the academic practice of image making as schematized in renaissance painting. The artist’s uniquely nuanced layering of color poses a nod to technique of aerial perspective, in which increasingly blue tones are used to allude to distance within the frame. Untitled (5.4.86) is underpinned by a deep recessive blue that is subsequently caressed by successive layers of acidic greens, luminous yellows and visceral reds. Cross-hatched and compounded through the interplay of squeegee and brush work, the vibrant swathes of luminous primaries are enlivened by their stark tonal contrasts and appear to leap from the page, exacerbating the illusion of structural depth. Through an impassioned yet subtly interlaced example of the gestural mark making that he would soon abandon, Richter demarcates picture frame with an oblique cross formation that also references the technical grid methodology used in the creation of linear perspective. Yet in its crudely hastened application and by drawing directly into the wet paint with a blunt brush edge, Richter simultaneously undermines the illusionism of constructed perspective and reifies the physical constitution of the medium. Constructing a hypnotic symphony that confuses our capacity to register stable depth, Richter also intermittently shatters his own illusion as the static tides dissipate and we are reminded of the material support of this cerebral vision through the rare exposure of the page.
As a highly refined progression from the gestural bravado of Franz Kline and the expressive action painting of Jackson Pollock, here Richter introduces a crucial element of objective distance and submission to the law of chance in which the work retains a captivating sense of autonomy. It was through this gestural abandon that Richter would come to achieve what he termed “Photography by other means.” (Gerhard Richter cited in Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist, eds., Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 73) Chasing the paradigm of the photographic record, in which aesthetic choices are filtered through the mechanical interpretation of an instance, in Untitled (5.4.86) Richter not only finds a new means of capturing the emotive essence of a particular moment of creation, but pays reverence to the enduring power of painting; both as an imaginative space, a material substance and a physical process.
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