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Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
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Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

Abstraktes Bild

Details
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Abstraktes Bild
signed, numbered and dated '724-1 Richter 1990' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
33¼ x 44in. (82 x 112cm.)
Painted in 1990
Provenance
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London.
Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich.
Private collection, Germany.
Anon. sale, Phillips New York, 13 May 2004, lot 35.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ed.), Gerhard Richter, Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné: 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, p. 190, no. 724-1 (illustrated in colour, p. 127).
Special notice

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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘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).

Painted in 1990, Abstraktes Bild (724-1) is a work of exquisite dynamism that dates from the height of Gerhard Richter’s abstract practice. A jewelled spectrum of vivid tones shimmers through a translucent veil of white and silvery grey, swept across the picture plane to form a kaleidoscopic light-filled panorama. Infinite shades of red, yellow, blue, green and pink blend, intermingle and collide, forming mesmerizing chromatic strata. Textures emerge and dissolve, weaving deliquescent patterns across the densely layered surface. The work is a virtuosic example of the free abstractions that, since the late 1980s, had utilised the artist’s signature squeegee technique to create new levels of optical intricacy. Loading his canvas with layers of colour before dragging his paint across the canvas, Richter creates richly marbled effects that glisten with fluid tactility. The present work exemplifies Richter’s eloquent command of his medium, cultivated over decades of experimentation in both abstract and figurative registers. His quest to carve a complex space between the two realms is elegantly showcased here: though evocative of blizzards, misty landscapes and watery reflections, it ultimately occupies an abstract terrain all of its own.

The paintings created between 1989 and 1994 are widely considered to represent the purest articulation of Richter’s abstract technique, and represent the culmination of a rigorous investigation into the possibilities of painting. Regarded as one of the finest periods within a practice spanning over five decades, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the production of significant works including the celebrated Eis cycle of paintings (The Art Institute of Chicago), as well as important examples of his Abstraktes Bilder series, now housed in important collections including Abstrkates Bild 726 (Tate, London), Abstrkates Bild 727 (Kunsthalle Hamburg) and Abstrkates Bild 734 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). The early 1990s was also a time of great professional triumph for Richter. His breakthrough retrospective was held at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1991, while 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. The influential touring retrospective Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1961-1993 opened in 1993, grouping together 130 works in a critically-acclaimed exhibition that was to completely transform the artist’s career.

The present work is situated at the peak of the series of Abstraktes Bilder (Abstract Paintings) that occupy over two decades of Richter’s practice. Within an oeuvre relentlessly dedicated to exploring the possibilities of painting, the Abstraktes Bilder were first conceived as a counterpoint to the artist’s already extensive body of figurative photo-paintings. ‘It began in 1976, with small abstract paintings that allowed me to do what I had never let myself do: put something down at random’, he explains. ‘And then, of course, I realized that it never can be random. It was all a way of opening a door for me. If I don’t know what’s coming – that is, if I have no hard-and-fast image, as I have with a photographic original – then arbitrary choice and chance play an important part’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990’ in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter. The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 215). By the late 1980s, Richter had developed this premise into a sophisticated painterly dialogue between chance and control, exploiting an arsenal of tools in order to blur all traces of the artist’s hand. Using palette knives and different-sized dry brushes alongside the squeegee, Richter scraped, smeared and redirected the random collision of pigments achieved in his initial application of paint. The linear sweep of the squeegee is thus interrupted by fissures, rivulets and faults that obscure the process of the work’s own making. By covering his tracks in this way, Richter creates works that appear before the viewer like naturally-occurring phenomena.

The development of the squeegee technique in the second half of the 1980s was instrumental in Richter’s exploration of unplanned effect. 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, Cologne 2002, 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, schisms and apertures rupture the diaphanous skeins of colour above in incalculable patterns. Richter delights in the automatism of this technique, claiming ‘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 S. Koldehoff, ‘Gerhard Richter, Die Macht der Malerei’, in Art. Das Kunstmagazin, December 1999, p. 20).

By exploiting the intrinsic properties of paint, Richter has likened his craft not only to natural evolutionary processes, but also to the Duchampian notion of the ‘readymade’. Speaking of his practice at the time of the present work, Richter claims, ‘I’m more concerned now to have [my 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 then deciding whether it’s acceptable or not. Perhaps this way of working has something in common with the readymade: the artist lets someone else – it doesn’t matter who – do the work of making the object, and the real work lies in observing the thing and deciding whether it’s any good’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Jonas Storsve, 1991’ in D. Elgar and H-U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter – Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 275). In this way, Richter introduces a conceptual element to his practice, treating paint as a fully-fledged subject in its own right. ‘I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of Nature (or a Readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990’, in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter. The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 216).

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