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With virtuosic mastery Gerhard Richter creates a vast seascape of high-keyed chromatic labyrinths that floods the picture plane in wave upon wave of spectral luminescence. The matrix of multiple pictorial registers at work in Abstraktes Bild (648-3)—spatial ambiguity, optical charge, tactile sensation and compositional complexity—delivers a kinetic and sensual force rarely matched in brilliance and beauty. Liquescent teal dissolves into viridian green; staccato punctuations of rich cadmium yellow and fiery red and magenta riddle the terrain disrupting the softly brushed aqueous turquoise and phthalo blue. The stunning grandeur of Abstraktes Bild manifests as much in the sudden bursts of chromatic under-layer as in the floating droplets of high-keyed chroma searing its vast surface. As if adrift in an immense coral underworld, vividly hued textures pulsate as they describe a seeming network of living organisms of almost preternatural vividness—a grand expanse of blazing chromaticism and convulsive materiality.
Abstraktes Bild exhibits that rare simultaneity of smooth wet-on-wet brush-strokes and studded surfaces, which come from great pulls of Richter’s squeegie across a dry field. The myriad of façades that arise—where for example, a layer of viridian green is pried open to reveal sudden bursts of cadmium yellow—allow under-layers to assert their chromatic dominance, drawing into recession what a moment earlier had stunned the eye. What begins as a series of layers built up becomes, in the end, layers broken away to reveal the essence of their making.
The painting’s brazen materiality speaks to the opposition at play between technical and compositional control and submission to chance. “I’m concerned [that these abstract paintings] evolve of their own accord. I don’t work at random but in a more planned way, in the sense that I let a thing happen by chance, then correct it, and so on. The actual work consists in taking what appears, looking at it and then deciding whether it’s acceptable or not” (G. Richter, quoted in “Interview with Jonas Storsve, 1991” in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 275). Alternating between intention and fate, Richter maneuvers a loaded squeegie in vertical tracks down the broad surface of the canvas, blanketing color after color in layered accretions, which are then scraped, resulting in surfaces of often surprising texture and hue. “Almost everything you see here is by chance. The moment of chance is very important, but it is guided and used” (G. Richter, “Interview with Anna Tilroe, 1987,” ibid., p. 198). Richter’s technique—the painterly tools and procedures he uses—guides the aesthetic outcome often toward what he terms “greater richness” and greater “complexity.” “There is a difference [in the abstract pictures] in what I call the climate. For example, the landscapes are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive” (G. Richter, ibid., p. 198).
Abstraktes Bild is the third in the monumental four-part cycle (648, 1-4) executed in 1987, two of which reside in major museums—in Japan’s National Museum in Osaka and in France’s Musée d’art moderne del la Ville de Paris. Layering as a technique is doubly reflected in the material surface of all four works. Arrayed around the studio, these canvases may have received their first coats of paint almost at once, and after deliberation, second, third or more layers would have been laid down according to the artist’s bodily rhythms, his intuition and his judgment. In free rhythmic gestures, Richter wields the large squeegie, which he turns, swerves and guides beyond the framing edge. Rifts, crevices and fusions form—myriad inflections delineating an open field. Moving from canvas to canvas, reaching over from one to the other in impulsive bursts of inspiration, the process continues until a break in physical or mental flow causes the artist to stand away in thought. The surfaces register each spontaneous resumption and interruption, recording rhythmic pauses and breaks, revealing incrementally deep or shallow excavations of the under-layers opened to view. Richter’s working method can be described as a cycle of action and critique, revelation and defacement. The “complex archeology” of reliefs and fissures that emerges is the result, then, of positive actions taken and refused, of marks made and negated. While the squeegie effectively removes the trace of the authorial hand, it also leaves an indexical impression of Richter’s bodily presence. This either/or stance in relation to the act of painting and its after-image leaves Richter in a position he describes as both detached and non-emotive—the opposite of the heroic, individually assertive Abstract Expressionists of an earlier generation in America. Richter’s goal is “to let something come into being rather than to create, that is, no declarations, no constructions, nothing supplied, no ideologies—in this way to achieve something real, richer, more alive, something that is beyond my understanding” (G. Richter quote in Jill Lloyd, “The London Paintings,” London, 1988, n.p.).
The subject matter of painting underwent a radical transformation not only in Richter’s abstracts but also in his earlier photographic work. Whether blurring, altering, or even obliterating the image, Richter shifts meaning from the image per se to the means of its expression. In so doing, Richter exposes the contingent nature both of the photographic and painterly mediums: by foregrounding technique, Richter’s images become oblique representations rather than documents of objective reality. In his later abstract works, Richter effectively fuses the image with the surface texture of its depiction, obliging the “picture [to] derive from technique” (G. Richter, “Notes, 1964,” in Text: Writings, op. cit., p. 22). Even so, Richter invites the viewer to make pictorial sense from his surfaces. “We only find paintings interesting because we always search for something that looks familiar to us. I see something in my head I compare it and I try to find out what it relates to…Basically, we always try to identify a relationship of the picture to some sort of appearances. Its not about the recognition of particular subject matter” (G. Richter, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” in R. Storr, Forty Years of Painting, New York, 2003, p. 304). So, too, in Abstraktes Bild, it is the material quality that creates the illusion. Through the trace of brushwork or the squeegie or the palette knife on the surface, Richter indexes fact of their use. The “image” in Abstraktes Bild becomes one with its facture—its painted textures. It is in this sense that Richter constructs painterly “fictions” of images that may never have existed—what Richter has famously referred to as “fictive models.” In an oft-quoted statement for Documenta VII, Richter writes, “Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate” (Documenta VII catalogue, Kassel, 1982, in G. Richter, op. cit., London, 2009, p.121). It is also in this sense that Richter fully releases his paintings to the vision of the viewer.
Abstraktes Bild’s material surface—an evocation of atmosphere and texture and its rhythmic progression across a “spatial and temporal continuum” (J. Hartens, “The Romantic Intent for Abstraction,” in Gerhard Richter Bilder, 1962-1985, Köln, p. 26)—leaves the imagination free to read into the work whatever comes to mind. In this sense, Richter’s abstracts are provocative rather than definitive: he provokes sight even as its subject is non-specific. The chromatic vertical striations, the wide pulsations of teal or the of bursts yellow ochre and punctuations of alizarin crimson can be compared to the extraordinary chromatic essays of the English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner—as if Turner interpenetrated Richter’s surfaces with his scarlet sky illuminated by yellow streaks of light—or to the Impressionist Claude Monet’s vast shimmering and densely organized waterscapes, or even to the chromatic color contrasts of the post-impressionist Georges Seurat. The critic Félix Féneon had likened Seurat’s divisionism to a semi-mechanical process—to the “monotonous and patiently speckled surface, like a weaving: actually here, ‘the hand’ is superfluous…” (F. Féneon, quoted in B. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: March 1985, New York, 1985, n.p.). Like Seurat, who let the viewer’s eye mix the colors optically, Richter’s semi-mechanical mediations of “the hand,” whether through photographic transfer, collage, oil transcriptions or by means of the distancing mechanism of the squeegie, invites the beholder to bring to these luminous surfaces the fullness of his or her own fantasy.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richter began to explore abstraction in a series of grey monochromes, which he effected with rollers and sponges, producing a range of compelling surfaces, from deeply textured gestures to mirror-like opaqueness. Richter’s work, therefore, continued to be executed by semi-mechanical means. The goal was to mediate the direct application of paint by the hand, which had been seen as a form of direct apprehension by the viewer of the artist’s inspiration—from Titian to Willem de Kooning. The grey paintings signaled a period of artistic alienation and indifference that Richter felt was most honestly reflected in the tonalities and textures of the grey palette—formal and conceptual indecision that for all their seeming neutrality and self-referential qualities, remain rife with a sensuality of facture and tonality that belie the overall monochrome palette. Yet such apparent nihilism or resignation in these pictures provoked among the most fertile production of his career when he turned to abstraction. “When I first painted a number of canvases grey all over…I did so because I did not know what to paint, or what there might be to paint: so wretched a start could lead to nothing meaningful. As time went on, however, I observed differences of quality among the grey surfaces—and also that these betrayed nothing of the destructive motivation that lay behind them. The pictures began to teach me. By generalizing a personal dilemma, they resolved it” (G. Richter, Text: Writings, op. cit. London, 2009, p. 91).
During this period Richter also employed mechanical means to create further compelling viewing experiences. Such impact on the viewer Richter understands not as an experience of mimesis, of having painted an image that the viewer can readily identify, but rather as yet another example of a semi-mechanically constructed “fictive model.” A prime example is Seascape, 1970, based on a photo-collage in which the two views of the sea are vertically juxtaposed, one above the other, to mimic clouds over a vast watery expanse. The painting transforms the constructed photo-realistic picture into an extended surreal atmosphere, much as the open field of vibrant layered coloration and textures in the present Abstraktes Bild evoke the totalizing effect of being submerged in the rhythmic patterns of a rippling underwater seascape.
By 1976, Richter’s move toward abstraction yielded further explorations of the phenomena of surface texture as image by opening grey into dynamic coloration. “[I] was absolutely unable to paint any more grey canvases. I was completely struck, and my only choice was, so to speak, to hang myself or to paint the absolutely opposite (G. Richter, “Interview with Anna Tilroa, 1987, ibid., p. 198). In the series he called Details, Richter photographed a few inches of his palette, which he scaled up to larger proportions and then transcribed in oil on canvas. In this way, he magnified the paint flow or the encrustations of paint on the palette—again prizing the image from its original source—to construct an artificial landscape in molten oils.
A work like Construction from 1976 traces Richter’s move to the open field. Characterized by ambiguous spatial arrangements that are penetrated by stunning multiple constellations of oblique diagonals and sharply delineated angular projections, Richter moves his paint across indeterminate space, even as he punctuates this stream with blazing fields of cadmium red, orange and yellow. These open pictorial fields presage the radical innovation of the monumental abstracts such Abstraktes Bild in the next decade.
It was in the mid-1970s that Richter began to paint a series of oil sketches that signaled a path toward his mature abstract style. Richter once again used enlarged details—this time of the oil sketches—photographed from various angles and in several different light conditions. He then transcribed the photographs into painted abstract works, thus mimicking the gestural brushstroke of the oil sketch, but divesting it of its meaning as “action painting,” as a subjective expression of the inner emotional and psychic turbulence of the artist. In this way, Richter was able to conflate the photograph with the abstract picture, recreating “photographs” as abstract pictures. “I am practicing photography by other means: I’m not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph, but producing photographs. And seen in this way, those of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs” (G. Richter, ibid., p. 73).
Thus, it was through the photograph that Richter has been able in his abstractions to distance his work from the European Art Informel or Tachisme and from the American Abstract Expressionism. Yet even as he created pictures deploying images that had been subjected to radical manipulation, they communicate startling expressive and imagistic richness. “Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings or landscapes that don’t exist, but they create the impression that they could exist. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen, that could never exist” (G. Richter, quoted in “I Have Nothing to Say and I’m Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicolas Serota, Spring 2011,” exh. cat., Gerhard Richter: Panorama, Tate Modern, London, 2011, p. 19).
Abstrakes Bild is similarly mobilized by light and color grazing and articulating its massive surface. Here Richter has painted a pure painting—a work of art as material presence. Standing as a summatory statement of decades of exploration of the painted surface, Abstraktes Bildes is a grandly scaled tour de force in color and texture and its rhythmic motion across an open field. Richter’s prodigious knowledge of, and in some sense, embrace of, art historical movements—from realism, modernism, Art Informel, Tachisme, and Abstract Expressionism through the postmodernist critique of authorial gesture and intentionality—informs his artistic practice. The miracle of Richter’s abstractions is that they are vehicles for dismantling figuration, expression, and the authorial voice in painting even as they declare a mode of intentionality mythologized by Abstract Expressionist artists. Richter’s works respond to this history even as they deny it. For as the art historian T. J. Clark remarked, Richter’s “pictorial intensity [comes] out of…fullness and [is] fixed inevitably in its unique particularity” (T. J. Clark, “Grey Panic,” London Review of Books, Vol. 33, no. 22, November 7, 2011).
A master of technique and composition, Richter is also a conjurer of desire, for such lavish colors and textures stimulate our optical and tactile sensations—our appetite for sheer pleasure. The trembling surfaces, their quivering transparencies reflected in the viewer’s optical field, create sympathetic sensations to which we are compelled by our own sensate drives. Abstraktes Bild (648-3) conveys the force of this desire, inevitably “fixed” by its maker in its very textures and chroma. Richter’s work is among the most spectacular and emotionally powerful explorations of abstraction in Western art—a glorious example of the artist’s unassailable achievement.