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

Kleine Treppe am Meer [Small Staircase at the Seaside]

Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Kleine Treppe am Meer [Small Staircase at the Seaside]
signed, inscribed and dated '237/2 Richter 69' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
31 ½ x 39 3/8 in. (80 x 100 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Galerie Rudolf Zwirner, Cologne
Galerie Klaus Lüpke, Frankfurt/Main
Private collection, Germany
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Gerhard Richter, exh. cat., 36 Biennale di Venezia, German Pavilion, 1972, p. 41, no. 237/2.
Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, ed., Gerhard Richter, Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné: 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, n.p., no. 237-2 (illustrated in color).
E. Dietmar, ed., Gerhard Richter: Landscapes, Ostfildern, 2011, p. 36 (illustrated in color).
C. Lotz, The Art of Gerhard Richter: Hermeneutics, Images, Meaning, London and New York, 2015, p. 212.
D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné Nos. 198-388, Volume II 1968-1976, Berlin, 2017, p. 164, no. 237-2 (illustrated in color).
Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gerhard Richter, Bilder 1962-1985, January-June 1986, pp. 108 and 375, no. 237-2 (illustrated).

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Known for his conceptual melding of the photographic process and a diverse stylistic repertoire, Gerhard Richter’s oeuvre is a visual journey through the painter’s mastery of the medium. Kleine Treppe am Meer [Small Staircase at the Seaside] belongs to a number of representational landscapes that traverse the line between the real world and painterly abstraction. To this end, Richter has proclaimed, “There is, for me, no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting” (G. Richter, quoted by D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Landscapes, exh. cat., Sprengel Museum, Hanover, 1998, p. 5). Thus, works like Kleine Treppe am Meer occupy a special liminal space between the artist’s early works based on black-and-white photographs and his completely abstract canvases. If not for the titular steps, the planes of color would become more in tune with the works of Mark Rothko than those of Andrew Wyeth. As it stands, at the confluence of pastoral serenity and color field abstraction, Richter once again proves his ingenuity in rectifying the seeming disparities within the many realms of painting while still maintaining a surprisingly introspective air. Jill Lloyd notes, “Frequently the landscape views are empty and distant … There is an even, uneventful distribution of light, and nature is windless and still. Paths and gates lead nowhere in particular, and despite the romantic associations there is a peculiar mood of emotional neutrality, of aimlessness, that pervades the scenes … It is as if we are never allowed to stand at quite the right imaginative distance for our visual and emotive responses to concur; attempts to grasp, to understand, are frustrated” (J. Lloyd, Gerhard Richter: The London Paintings, exh. cat. Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 1988, n.p.). By allowing the viewer only a small entry point into his canvas, Richter stymies quick understanding and asks for more prolonged observation and contemplation.

As the title implies, Kleine Treppe am Meer [Small Staircase at the Seaside] depicts a set of steps dwarfed by an expanse of air and water. In the lower midground, rising out of a sandy expanse of warm neutral tones, a short staircase with a single handrail leads onto a plinth set into the beach. Extending from the center and off past the leftmost edge of the frame, this elevated walkway is a visual dividing line between Richter’s earth tones of the land and the blue, white, and taupe of the sea and air. Whereas the water glistens in a minute strip that formally separates the painting into sections, nearly two-thirds of the composition are made up of sky; a bright sunlight beams from beyond the frame and dissipates into its airy expanse. Gentle, hazy brushwork fades from blue to peach and renders the atmospheric perspective that any viewer of such a scene would experience. However, two patches of white appear in the central plane as if the light was glinting off a lens. The connection to photography within Richter’s practice is well-known, so the appearance of such a lens flare adds a conceptual edge to a seemingly straightforward landscape painting. “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph; I’m trying to make one,” Richter has intoned, “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). Insisting on the tenuous boundary between painting and photography, Richter flits between both and settles on neither. Not reproducing found images in exacting detail like the Photorealists of the late 1960s, the painter instead filters photography’s scientific accuracy through the fallibility of the brush. The result, as in works like Small Staircase at the Seaside, is an uncanny union of two media.

Born in Dresden, Richter studied at the Kunstakademie there from 1951 to 1956. After leaving for West Germany in 1961, he continued his studies in Düsseldorf for another two years where he became close friends with Sigmar Polke and was exposed to American and British art that had only recently made its way to Europe, namely the work of the fledgling Pop artists. In response to this, the artist began to explore the nature of images, namely the blurred boundaries between photographs and painting. His breakthrough body of work from the early to mid-1960s took black and white photographs as the catalyst for a methodical analysis of this confluence. This marriage is evident in his landscape paintings like Kleine Treppe am Meer that, while not as interested in the objectivity or issues of memory his preceding pieces championed, look more toward the elements of pure abstraction that can be seen in everyday life and in the tones and colors of nature. However, rather than referencing the ideas of the sublime and those principles espoused by Caspar David Friedrich and others related to German Romanticism, Richter found an oddly meditative approach that could be entered by more analytical means. Dietmar Elger notes that “…the…landscapes are bereft of human life. The artist looks for and finds only loneliness. Here, as in the…candle paintings, the artistic mechanism of subjective appropriation and thematic displacement comes into play. Richter explores his own state of mind through a visual metaphor that he can examine from an art-historical distance” (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2010, p. 269). Drawing from his earlier works with photographic appropriation, Richter eschewed emotional, personal attachment to the image, and instead focused on a conceptually rigorous process that placed emphasis on ideas of image reproduction and how visual information is sent and received. Kleine Treppe am Meer [Small Staircase at the Seaside] is an important step on Richter’s artistic trajectory as subject matter and traditional composition begin to fade into pure color and form.

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