‘[My abstracts are] something musical. There’s a lot in the construction, in the structure, that reminds me of music. It seems so self-evident to me, but I couldn’t possibly explain it’
‘The first impulse towards painting, or towards art in general, stems from the need to communicate, the effort to fix one’s own vision, to deal with appearances (which are alien and must be given names and meanings). Without this, all work would be pointless and unjustified’
‘All I know is that painting is useful and important, like music and art in general – that painting is an indispensable necessity of life’
‘With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can neither be seen nor understood because abstract painting illustrates with the greatest clarity, that is to say, with all the means at the disposal of art, “nothing” … we allow ourselves to see the un-seeable, that which has never before been seen and indeed is not visible’
‘Abstract paintings are fictitious models because they visualize a reality, which we can neither see nor describe, but which we may nevertheless conclude exists. We attach negative names to this reality; the un-known, the un-graspable, the infinite, and for thousands of years we have depicted it in terms of substitute images live heaven and hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood’
With rhythmic pulses of horizontal and vertical action, Gerhard Richter pulls curtains of deep sapphire and verdant malachite across his canvas, sliding wet paint into wet to form streaks of rich marbling and blooms of chromatic fusion. Initially established as flat layers of paint, cavities and canyons melt away to reveal kaleidoscopic fissures of teal, emerald and burgundy; symphonic swathes of tonal contrast create a sense of depth and time in the work’s successive levels, the eye tripping off the paint as it descends to a hand-painted stratum beneath. With iridescent echoes of the aurora borealis or of dark European pine forests, a trio of sharp-edged bands gleam lime green at their limits, betraying the trace of the artist’s unmistakable squeegee technique. In close proximity to the magisterial Bach series of 1992, Abstraktes Bild 811-2 (1994) is a gorgeous apparition, encapsulating the strongest elements of Richter’s abstract practice at one of the most jubilant moments of his career.
In many respects the opulent palette and vast format employed in Abstraktes Bild 811-2 recalls the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. For this mid-century generation of painters, the ambition was to immerse the viewer in a deeply emotional, extrasensory experience of all-encompassing colour: what Robert Rosenblum described in 1961 as the ‘Abstract Sublime.’ The viewer stands awed, like the figures faced by staggering landscapes in works by Friedrich or Turner; however, ‘[i] n the abstract language of Rothko, such literal detail – a bridge of empathy between the real spectator and the presentation of a transcendental landscape – is no longer necessary; we ourselves are the monk before the sea, standing silently and contemplatively before these huge and soundless pictures as if we were looking at a sunset or a moonlit night. Like the mystic trinity of sky, water and earth that, in the Friedrich and Turner, appears to emanate from one unseen source, the floating, horizontal tiers of veiled light in the Rothko seem to conceal a total, remote presence that we can only intuit and never grasp. These infinite, glowing voids carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths’ (R. Rosenblum, ‘The Abstract Sublime,’ ARTnews, vol. 59, no. 10, February 1961, p. 41).
In Abstraktes Bild 811-2, the viewer is similarly enveloped by the composition’s elemental radiance, their field of vision overwhelmed with rich complexes of colour. For Richter, however, these associations have often been uncomfortable, the artist expressing two minds on the subject. As Robert Storr has explained, ‘for eyes accustomed to emotionally heated Action Painting or exultant Colour Field abstraction, Richter’s masterful but abrupt cooling down of the rhetoric of Post- War art can be even more disconcerting than Pop or Minimalism because it seemed at first glance to have employed that rhetoric’ (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, p. 69). In conversations with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh in 1986, Richter fervently distanced himself from the earlier generation of Abstract Expressionists, claiming ‘an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phony reverence;’ he expressed doubt over Rothko’s transcendental approach, suggesting that while he preferred it to cynicism, ‘there was a kind of science fiction coming from Rothko’s darkness that was Wagnerian or had a narrative side which bothered me’ (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, p. 69). With time, however, Richter’s thinking on the subject evolved, the gulf closing between the earlier generation and his own practice. In discussion with Mark Rosenthal in 1998, he conveyed his admiration for Rothko’s seriousness: ‘I am less antagonistic to “the holy,” to the spiritual experience, these days. It is part of us and we need that quality’ (G. Richter, quoted Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, pp. 69-70).
Richter’s abstraction is the product of a long investigation into the possibilities of painting that spans more than five decades. Coming full-circle from his early Table (1962) in which he cancelled his photorealist image with haptic swirls of grey paint, Richter began in the 1980s to freely overlay his canvases with colourful scrapes and drags of paint using a squeegee: the implement that would become one of the hallmarks of his practice. As Dietmar Elger has observed, ‘for Richter, the squeegee is the most important implement for integrating coincidence into his art. For years, he used it sparingly, but he came to appreciate how the structure of paint applied with a squeegee can never be completely controlled. It thus introduces a moment of surprise that often enables him to extricate himself from a creative dead-end, destroying a prior, unsatisfactory effort and opening the door to a fresh start’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 251). In using the squeegee, Richter was attempting to remove the artist’s hand from his compositions; this method was to find its purest articulation between 1989 and 1994 with large-format paintings such as Abstraktes Bild 811-2. Deconstructing the relationship between figure and ground, Richter embraced the contingency of his medium, enjoying the chance effects of his confident application of paint. Asked how his paintings related to the notion of chance as followed by Jackson Pollock or Surrealist automatism, Richter once explained: ‘it certainly is different. Above all, it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that’s always planned, but also always surprising. And I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I’ve worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I’m often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am’ (G. Richter, quoted in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting – Writings 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 159).
In its lyrical composition and regal palette, Abstraktes Bild 811-2 recalls the artist’s majestic 1992 Bach cycle – now housed in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm – standing as a bridge between these benchmark works and his seminal Cage series of 2006. Richter had long been captivated by the American avant-garde composer John Cage, finding an acute affinity with his concept of the impossibility of saying nothing once a frame of communication had been constructed, as even emptiness has a voice. As the artist once recounted, ‘that’s roughly how Cage put it: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” I have always thought that was a wonderful quote. It’s the best chance we have to be able to keep on going’ (G. Richter, quoted in J. Thorn-Prikker, ‘Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker,’ in D. Elger and H-U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Text - Writings, interviews and Letters 1962-2007, London 2009, p. 478). Richter has noted that he has always seen his abstracts as ‘something musical. There’s a lot in the construction, in the structure, that reminds me of music. It seems so self-evident to me, but I couldn’t possibly explain it’ (G. Richter, quoted in B. Buchloh, ‘Interview with Gerhard Richter,’ in R. Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1998, p. 28). As in the Bach series, the marks in Abstraktes Bild offer an absorbing visual tempo, each pull of paint betraying its own special cadence. Beneath the harmonious interplay of wet on wet paint we catch glimpses of a motionless, hand-painted base: the glimmering interaction of subsequent strata of paint with the quiet confidence of this still, antecedent layer recalls the alternating silent and discordant aesthetic of Cage. Built up with stochastic applications of paint and smooth pulls of colour, the later series of Cage paintings present an elegant continuation of the present work’s melodic ideas.
The sublime beauty and balance of Abstraktes Bild 811-2 can be understood as a reflection of the artist’s great personal happiness during this period: he would marry his wife Sabine, immortalised in his tender portrait Lesende (1994), the following year. Despite Richter’s many claims to the contrary, the work appears to betray a sense of his own emotional life, the ebullient rhythms of red and malachite resonating with a recent surge of artistic and critical success. The early 1990s had been a time of supreme contentment for Richter. In 1991 he had held his breakthrough exhibition at Tate Gallery, London, and in 1992 he received a major touring retrospective, Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993, curated by Kasper König, with a three volume catalogue edited by Benjamin Buchloh. This latter exhibition, displaying more than 130 works created over the course of thirty years, was to entirely reawaken his career. As critic Doris von Drathen wrote at the time, ‘There are exhibitions that, like great milestones, reset the standards in contemporary art. Richter’s retrospective, launching now at the ARC in Paris, is of this quality’ (D. von Drathen, ‘Gerhard Richter,’ Kunstforum International, no. 124, November-December 1993, p. 245). Rejoicing in the pure splendour of colour and form, Abstraktes Bild 811-2 is an exultant, orchestral masterpiece by an artist at the height of his powers.