Abstraktes Bild represents a crescendo in Richter’s long career, when the artist reached new heights in his technical investigation of his practice, one that casts doubt on the tradition of painting, mimetic accuracy, and aesthetic authenticity. “In interviews, letters, and private ruminations, the leitmotifs of Richter’s thought have been clearly stated from the very beginning: faith versus skepticism; hope versus pessimism; engagement versus neutrality; self-determination versus fatalism; imaginative freedom versus ideology. In the work itself these dialectical binaries and the ramifications they have engendered take on a visual, and, beyond that, material reality: impersonal iconography versus delicacy of facture; veiled intimacy versus formality of presentation; chromatic austerity versus rich tactility; optical splendor versus physical remoteness; gestural exuberance versus strict self-censorship; resistance to easy pleasure versus exquisite hedonism; somberness versus playfulness; forthright assertion of image as object versus mistrust of the image as representation.” (Robert Storr, “Introduction,” in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 17)
Stemming from the chronological apex of the period in which Richter perfected and centralized his use of the large-scale spatula or squeegee, Abstraktes Bild ranks amongst the very finest achievements of the artist’s abstract output. This expansive diptych presents a spectacular maelstrom of feverish color exploding across the canvas in a dense weave of skeins and spangles of squeegeed paint, Richter’s signature method of execution. An eruption of white paint anchors the axis of these two affixed panels in a heavenly luminescence reminiscent of an annunciation. The spackled surface of Abstraktes Bild presents a layered excavation and accumulation of gossamer color in a kaleidoscopic palette traversing the full tonal scale from deepest blacks to brightest whites. Dominated by a symphony of chartreuse, electric yellow, and vermilion, the painting encompasses every fractional permutation of hue in between, and is punctuated by rich staccatos of indigo, violet, and emerald green, orchestrated into a riotous cacophany. Streaked and smeared passages of once-semi-liquid material have been exactingly spread and stretched across the surface; the shadows of their former malleability caught in a perpetually-dynamic stasis. Crests and riptides crash together in a corrugated topography of ridges and shoals in a phenomenally sublime landscape that demands an association with the spontaneous naturalism of rain, water erosion, and weathering.
The present work vibrates with the verve of a natural phenomenon, the 'representation' of which inserts Richter into a long legacy of landscape painting. By pulling and smearing the paint in rich layers, Richter uses his own abstract vernacular in approaching this traditional art historical genre. Although entirely abstract, the present work shares notable qualities with some of the most iconic paintings of the western art historical canon. These two components hinge together at the center of this larger composition, the sheer physicality of which evokes an almost spiritual experience elicited by similarly monumental religious diptychs and altarpieces. Broad vertical and diagonal pulls provide an architectural structure that demarcates the canvas into what can arguably read as two binary realms only Richter could create: the earthly and the heavenly, the physical and the spiritual, dark and light, creation and destruction, good and evil, and the equilibrium of the two. A rich spectrum of pigments glow with the solemnity of stained glass, as an explosion of white light erupts from the deeply saturated black under-layer in resounding exaltation. The interchangeability of light and dark in front and behind between these ethereal laminae, respectively in unified smeared swathes and thick accretions, radically destabilizes any sense of depth; rather, the improvisational shattering of color vibrates against our retinas and echoes in our ears as the emotional and spiritual awe of this painting becomes a physical experience.
The Caravaggio-esque drama of luminosity binds the work inextricably to the Baroque and Renaissance ancestry of illusionistic painting. And yet, what separates Richter from his contemporaries and forebears is his abandonment of the paintbrush, surrendering instead to the uniformly firm rubber edge of the large-scale squeegee, a groundbreaking technique that the artist had, by this point, mastered to yield hypnotic results. Tracts of color are dragged across the canvas, so that the various strains of malleable pigment suspended in oil fuse together in strata accumulates of different speeds and thicknesses. The present work exemplifies Richter’s move away from the free form and floating abstract shapes the delineated the corpus of nascent abstractions between 1980-85; from 1986 onward, Richter would relinquish any planned compositional elements, favoring instead the indeterminate scrape and accretion of his tool. It is this striking treatment of the surface as a bound whole that allows a peculiar sense of illusionary depth to develop. Whereas Richter’s photo paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us, however tenuously, to a suggestion of representation.
Forming a conceptual keystone of his oeuvre since the late 1960s, Richter’s iconic Abstrakte Bilder have performed a prolifically sustained philosophical enquiry into the medium of painting and the foundations of our contemporary visual understanding. Throughout his career, Richter has questioned the reliability of painting and its function, beginning in a time when the medium itself had been completely eclipsed in favor of new and more innovative artistic techniques. Richter himself noted: “I was out of fashion for a long time after the early 1960s work, and painting itself was unfashionable too.” (The artist in an interview with Richard Cork, “Gerhard Richter: A Divided German,” Apollo, London, January 1992, p. 49) Yet even today, Richter’s cerebral probing into the purpose and merits of painting remain relevant, challenging, and insightful. Moving seamlessly from the representational to the abstract, Richter’s corpus has continued to defy traditional classification, instead surging forth, as in the present work, into an entirely new genre of Postmodernism. Within the dramatic arena of Abstraktes Bild, Richter lays bare his distrust of the grand theories of the gestural painting that revolutionized the canon in the 1950s, while simultaneously calling these new ideologies into question through the lens of abstract painting itself. The present work reverberates in a torrent of vivid pigment that not only evokes all-encompassing canvases from post-war masters such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, but also oscillates between the possibility of verisimilitude and an entirely transcendental and sublime experience.
Richter’s achievement in painting is without precedent; Abstraktes Bild possesses a unique identity whereby the total deconstruction of perception dismantles themes of representation, illusion, communication and resolves instead into a sublime chaos. As a paradigm of the artist’s oeuvre, the present work communes a subjective relationship with the viewer and becomes itself experience rather than object. Richter’s cumulative technique depends on the aleatory nature of chance that is necessary to facilitate the artistic ideology of the abstract works. As the artist has himself explained: “I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned. This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture…I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things I can think out for myself.” (The artist interviewed in 1990 in Hubertus Butin and Stefan Gronert, eds., Gerhard Richter. Editions 1965-2004: Catalogue Raisonné, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2004, p. 36) Idiosyncratically compatible with the detached, disenchanted mechanical age of contemporary visual culture, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild represents an all-enveloping evocation of a distinctly post-modern semblance. The simultaneous negation and affirmation of contingency, expressivity, detachment, and transcendence comprises a host of contradictions that posit this painting as a masterpiece of calculated chaos and a paradigm of the artist’s mature artistic and philosophical triumph.
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