Painted in 1990, at the peak of Richter's celebrated Abstraktes Bild series, this monumental painting shimmers with both aesthetic and painterly dynamism. As a superlative example of the artist's now-legendary tussle between additive and reductive painting techniques, Richter lays down and then removes a series of painted layers resulting in a succession of dramatic schisms and fractures to the painterly surface, revealing traces of the painting's complex subterranean structure. Emerging through this bejeweled surface are deep ravines of ruby red, deep blue and emerald green-the result of the artist's use of a hard-edged squeegee to disrupt his surface of freshly laid-down paint. Abstraktes Bild (712) was painted at a pivotal point in the four-year period that is widely regarded to have produced some of the artist's most successful examples of his abstract paintings. Preceding this work, the artist executed his celebrated Eis cycle of paintings, which now reside in the Art Institute of Chicago. Other paintings from this year are housed in the permanent collections of the Tate (Abstraktes Bild 726), the Kunsthalle Hamburg (727) and the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (734). As one of the postwar period's most important and innovative painters, Richter continues to explore and challenge the boundaries of the genre. His abstract paintings are often regarded as the pinnacle of his oeuvre and it is with paintings such as Abstraktes Bild (712) that we can see the culmination of his lifelong investigation into the visual and philosophical nature of perception and understanding.
Across a monumental expanse of canvas standing over eight and a half feet tall, Richter carefully lays down stratums of high-keyed painterly layers. Ranging from golden yellow, fiery reds to deep sapphire blues, almost the entire chromatic spectrum is represented here, each with a brightness and intensity that dazzles. As each is completed, Richter drags a hard edged squeegee across the surface of the canvas applying enough pressure to disrupt the uppermost layer of paint, and in the process reveals a kaleidoscope of colors from the sections that lie underneath. Because Richter would often wait until the surface was almost dry before disturbing it, the friction caused by his implement being dragged across the malleable surface resulted in a series of what can best be described as schisms to open up and expose the ravines of colored paint that lie beneath.
In the present work, Richter's interruptions to the surface are not only limited to the broad sweep of his squeegee as it moves from left to right across the surface of the canvas. He also introduces a series of vertical striations as he scores the surface with a much more precise implement. The thin grooves are almost imperceptible when compared with their wider, flatter counterparts, yet close examination of their deep recesses reveals the anatomy of the painting's structure. "The hard edges brought forth by the squeegee create illusionistic space, but are equally orientated toward the viewer in their material, haptic condensation. Red, blue, and yellow remain, despite mixings and superpositions, very much present, both in their fracture as primary colors and as a reference to Barnett Newman, a painter who invoked, in his paintings and their titles, the overwhelming influence of primary colors applied to large spaces, as in Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue" (B. Sontgen, "Work on the Picture: The Discretion of Gerhard Richter," in U. Wilems, Gerhard Richter: Large Abstracts, exh. cat., Museum Ludwig, 2008, pp. 36-37).
Whilst seemingly dominated by chance, these canvases are in fact deeply considered and deliberate, a practice he has sustained throughout his career. "Richter will begin a new group of paintings by placing a number of primed canvases around the walls of his studio, eventually working on several or all of them at the same time, like a chess player simultaneously playing several boards. He begins by applying a soft ground of red, yellow, blue or green, its illusionistic space derived from the earlier Smooth Abstract Paintings. "This," as he says, "is comparatively simple and for half a day looks quite beautiful and full of feeling." But then it must be altered, with a new move, a first form; a large brush stroke, a track of color drawn out with a squeegee, a geometric shape. Step by step the painting changes in appearance, sometimes sharply, with each new accretion, and goes through several states. These are quite attractive in themselves, but are usually sacrificed because they are "too slight, too stupid, or too sentimental, because in any case they are not what I wanted." They are finished "when there is no more I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with" (R. Nasgaard. "The Abstract Paintings" in T. Neff (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London, 1988, p. 108).
The present work, along with Richter's other abstract paintings of the late 1980s and early 1990s, is the culmination of a five-decade-long investigation into the possibilities of painting. Having first covered a photorealist image with swirls of grey pigment in his early work, Table, 1962, Richter began in the 1980s to use a squeegee to spread thick, colorful streaks of paint over his canvases. Traditionally, abstract painting has pared back painting to its fundamental constituents, but for Richter it is from the buildup of countless layers of paint that his work derives its force. The rhythmic application and disruption of pigments with the squeegee is at once creative and destructive, a clash between conscious control and free, intuitive painting. As the artist has elaborated, "It is a good technique for switching off thinking consciously, I can't calculate the result. But subconsciously, I can sense it. This is a nice 'between' state" (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 251).
Abstraktes Bild (712) hails from the finest period in Richter's abstraction, as the paintings created between 1989 and 1994 represent the purest articulation of the artist's improvised technique. Indeed the early 1990s was also a time of great professional satisfaction for Richter. 1991 saw his breakthrough exhibition at London's Tate Gallery, while Documenta IX in 1992 was the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. In 1993, he went on to receive a major touring retrospective, Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993, curated by Kasper König, accompanied by a three-volume catalogue edited by Benjamin Buchloh. This exhibition grouped together 130 works spanning thirty years of Richter's practice and was to completely reinvent his career.
A triumphal celebration of painterly expression, standing before Abstraktes Bild (712) can be as evocative an experience as standing before the masterworks of Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock. Just as these two painters believed their work evoked an "otherworldliness," Richter's abstract paintings are a physical and painterly manifestation of the artist's belief in art as mankind's "highest form of hope." They are paintings that adhere to no known logic or ideology but are created through a careful cumulative and constructive process during which Richter deliberately avoids all conventional rules of aesthetics in order to arrive at work that belies pictorial ideology. "I can... see my abstracts as metaphors," Richter has said; they are "pictures that are about a possibility of coexistence. Looked at in this way, all that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom" (G. Richter in an interview with Benjamin Buchloh, 1986, reprinted in: Gerhard Richter. Writings 1962 -93, p.166).