This work will be included in the forthcoming volume 5 of the Gerhard Richter. Catalogue raisonné, edited by Dietmar Elger for the Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden, as cat. no. 809-2.
With its dazzling explosion of opulent jeweled tones, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild 809-2 offers a vast kaleidoscopic panorama. Flickering veils of pigment are swept across the picture plane in stark vertical and horizontal layers, cycling inwards to create a swirling, centrifugal vortex. Dominated by a majestic skein of unearthly sapphire blue, a primal spectrum of color erupts in prismatic splendor, refracting the tonalities of sun, sky, blood and fire. Ruptured by fissures, apertures and rivulets, the surface parts to reveal a glowing white ground: a radiant pool of light that animates the painting from within. Executed during the finest period of Richter’s abstract practice, and held for over half its life in the collection of rock and blues legend Eric Clapton, the work represents a true meeting of giants. It is the second in a monumental four-part series of canvases created in 1994, the third of which resides in the joint collection of Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. In 1995, these works were unveiled together at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London as part of the landmark exhibition Gerhard Richter: Painting in the Nineties. Following the artist’s career-defining retrospectives of 1991 and 1993, the show was a critical and commercial triumph, with works subsequently acquired by major museums across four continents. Three of the four 809 paintings were bought by the noted collectors Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, from whom they were purchased by Clapton in 2001. Echoing the grid-like structures of Richter’s four-part Bach series (1992, Moderna Museet, Stockholm), and foreshadowing his six-part response to the work of John Cage (2006, Tate, London), the present work represents a chapter in the closely-entwined stories of music and abstraction. Indecipherable notations dance across its quivering horizontal planes, spawning a matrix of lilting rhythms, discordant harmonies, contrapuntal textures, interrupted cadences and chromatic inflections. In the clamoring polyphonic tremors of its surface, the painting aspires to the condition of noise: a virtuosic rhapsody that strains to be heard.
Standing as the culmination of a three-decade-long investigation into the properties of paint and perception, the works produced by Richter during the late 1980s and early 1990s represent the first major abstract achievements since those of Abstract Expressionism. Having initially expressed distaste for the metaphysical claims of his forebears, claiming to be fascinated purely by the “lie” of visual media, Richter’s attitude towards the sublime began to soften during the 1990s. “I am less antagonistic to ‘the holy,’ to the spiritual experience, these days,” he told Mark Rosenthal in 1998. “It is part of us and we need that quality” (G. Richter, quoted in M. Rosenthal, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1998, p. 365). Inspired in part by his blossoming relationship with Sabine Moritz, the subject of his deeply reverential 1994 masterpiece Lesende (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Richter’s paintings of this period may be read as expressions of transcendental beauty. Marking the apotheosis of his signature squeegee technique, they revel in its chance effects: chaotic collisions of pigment, overwritten, erased, prised apart and covered over. Though figurative shadows lurk beneath their multi-layered surfaces, they are no longer so painfully plagued by the polemics of representation; rather, they rejoice in the liberated power of paint, relishing in its inherent complexities. At the same time, the artist maintains a level of distance from his predecessors: where Barnett Newman’s soaring flat planes asked Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, Richter’s primary tones are swept into thick kinetic frenzies, almost televisual in their fractured distortions. It is an effect that draws the viewer in, only to deflect their gaze moments later. Rather than overpowering the onlooker, works such as Abstraktes Bild 809-2 cause us to stop dead in our tracks: to look closely, and to listen intently, for momentary glimpses of reality.
ABSTRACTION AND MUSIC: CLAPTON’S RICHTER
Richter has spoken on many occasions of his deeply-felt affinity with music. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the present work should have spent the last fifteen years in the home of a musician–author of some of the greatest rock classics of the last half-century, and one of the finest blues guitarists of his generation. The liminal zone articulated by Richter’s paintings–the space between abstraction and representation–is one that, many would argue, has long been occupied by music. Like the Abstraktes Bilder–works riddled with imperceptible figurative traces–music similarly has the power to evoke known realities without ever fully defining them. Frequently listening to recordings whilst he worked, Richter claimed that he always saw his abstract paintings as “something musical.” “There’s a lot in the construction, in the structure, that reminds me of music,” he explained. “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). Spanning Bach to Cage, his eclectic stimuli testify to his fascination with the condition–rather than the specific content–of music. He was particularly inspired by Cage’s understanding of the relationship between sound and silence, encapsulated in the composer’s dictum “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” As Richter later recalled, “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 “Interview with Jan Thorn-Prikker,” in D. Elger and H-U. Obrist, eds., Gerhard Richter: Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 478). In Abstraktes Bild 809-2, the artist builds layers of timbre and tonality that reverberate just beyond the threshold of hearing. Above the stone cold silence of the white ground, the rhythmic pull of the squeegee creates a powerful, resonant plane which, though fundamentally mute, harbors all the qualities of sound.
GERHARD RICHTER: PAINTING IN THE NINETIES
The works created between 1989 and 1994 are widely considered to represent the purest articulation of Richter’s abstract language. Alongside the Bach suite, other major cycles produced during these years include the Eis paintings (Art Institute of Chicago), the four Grün-Blau abstracts of 1993 (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofa, Madrid, and the five Rot-Blau-Grün paintings of 1994 (Abgeordnetenhaus, Berlin). Their production coincides with a period of unprecedented international acclaim for Richter. His breakthrough retrospective was held at Tate, London, in 1991, whilst Documenta IX in 1992 saw the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. Between 1993 and 1994, 130 works were showcased in the major European touring retrospective Gerhard Richter: Peinture 1962-1993. Curated by Kasper König, and accompanied by a three-volume catalogue raisonné edited by Benjamin Buchloch, the exhibition was to reinvent Richter’s career. As the critic Doris von Drathen wrote, “There are exhibitions that, like great milestones, reset the standards in contemporary art. Richter’s retrospective, launching now at the ARC [Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris] in Paris, is of this quality” (D. von Drathen, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 323). Following the success of these exhibitions, Gerhard Richter: Painting in the Nineties opened its doors to the public in 1995. Alongside the acquisition of the present work’s companion by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, paintings from the show now reside in international museum collections including The Cleveland Museum of Art, La Caixa Foundation, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
Abstraktes Bild 809-2 takes its place within this distinguished period. What the exhibitions of the early 1990s had shown, perhaps more than anything, was the significance of Richter’s squeegee technique in the development of his oeuvre. In his earliest abstractions of the 1970s, Richter had relied heavily on photographic support material. As he gradually attempted to remove all guides and templates, he struggled to find a balance between deliberate action and submission to chance. It was not until the second half of the 1980s, when the squeegee first manifested itself as a prominent tool within his arsenal, that he was able to forge a sophisticated dialogue between the unplanned and the controlled–a dynamic that reached its apex in the mid-1990s. As Dietmar Elger explains, “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). The squeegee is applied over several layers of underpainting, which are subsequently distorted by its dynamic sweep. Frequently executed whilst the underlying paint is still wet, the resulting skips and schisms fracture the diaphanous strata of color above in incalculable patterns. “It is a good technique for switching off thinking,” explained Richter. “Consciously, I can’t calculate the result. But subconsciously, I can sense it. This is a nice ‘between’ state” (G. Richter, quoted in S. Koldehoff, “Gerhard Richter, Die Macht der Malerei,” Art. Das Kunstmagazin, December 1999, p. 20).
RICHTER THE COLORIST:
DIALOGUES WITH ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM
For many years, Richter positioned himself in fervent opposition to his Abstract Expressionist ancestors. Rothko, Newman and their contemporaries believed that painting was able to absorb the viewer into its world: that we no longer had to observe reality depicted upon a canvas, but instead could step into its glowing chromatic depths and experience the sublime first-hand. For Richter, working in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, the medium had fundamentally lost all claim to transcendence. Reality was no longer attainable through painting: the closer we got to the surface, the more we became aware of its base materiality. Paintings were not portals or vehicles, but masses of dead fibers, artificially saturated with pigment. All images were lies: illusions designed to co-opt and seduce the viewer. As such, Richter conceived his early practice as “an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phony reverence” (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 69). Towards the 1990s, however, Richter’s hard-line dismissal of Abstract Expressionist philosophies began to wane. Though he still saw his work as distinct from their aesthetic propositions, the dramatic scale and immersive surface of his works–greatly amplified by the squeegee–made it difficult for him to fully deny any spiritual claim. “With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood,” he said–a statement that resonates strongly with many of the ideas espoused by Newman and Rothko (G. Richter, quoted in R. Nasgaard, “Gerhard Richter,” in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1988, p. 107). In Abstraktes Bild 809-2, an incendiary fusion of primary tones creates a raw, almost visceral optical experience–a euphoric display of painterly pyrotechnics that momentarily borders on sublimation.
Regardless of their metaphysical properties, Richter’s abstract paintings undoubtedly represent the first major essays in chromatic effect since the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. In the catalogue for the artist’s 2002 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Robert Storr linked Richter’s approach to color to his musical sensibilities. “… It is hard to think of him as anything other than one of the great colorists of late twentieth-century painting,” he wrote. “Whatever resistance to that designation there might be may be explained by the kind of color Richter favors and the role it plays in enhancing the disquieting psychological effects of his work. When Richter talks about the relation between music and painting he had two extremes in mind, Bach and Mozart on the one hand, and on the other, Schönberg and more unexpectedly the ‘noise’ composer Glenn Branca. For anyone predisposed to judge musicality by harmony, and an artist’s gifts for color by soothing optical chords, Richter’s preference among composers stand as a warning. None of the available precedents or labels–most obviously Fauvism and Expressionism–account for the stridency of Richter’s combinations of chlorophyll greens, sulfuric yellows, ice-cool blues, raw vermilions, and all the raggedy and gritty combinations they achieve when dragged across one another, or when slate grays and dirty whites are dragged over them” (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, pp. 70-71). Situated somewhere between sound and image–between harmony and discord–Abstraktes Bild 809-2 speaks directly to this statement. With its splintered labyrinth of vivid, hallucinogenic color, it creates a vast, sonorous field of noise, distortion and simultaneity that approximates the diffuse nature of reality.