The lot will be included in the forthcoming third volume of the Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archive, Dresden, to be published in Spring 2013.
"...abstract works are my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions"--Gerhard Richter, 1985
"Paintings are better the more intelligent, the more beautiful, the more mad, the more extreme, the more evident, the more incomprehensible their way of showing this incomprehensible reality"--Gerhard Richter, Statement, Documenta 7, Kassel, 1982.
Monumental in scale, arresting in the sheer multiplicity of chromatic incident, Abstraktes Bild, Dunkel (613-2) explodes in a fiery spectrum of chroma, its rhythmic jolts ricocheting in hurtling waves of refracting light across its vast expanse. A summation of Gerhard Richter's incontrovertible centrality to the history of Western art in the twentieth--and twenty-first--centuries, Dunkel displays a conceptual and material virtuosity unmatched in our time. The artist's traversal of all major stylistic and conceptual approaches to painting is on display, undertaken with the virtuosity and confidence of a towering master. A canvas of extreme density and dynamism, Dunkel extols the medium per se, but also reverberates with historical precedent. Mixing a variegated panoply of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors-- gradient crimsons, golden yellows, verdant greens, hot vermilions, and cerulean blues-- these chromatic fusions are punctuated by vertical striations, two of which, one centrally located, the other echoing at a close interval, darken the central expanse. Upon close examination, these vertical gestures are flecked with hues taken from the entire chromatic repertoire inhering in this extraordinary masterpiece, as if Richter had created a jeweled light source, both texturally, in pixilated brushwork, and tonally, in contrasted chromatic relationships bounded within its vertical linear delimitations. The assertive black central vortices, which, in their forceful centrality, beguile the viewer, are bisected by loose waves of cooler liquescent aquamarines, a dash of lemon yellow highlighting the rush of pigment into the viewer's space. Intersecting directional impresses, vertical, horizontal, and orthogonal, generate a complex dynamic warp and weave, agitated further by the riot of high-key contrasting chromatic and textural juxtapositions, even as the rhythmic iterations of vertical warps recede into the compressed space of the central striation-- perhaps a referent to the title, Dunkel, meaning darkness.
Richter's preoccupation with vertical striations rendered in atmospheric tonal shading and variegated facture resonates uncannily with his early photo paintings of landscapes, such as Waldstücke, 1965; works virtually contemporaneous with Dunkel, for example, the Wald series of 1990; and the more recent abstract Wald series of 2004-5. Whether a literal depiction of tree trunks in the photo painting Forest Piece; iterated painterly ribbons in the abstractions; or the severe tonal contrasts of the photomechanical overpainted photograph of a forest in 2008, each of these works traces Richter's fascination with an internal structuring anchor amidst a sea of coloration and atmosphere. Such striations underlay, almost thematically, the grand sweep of Richter's formal scaffolding, even as they narrate Richter's transcriptions of tonal atmospheres into various media-photo painting, abstraction, and overpainted photograph. The year Dunkel was created marks a turning point in the artist's investigation of abstract methods. Richter states that in this year his work gained a directness and complexity never before achieved. Rather than basing his abstracts on prior photographic models, the works are fully realized statements in their own right, more spontaneous and "less clear" (G. Richter, in a telephone conversation with A. Rorimer, February 1987, in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, ibid., n.p.); which is to say, non-intentional and untraceable to origins.
The forty paintings from 1986, many in major museum collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Albertina in Vienna, record the nature of the method by which Richter carried out his investigation of picturing per se. Loading the canvas with mounds of pigment, he draws the squeegie down and across, allowing the irregular patterns created by the squeegie's edge to remain. With a palette knife or spatula, he then scrapes and gauges the layers of dry paint, which fleck off in ways that cannot be anticipated, creating broken textures and a proliferation of variegated pigmented striations. Richter works simultaneously on several canvases arrayed on the walls of his studio, so that each campaign on a single canvas is interrupted, allowing the artist time not only to consider the work in its entirety, but also to move away from any predetermined compositional strategies. In this way, a certain freedom arises through the relinquishing of artistic control. As Richter describes the process, duration and interruption are essential elements of his artistic practice for which "time is needed, and pauses for reflection after each move before being able to paint further-the strategy of detour around expressive outbursts so as to be able to 'overleap my own shadow.'" (R. Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings, London, 1988, p. 108).
For a young art student emerging from the regime of Social Realism imposed on his training and early production in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the idea of producing "paintings which had nothing to do with art" as it had been defined for him from an early age was intoxicating (B. Ferguson and J. Spaulding, "Gerhard Richter," Parachute, fall 1979, p. 32). Suspicious of gestural brushwork, Richter denied the signatory authorial hand. Resisting emotive content and dispensing with illusion were conscious goals, then as now. Richter's interest lay only in the reality of picturing per se. Richter's approach to picture making involves processes of mediation, in which he activates a double remove of the artist's hand and his intention. Through the transcription of prior images or the use of tools such as squeegies (since 1980), Richter suppresses personal gesture, and in doing so, commits himself to aleatory procedures in order to distance both authorial decisions and signatory inscription, and thereby disassociate image from meaning.
Yet for the viewer, Richter's actions--his interventions--stimulate unaccountable perceptual and sensory associations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the experience of the present work. Spreading over an eight by six foot surface, the scale of this monumental canvas radiates an elemental charge. Paradoxically, it seems, the trace left by Richter's use of the proto-mechanical squeegie creates a brilliant unfolding of layer upon layer of sensual waves of chroma, as if the fullness of Dunkel might be released through the scraping and pitting of a hand intent on revelations of the sensuous sublime. Such variegated tactility calls to mind natural phenomena--ocean floors, volcanic residue, and atmospheric washes--and, while not literally imputed by the artist, neither are such associations entirely rejected: Richter does not deny the associative or synaesthetic power of his surfaces. "Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings and landscapes that don't exist, but they create the impression that they could exit. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen" (G. Richter, in "I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversations between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota," Gerhard Richter Panorama, London, 2011, p. 19).
The stunning overall chromatic monumentality of Dunkel's excavated surface creates an optical charge. The glorious sweep of chroma across the picturing field, its range and density, its sheer opticality brings to mind an earlier experience of intense coloration, Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublima of 1950. The artist Mel Bochner, startled by the play of refracted chroma engulfing the viewer, recalled seeing a woman: "covered with red. I realized it was the light shining on the painting reflecting back, filling the space between the viewer and the artwork, [which] created the space, the place. And that that reflection of the self of the painting, the painting as the subject reflected on the viewer, was a wholly new category of experience" (M. Bochner, recalling an occurrence of the late 1960s, discussion session, "Barnett Newman Symposium" Harvard University, May 15, 1992, audiotape, in A. Temkin, Barnett Newman, New Haven, 2002, p. 100). The forcefulness and authority of the present work rely notably on this reading: in like manner, one that redefines the viewing experience for Richter's large-scale abstractions, the space between the viewer and Dunkel, radiates a light and color that envelop the beholder. No longer separate entities, viewer and artwork are conjoined.
While optically mining Dunkel's surface, a parallel excavation of historical models, from Monet through German Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism, can be undertaken. In the mid-twenieth century, Willem de Kooning's overall gestural paintings, such as Composition, 1955, (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York) in which rhythmically sharp and coloristically vibrant brushwork carom across the pictorial field-gestures elaborated in large-scale works such as Untitled XIX, 1977 (Museum of Modern Art), with its multiplicity of intersecting and continuous loops--prefigure Richter's massively complex abstractions. To posit the aesthetic recovery of de Kooning's emotional and sensuous gestures, with their vibrant palettes of primary colors, is as tempting in this regard, as it is to relate Richter's project to the neo-expressionists of the later 1970s. Yet, however much Richter's own fractal patterns and vibrant, surprising colorations call to mind the overall markings and large-scale expanses of Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Barnett Newman or the illogically pigmented representations of German Expressionists, such as Emile Nolde and Leon Kirshner, Richter's abstractions nevertheless proceed from very different impulses.
The artist's variegated densities and reliefs overlaid across wide expanses of saturated canvas, such as we see in Dunkel, demonstrate, rather, that neither expressionistic colorations nor automatic procedures are used here in the service of releasing emotional or psychic impulses, but, rather, are deployed systematically to energize, flatten, merge, accrete, and create what, in the end, are deeply considered campaigns of "picturing," of distilling what has been allowed to emerge by chance, accidentally, rather than intentionally. Yet one cannot deny the power of Dunkel's surface to elicit tactile sensations as a celebration of its material presence, while effecting an intense optical charge through its chromatic layering and striations, as if the savaging of the dried paint and the material evidence of the squeegie imprint expressed the "operative force of the will [and] experience of the subject; that is to say, of the artist himself" (G. Richter, quoted in "Richter's Facture: Between the Synecdoche and the Spectacle," exh. cat. Marianne Goodman Gallery, 1987, n.p.).
In its luminous accretions of color and serried strata of manipulated facture, Dunkel holds action and time in a moment of hypostasis, allowing at once the perception of the process of creation and its consummation, a picture (Bild), overflowing with the history of its making and its meaning. Abstraktes Bild, Dunkel is a representation of all that is past--in present time--and "establish[es], beyond familiar activity, the accomplishment of the specific existence of painting as a reality in itself" (D. Zacharopoulos. Gerhard Richter: Paintings, Marian Goodman Gallery/Sperone Westwater, New York, 1987, n.p.).