Audio: Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (809-1)
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
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Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

Abstraktes Bild (809-1)

Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Abstraktes Bild (809-1)
signed, numbered and dated '809-1 Richter 1994' (on the reverse); numbered again '809-1' (on the turning edge)
oil on canvas
88¾ x 78 7/8 in. (225 x 200 cm.)
Painted in 1994.
Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London
Collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, Berlin
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2001, lot 31
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Gerhard Richter, exh. cat., London, Anthony D'Offay Gallery, 1998, p. 104, no. 809-1 (illustrated in color).
Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné 1993-2004, Dusseldorf, 2005, pp. 270 and 309, no. 809-1 (illustrated in color).
London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Gerhard Richter: Painting in the Nineties, June-August 1995, p. 84, no. 15 (illustrated in color).
Dresden, Residenzschloss, Dalí, Miró, Picasso...Sammlung Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch, June-August 2000.

Lot Essay

The lot will be included in the forthcoming fifth volume of the Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné, edited by the Gerhard Richter Archive, Dresden, as no. 809-1.

Rendered in a rich autumnal palette of scarlet, emerald and golden yellow, dotted with flecks of violet and Prussian blue, Abstraktes Bild (809-1) is a masterpiece from Gerhard Richter's finest period of abstraction. Created in 1994, Abstraktes Bild stands as the first in a monumental four-part series and is situated among a pantheon of highly celebrated abstract cycles, which includes the four-part Bach series, 1992, now housed in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Abstraktes Bild was first exhibited in 1995 along with its companion pieces in Gerhard Richter: Painting in the Nineties at Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, an acclaimed show that included works that now reside in major museum collections such as Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland; La Caixa Foundation, Barcelona and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Indeed a companion work, Abstraktes Bild (809-3), prestigiously resides in the joint collection of the Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. The present work was acquired directly from Anthony d'Offay Gallery by Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch in whose influential collection it resided until it was acquired by the present owner in 2001. More recently, Richter enjoyed a major career retrospective at Tate Modern, London in 2011 that later traveled to Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin and Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

In Abstraktes Bild, the eye is guided across the epic surface, reveling in the seamless transitions of pigment that traverse from one textural interlude to the next, punctuated by chromatic passages of indigo, alabaster white and magenta. In this majestic work, there are no signs of conflict, but rather free flowing, intuitive gestures that result in a surface that emits a radiating glow; the squeegee adding and subtracting layers of paint to reveal myriad colors through the beautifully worked surface. Richter veils where one layer of paint ends and the next begins; primary colors melt into a cohesive satin-finished surface. Across the length and breadth of the canvas, Richter has spread rich oil paint in an interplay of vertiginous columns and broad swathes, allowing the paint to interact wet-on-wet, and producing the elegant contours that make the present work so spectacular. His meticulous handling of this viscous substance engenders the work with a momentum and dynamism checked only by striations and chance elements that emerge from his technique. This application of color, in the rich marblings of greens and in the staccatoed blurs of reds and yellows draws the eye into depths of the image, while at the same time, reiterating the surface of the canvas itself. As Robert Storr has enthusiastically attested, in works such as Abstraktes Bild, "it is hard to think of him as anything other than one of the great colorists of late twentieth-century painting" (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 70).


There is a majesty in this work, both in its opulent palette and large format, which invokes a similar sense of the sublime as experienced in the works of post-war Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. In the passages of primary color that withstand Richter's rhythmic undulating process, there is an evocation of those works by Newman, such as Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, which presented the overwhelming influence such pure color could have in large expanses. In an almost homage-like fashion, the essential color palette employed by Richter here in Abstraktes Bild evokes the Abstract Expressionist penchant for primaries-- red, yellow, blue and white. Yet, in the decade prior to the creation of this painting, Richter fervently distanced himself from the earlier generation of Abstract Expressionists, claiming "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). The Abstract Expressionists endeavored to bring about a transcendence in the process of looking, to bring the viewer to a higher plane of enlightenment. Here, Richter's richly colored and highly elaborate surface inspires this same search for meaning, and yet also refutes it through its mechanically produced chromatic fusions. Richter's abstract work is undeniably present in our reality but unnamable; we want to categorize it as transcendent, as sublime, in order to explain its inexplicable presence. Yet his work refutes this tendency by showing the indelible marks of its creation. Richter came to appreciate this ability in his art, and in Newman and Rothko, noting in a discussion with Mark Rosenthal in 1998, "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., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 69-70).
ABSTRACTION: "My presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions"

For Richter, his free abstraction is the product of a long investigation into the possibilities of painting spanning more than five decades. Coming full-circle from his early Tisch (Table) (1962) in which he canceled his photorealist image with haptic swirls of gray paint, Richter began in the 1980s to freely overlay his canvases with colorful 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. With a practice regarded for its heterogeneity, Richter's abstract works are celebrated for their ability to convey, as the artist himself explains, "my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions. They are very topical for me" (G. Richter, quoted in "Interview with Dorothea Dietrich, 1985," in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 146). In his abstract works, Richter allows structure and color alone to generate and determine the picture as channeled 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, Düsseldorf 1986, p. 89).

Abstraktes Bild stands as a culminating work in Richter's investigations of representation through painterly production that has spanned decades. He has focused on deconstructing the idea that an absolute reality can be known or communicated through a single painting style. Deftly moving between photorealist works from his own personal history or culled from newspapers, color charts, cityscapes and abstraction, the heterogeneity of Richter's practice evidences his belief that abstraction and figuration appear as opposite ends of the same spectrum, abstraction being no less a representation of reality than those photorealist paintings of landscapes, people or places. Never at odds are his varied methods, analogous in the ways they attempt to reflect contemporary life. From his earliest works, Richter has suggested that reality is elusive and hard to hold onto, that sight and our inability to ever truly believe what we see is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. On this Richter has stated, "I cannot describe anything more clearly about reality than my own relation to reality. And this has always to do with haziness, insecurity, inconsistency, fragmentary performance, or what have you" (G. Richter, quoted in R. Schn, Interview, 'Gerhard Richter: 36. Biennale di Venezia', in R. Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1998, p. 9).

In his exploration of the abstract, Richter took up the vocabulary of picture-making-- form, color gesture, figure and ground oppositions, alloverness-- not as pure formal relations or elements empty of references, but fully attentive to their evocative capacity and associative meanings. In his use of the squeegee, Richter removed the artist's hand from his composition; such non-compositionality meant that the intentionality of the artist's hand was no longer the primary operating system for the construction of an image. This method was to find its purest articulation between 1989 and 1994 with large-format paintings such as Abstraktes Bild. Deconstructing the relationship between figure and ground, Richter was embracing the contingency of his medium, enjoying the chance effects of the spontaneous yet confident application of paint. 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). Richter's insertion of chance operations allows each and every gesture and its results to take on equal relevance and presence in the work, allowing him to critically engage with the almost microscopic differentiations that emerge through his painterly facture. As he once explained, "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). In the very fact that the structure of the paint can never be completely controlled by his own will, Richter becomes an engaged observer of his own process, orchestrating the revelations, blurs, slippages and marblings that proliferate through the contingency of the chance encounters of his materials. Richter explained: "It certainly is different. 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, interview with B. Buchloch, H. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 159).


In Abstraktes Bild the cumulative layers of non-representational paint in greens, yellows and reds, cannot help but evoke the fiery vista of a landscape at the height of autumn. Just as the Impressionists had done generations before him in their representations of landscape, Richter elegantly illuminates the shifting boundary between figuration and abstraction. Since the mid-1980s Richter has worked to close the gap between his abstractions and his landscapes. The artist has often remarked on his rejection of the limitations of representation, but he still believes in its ability to open up the possibilities to see the invisible and unknowable. As he elaborated, "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. Abstract paintings are fictitious models because they visualize a reality, which we can neither see nor describe, but which we may nevertheless conclude exists. We attach negative names to this reality; the unknown, the ungraspable, the infinite, and for thousands of years we have depicted it in terms of substitute images like heaven and hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood" (G. Richter quoted in R. Nasgaard, "Gerhard Richter," Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1988, p. 107). Despite his abstract works conveying no mimetic representation of reality, they do strongly communicate an equivalent and equally valid pictorial reality. Richter explains of this connection between these two seemingly disparate genres in his practice: "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).

In its diffusive blossoming of rich, vibrant color, the mind yearns to find figuration in the scene offered in Abstraktes Bild. The slippage in the wavering presence of dark green verticals and golden band-like horizon lines makes it feel as though we are viewing a forest at the height of the autumn season through a magnifying glass. Richter's tendency to blur our vision of the world through his painterly practice in order to heighten our awareness is inseparably connected with the history of photography. Indeed, there is a distinct photographic quality to Abstraktes Bild in its subtle melding of color planes produced by the squeegee, which evokes his early photorealist works as well as his effacement of actual photographs with coagulated ripples of color. For Richter, photography has consistently provided a mediating tool that put the personalized aspect of painting at a distance, releasing it from associations with the subjective expression of the artist. An excessive tension is brought to bear in his abstract paintings, above all, because Richter wants them to be understood as photographs in an extended sense, and he makes this clear in their structure and tendency. This distinguishes his paintings from all previously known abstract painting. "I'm not trying to imitate a photograph; I'm trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then 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, quoted in "Interview with Rolf Schön, 1972" in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 73).


In the 1990s, the richness of the surface and color in Richter's Abstraktes Bilds reached an apex. His use of the squeegee intensified, and the use of the wet-on-wet technique, applying the top color before the layers beneath it were dry, allowed formations of paint next to and on top of one another to melt into a delicate, flowing structure of colorful transitions. Abstraktes Bild is a key example of this celebrated turn in Richter's abstract works, as is the monumental Bach cycle of some two years earlier. Indeed during this period Richter appears to be reveling in the sensual pleasures of freely applied paint and color, exploring its potentiality in a suite of cycles of which Abstraktes Bild's series is one example. Other examples include his cycle of four Grün-Blau abstracts from 1993, currently held in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofa, Madrid, and the cycle of five works, Rot-Blau-Grün (Red, Blue, Green), 1994, held in the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives), Berlin, Germany.

The almost natural majesty of Abstraktes Bild can be understood as a reflection of the artist's great personal satisfaction during this period. The early 1990s were a time of supreme contentment for the artist. In 1991 he had held his breakthrough exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London and in 1993 he received a major touring retrospective Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993 curated by Kasper König, with a three-volume catalogue edited by Benjamin Buchloch. This latter exhibition, containing 130 works carried out over the course of thirty years, was to entirely reinvent Richter's career. As critic Doris von Drathen wrote of the exhibition, "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). In 1994, whilst he was completing Abstraktes Bild, Richter was also engaged in a series of paintings depicting his new wife, Sabine Moritz. The warmth and affection he felt for Sabine Moritz was immediately apparent in his works in 1994, particularly in the photorealist masterpiece, Lesende (Reader), (High Museum of Art, Atlanta) where Richter demonstrates a tenderness towards his subject, using diffused light to illuminate Sabine's elegant profile. Indeed a sense of his enriched emotional life is evident in the confident gestures, radiance and majestic palette of Abstraktes Bild.

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