‘Layers of pigment have accumulated to the point where the slippages caused by Richter’s scraping techniques result in rich marblings, like those on the endpapers of antique books, although the tactile quality is more like moving lava with trace elements of different minerals providing the attenuated elastic patterns’ (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 81).
Melting down the length of the monumental canvas in a shimmering iridescence, Abstraktes Bild takes on the characteristics of molten lava burning through a geological stratum of hot colour. Abstraktes Bild’s deliberately dense chromatic fusions of blue, purple, orange and magenta punctuated by yellow, pink and turquoise immediately captivates the eye, which revels in the kaleidoscopic depths of colour present. Robert Storr could certainly be speaking of this work when he espouses that the, ‘layers of pigment have accumulated to the point where the slippages caused by Richter’s scraping techniques result in rich marblings, like those on the endpapers of antique books, although the tactile quality is more like moving lava with trace elements of different minerals providing the attenuated elastic patterns. In other instances, Richter has taken to flaying the painted skin of his canvases with a spatula in broad strokes or long, wavering stripes leaving behind abraded, shimmering surfaces that at their sheerest and most luminous look like the Aurora Borealis suspended above variously red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or violet planets... but in in the unstable painterly terrain saturated hues run together and smear in aggressively impure, sometimes lurid, sometimes garish combinations while the grid itself wobbles and shudders in the ebb and flow of viscous pigment’ (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 81).
A Journey to Abstraction
Executed in 1989, Abstraktes Bild hails from the finest period in Richter’s abstraction and is a key example of this abstract style that would become synonymous with the artist and that he would return to time and again throughout his career. These works dating from 1988 through 1992 are the product of a long investigation into the possibilities of painting spanning more than five decades and are the purest articulation of the artist’s improvised technique. Alongside his abstract works Richter had begun to develop other models for the examination of visual perception: the slightly abstracted Landscapes, the Photopaintings, the Panes of Glass, the Mirrors, the Grey paintings and the Colour Charts all represented, in different ways, the artist’s direct examination of the mechanics of painting. As he has stated: ‘Every time we describe an event, add up a column of figures or take a photograph of a tree, we create a model; without models we would know nothing about reality and would be like animals’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 1986, in H. Ulrich Obrist (ed.), The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1993, p. 132).
Coming full-circle from his early Tisch (Table), 1962 in which he cancelled his photorealist image with haptic swirls of grey paint, in the 1980s Richter began to freely overlay his canvases with colourful streaks and drags of pigment using his signature squeegee. In creating his first abstract pictures, Richter employed a process similar to that of his celebrated photo-based paintings. Richter’s abstract works are celebrated for their ability to convey, as the artist himself explains, the ‘operative force of the will [and] experience of the subject; that is to say, of the artist himself’ (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., New York, Marian Goodman Gallery, 1987, unpaged). In his abstract works, Richter allows structure and colour alone to generate and determine the picture as channelled through his squeegee. ‘When I paint an Abstract Picture,’ Richter described, ‘I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings’ (G. Richter, quoted in J. Harten & D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1962-1985, Dusseldorf 1986, p. 89).
During the second half of the 1980s, Richter honed a style with his squeegee that conveyed a sense of the finished work’s very facture in its surface terrain. Looking at the surface of Abstraktes Bild resembles archaeological exploration, the traces of so many different abstract elements peeking through the gaps between various layers of colour. Indeed Abstraktes Bild’s surface elicits a tactility in its material presence that encourages the viewer to consider not only how pictures are seen and read, but also how they are made. Loading the canvas with mounds of pigment, he draws the squeegee down and across, allowing the irregular patterns created by the squeegee’s edge to remain. 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 composition: his abstracts are clearly produced by equal parts chance and hazard, as the squeegee determines the coalescence of paint on the surface. As Richter notes of this process: ‘Above all, it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that is 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, in H. Ulrich Obrist (ed.), The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1993, pp. 159-161).
Between Figuration and Abstraction
In the embracement of the contingency of his medium, the chance effects which proliferated thanks to his spontaneous yet confident applications of paint deconstructed the relationship between figure and ground. Richter’s comments that: ‘We only find paintings interesting because we always search for something that looks familiar to us. I see something and in my head I compare it and try to find out what it relates to. And usually we do find those similarities and name them: table, blanket, and so on. 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, quoted in R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 304). While Richter has deliberately avoided any element of figuration emerging from the chromatic blooms, there is nevertheless a waterfall-like, shimmering quality in Abstraktes Bild that serves only to make the painting all the more absorbing. The variegated tactility of the surface calls to mind such natural phenomena as forest fires or volcanic magma and molten residue. However Richter does let ‘a thing come, rather than creating it – no assertions, constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies – in order to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive’, and as such, does not entirely reject such associations’ (G. Richter, quoted in H. Ulrich Obrist (ed.), The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1993, pp. 119-120). In its palette and chromatic intensity, Abstraktes Bild recalls Atem (Breath),1989 (Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee) and prefigures Richter’s abstract series Wald (Forest) from 1990, the title of which betrays the extent to which figuration and abstraction overlap in the artist’s oeuvre. As he explains further, ‘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, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., London, Tate Modern, 2011, p. 19).
An Exploration of Light
Since the mid-1980s Richter had worked to close the gap between his abstractions and his photo-realist landscapes, though he often remarked that ‘For me there is no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting. In my opinion the term “realism” makes no sense’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 273). His exploration of landscape in the 1980s culminated in 1987 when he created twenty-three landscape works which investigated the luminescence of summer light. This study into conveying the intangibility of light in paint would seem to have extended into 1989 and the creation of Abstraktes Bild as presented in its own iridescent surface. Just as Claude Monet had done generations before him, Richter beautifully illuminates the shifting boundary between figuration and abstraction through the medium of light. Whilst Monet’s immersive images studying these effects during different atmospheric conditions pushed figuration to the brink of abstraction, especially in his later works, in Abstraktes Bild Richter has arrived at the same effect through different means.
The exploration of light ostensibly at play in Abstraktes Bild also finds affinities with the works of the great colour field painters such as Mark Rothko. And while Richter never aspired to bring about a transcendentalism from the act of looking as the Abstract Expressionists did, he did note in a discussion with Mark Rosenthal in 1998 that, ‘I am less antagonistic to ‘the holy,’ to the spiritual experience, these days. It is part of us and we need that quality’ (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002, pp. 69-70). We can see Richter’s ingenious manipulation of colour and light evolve from his first colour charts in 1966 through to masterful abstract works from the late 1980s, of which Abstraktes Bild is undoubtedly one, through to the commission of the stained glass window for the south transept of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) in 2007. The extraordinary finished window constructed of over 4900 glowing rectangles of coloured light finds much in keeping with the glowing and sizzling chromatic intensity of Abstraktes Bild.
Why Richter would have turned to abstraction as a means of opening up possibilities to see the invisible or unknowable is best clarified in his statement at documenta in 1982: ‘Abstract paintings are like fictitious models because they visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we nevertheless conclude exists. We attract 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 absolute images like heaven and hell... 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’ (G. Richter, ‘Statement’, Documenta 7, Kassel, 1982, unpaged).