Standing before Gerhard Richter's monumental Abstraktes Bild (625), the viewer is immersed in a swirling, kaleidoscopic explosion of color. This vast painting absorbs us into a universe of oil paints, applied with a wide variety of techniques, achieving a wide variety of textures. Rich nebulae of color appear in scraped and brushed layers, creating a finish that from a distance recalls the iridescence of shot silk. This densely packed surface bustles with movement, the oils jostling for our attention as our eye roves across the canvas. This is an epic picture, a vast arena in which the artist is thrashing out the nature of painting and indeed of existence itself.
Classically trained as a painter in East Germany during his youth, Richter decided to go to West Germany, having had an almost Pauline conversion on seeing the works of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana in an exhibition. Where he had hitherto been exposed to Socialist Realism as the style, as the beginning and the end, here were artists who were questioning the very foundations and building blocks of artistic creation. The canvas and the brush, formerly the great givens, the sine qua nons of painting, had been abandoned. These artists were creating works that turned all assumptions and hegemonies on their heads. For Richter, who had lived under the extremes of Nazism and Socialism, this revolution clearly tempted him with a shining example. In the cynical, detached, existentialist atmosphere of the Post-War era, he had at last found predecessors who were tackling the big questions at root level. And these selfsame questions inform his own Abstract Pictures. In these, the artist, trained so formally as a painter, struggles with the question: why paint in the modern world?
Abstraktes Bild is not so much an answer as an epic, all-consuming exploration of this question. Richter has painstakingly assembled this great expanse of paint bit by bit, using an array of painterly techniques. Using squeegees and brushes, he has slowly and methodically eked out the painting's final appearance in a gradual process that he himself has likened to a chess match. Richter deliberately detaches himself, which allows him to remove emotion from the picture, to avoid the pitfalls of autobiography spilling onto the surface, and also to eliminate any areas that tend towards the figurative or even the suggestive. Painting several canvases concurrently, he regains perspective by going away and returning to each work. "A picture like this is painted in different layers, separated by intervals of time," Richter explained:
"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, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 112).
Richter's Abstraktes Bild has gradually emerged from the deconstructed quagmire of paint and painterly techniques that the artist has so detachedly utilized and manipulated. He exploded the entire nature of painting, breaking down its acts and its functions in order to ask himself whether it can be justified, and allowing it to reassemble before his own, and by extension our, eyes. Where Richter's Photo Pictures exploited the arbitrary nature of content, reducing the artist's role to the reproducer-of-images, here he has removed even content from the equation, attacking the same dilemmas about the validity of the act of painting from an almost opposite angle. He has deliberately reduced his own status to that of the image's slave, even though he has no template here upon which to work. He is the means through which an almost organic painterly vision comes into being: "The Abstract Pictures: more and more clearly, a method of not having and planning the 'motif' but evolving it, letting it come" (G. Richter, 1985, quoted in ibid., p. 120).
Witnessing to the birth of this motif-less motif, viewing the fascinating sight that is Abstraktes Bild, Richter gives painting both life and its victory. By deliberately avoiding the figurative or the recognizable, Richter has created something that engages the viewer and continues to attract. He has used the science of sight and interpretation to his own ends, in order to create something infinitely fascinating: "We only find paintings interesting because we always search for something that looks familiar to us ... When we don't find anything, we are frustrated and that keeps us excited and interested until we have to turn away because we are bored. That's how abstract painting works" (G. Richter 2001, quoted in R. Storr, 'Interview with Gerhard Richter,' pp.287-309, Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh.cat, New York, 2002, p.304). The painting is ever-shifting and ever-changing before our eyes, endlessly evocative with its infinite potential, justifying its own act of creation and Richter's own vocation. By disassembling the entire apparatus of art and then scientifically rearranging its ingredients in the form of Abstraktes Bild, Richter has created his own poetic equivalent to Frankenstein's monster -- a painting that is big, brash, bold and defiantly, undeniably alive.
It is through the gradual emergence of the "motif," and through the chaotic picture surface in which that motif is incarnated that Richter produced a vision of existence, of the chaos of life in our modern, secular age. Richter created this painting from flux, brought it into being without limits, without constraints, without style, without content. It is therefore perfectly apt as a vision of life in the postmodern, Post-War era: "No ideology. No religion, no belief, no meaning, no imagination, no invention, no creativity, no hope -- but painting like Nature, painting as change, becoming, emerging, being-there, thusness; without an aim, and just as right, logical, perfect and incomprehensible" (G. Richter, 1985, quoted in Obrist (ed.), op.cit., 1995, p. 121).