Painted in 1984, Abstraktes Bild (559-2) is a vast brooding, storm-like adventure in oils. Against the soft, pseudo-photographic background, the dark brushwork appears as an accretion of paint built up from the right-hand edge that is penetrating some unspoiled interior. The fading, photo-soft background lends the picture an intriguing horizontality, a landscape-like focus, recalling Richter's paintings of scenery and especially of heavy grey over the sea. Combined with its monumental scale, this horizon invokes the epic visual language of the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, while the swirling maelstrom of creation that dominates the right-hand portion of the painting has a Wagnerian intensity. Indeed, the contrast between the dark, subtly kaleidoscopic mass of oils in the right and the pale pseudo-landscape of the left imply a Manichean battle as the painting struggles into existence. It is a credit to the importance of this painting that it was selected as the frontispiece of Harten's 1986 raisonné of Richter's work, published on the occasion of the retrospective that travelled from Dusseldorf to Berlin and Bern. That exhibition marked the first significant showing of Richter's 1980s Abstract Pictures in Germany, and resulted in their reappraisal and recognition within his work.
In showing the "soft" background underneath the more expressive brushstrokes, Abstraktes Bild (559-2) makes evident a painting process that is often obscured under the layers of oil of Richter's other Abstract Pictures. Describing the process by which these paintings come into existence, Richter explained:
"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. An attempt to jump over my own shadow...
"At that stage the whole thing looks very spontaneous. But in between there are usually long intervals of time, and those destroy a mood. It is a highly planned kind of spontaneity" (G. Richter, 1984, quoted in H.-U. Obrist, ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 112).
The above quotation reveals how committed Richter is to the removal of the figurative. The creation of the painting is in part an act of deliberate destruction. The battle in Abstraktes Bild (559-2) is played out between light and dark, and also crucially between figurative and abstract. This disruption of the figurative has been enacted through brushstrokes that appear bold and vigorous-- in this destruction, these marks desecrating the photographic foundation, the gradual process of painting is itself made explicit. The bare bones of the creation of a painting are placed on display. We are treated to a vision of the raw powers underlying painting, underlying art. The remnants of the soft background link the painting to Richter's Photorealist works, yet into that realm have snaked disruptive trails of paint, the visual language of Abstract Expressionism, fragmentary elements of Franz Kline, struggling for domination of the canvas. The surface is a battleground, with the right-hand section recalling Action Painting while the left-hand section appears almost unspoiled, untrammelled, a zone of infinite potential, and crucially rooted in the visual language of photography, of direct representation. In this way, Abstraktes Bild (559-2) recalls Richter's first officially recorded and recognised painting, Tisch of 1962, which showed a Photorealist image of a table subsequently negated by smeared oils over the surface.
Abstraktes Bild (559-2) uses this photographic foundation for wholly different ends. Where in Tisch Richter deliberately devalued the image, here he evokes photography to lend the picture its visual potency. Richter deliberately prompts the viewer's natural reflex to interpret the painting as though it contained some figuration, as though there were some resemblance to objects in our outside world. We are drawn into this absorbing, colossal arena of elusive signification. It is this process, the quest for meaning, and not its success or resolution, that is the goal. Richter encourages the journey and not the destination. He is presenting us with a visualisation of the unvisualisable, a distillation of the incomprehensible. The shifting forms in Abstraktes Bild (559-2) reflect its shifting meanings, and the sense of movement that fills the painting heightens its immediacy, emphasising the sense that there is some underlying, living, fundamental truth.
This process of attempted but constantly hindered visual interpretation is a continuation of Richter's own intensely self-aware painting process: in his Abstract Pictures he paints without pretext, without motif, merely for the sake of painting. Abstraktes Bild (559-2) shows this on a grand scale: it is the result of an intense involvement with the act of painting, with taking artistic decisions that are based only on instinct, on reacting to the appearance of the painting itself, and therefore to whatever previous decision had been made. It is the process that is key, as Richter himself has stated:
"What shall I paint? How shall I paint?
'What' is the hardest thing, because it is the essence. 'How' is easy by comparison. To start off with the 'How' is frivolous, but legitimate. Apply the 'How', and thus use the requirements of technique, the material and physical possibilities, in order to realize the intention. The intention: to invent nothing -- no idea, no composition, no form -- and to receive everything: composition, object, form, idea, picture'" (G. Richter, 1986, quoted in ibid., p. 129).
The medium, in Richter's Abstract Pictures, is the message. As a painter acutely aware of the limitations of his vocation and, paradoxically, in love with the painting process, Richter was being increasingly hemmed in by his own developments in exploring the futility of oils and the futility of representation. The Abstract Pictures provided an escape, a release. Indeed, he has embraced these selfsame limitations and worked within them in a new ecstatic way. Yes, in the world of post-modernism painting can be seen to be futile in many ways, just as representation itself is futile. Richter has accepted this, and paints despite it. This is painting for painting's sake, and is all the more epic for it. Abstraktes Bild (559-2) is the product of an intensely personal fight for the honor, the validity, of painting.
The fact that, despite the soft background, there is no actual photographic template to Abstraktes Bild (559-2), that each movement of the brush or squeegee has been suggested merely by the previous appearance of the picture itself and not by a source, results in its gradual, almost organic evolution. The picture has grown in relation to itself, Richter reacting to the picture again and again in order to steer it, or be steered, towards a new and unexpected territory. And it is the combination of this intellectual stimulus with the sheer movement of oils, the up-to-the-elbows involvement with the painting itself, that allows Richter to rediscover the joy of painting as a journey, the adventure, the thrill of the pioneer confronted with the great unknown, a stark contrast to the prescribed nature of painting from photos. The importance of the release that is visible in the colors and, more vividly, in the sense of the artist's movements as charted on the canvas, is reinforced by Richter's own ecstatic language when discussing the Abstract Pictures:
"At the beginning, I feel totally free, and it's fun, like being a child. The paintings can look good for a day or an hour. Over time, they change. In the end, you become like a chess player. It takes me longer than some people to recognize their quality, their situation -- to realize when they are finished. Finally, one day I enter the room and say, 'Checkmate'... I always need to paint abstracts again. I need that pleasure" (G. Richter, quoted in M. Kimmelman, "Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms," New York Times, 27 January 2002).
Abstraktes Bild (559-2) previously belonged to the late Dr. Eleonore Stoffel. She and her late husband, Dr. Michael Stoffel, were amongst the most prominent German collectors of contemporary art as well as important civic benefactors both during their lives and through their generous bequests to the Michael & Eleonore Stoffel Foundation and the Skulpturenpark Köln (Cologne Sculpture Park) which they were instrumental in founding. They were closely acquainted with Gerhard Richter as well as many other artists including Lüpertz, Immendorf and Förg who, at times, lived with them. It is a tribute to their vision and also to the quality of their eye that the collection will be shown as long-term loans in the Pinakothek der Moderne (Munich) and the Skulpturenpark Köln (Cologne) both major German art institutions.