Noted for his breakthrough approaches to painting, Gerhard Richter’s career spans multiple decades and has had a palpable impact on the trajectory of contemporary painting. Part of a monumental series that saw the German artist dive headlong into a new type of abstraction, Abstraktes Bild (which translates simply to ‘abstract picture’) employs the artist’s groundbreaking squeegee method to more fully remove the hand of the artist from the final product’s composition. “I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned,” Richter has explained about the process. “This method of arbitrary choice, chance, inspiration and destruction may produce a specific type of picture, but it never produces a predetermined picture. Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably” (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2010, p. 312). Pushing and manipulating his compositions in broad strokes, works like Abstraktes Bild go beyond gestural abstraction toward an experience suffused with chance and surprise.
A dazzling assortment of tones, colors, and rich textures, Abstraktes Bild is a stellar example of Richter’s squeegee paintings. By applying paint in various manners to the surface of the canvas and then scraping them together and away with a large, flat panel, the artist is able to lend a uniformity and crystalline structure to abstract gesture. This particular example is rich with blue, red, white, and black with a smattering of green, orange and other minute colors. The lower left portion is given over to a white smear that ripples with energy where the squeegee has created a descending pattern of parallel horizontal lines. Interrupting this section is a large ravine created by the artist’s tool that offers a clean cut through the gauzy layers of white and gray to the more painterly elements underneath. The entire right side of the work is given over to a blue column of paint that is accentuated by peach and plum tones at one blending with the navy backdrop and skittering across its surface like ice forming on a dark, watery expanse. Richter’s ability to combine hazy abstractions with sharp edges and shapes like the isosceles triangle in the upper right corner are a direct result of his working methods, and lend works like Abstraktes Bild a duality that questions the artistic process and its relationship to abstract painting.
Looking at the horizontal layers of white and gray in the upper portion of Abstraktes Bild, one is reminded of the blurred grey-scale nature of Richter’s triumphant paintings based on photographs that filtered found images through the painter’s brush. Always one to question the way in which pictures are being made, the artist’s career has been notable for its eschewal of one continual style. Rather, Richter revels in continually reinventing and reinvestigating particular ways of making paintings in an effort to understand the basic principles of the artform. With his abstract works, the painter notes, “Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of Nature (or a Readymade) always possesses” (G. Richter, interview with Sabine Schütz, 1990, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, Cambridge, 1995, p. 216). By distilling his process down to base elements, Richter hopes to approach a purity more in line with chance encounters in nature rather than something labored over and premeditated. Careful not to call his works automatic, Richter’s process exists as a healthy merger between the artist’s trained eye and the randomness that such smearing can produce. Though each work in the series shifts and ripples with unplanned amalgamations of color and texture, it is the artist who stops the process when he knows that the composition has been completed.
Though he gained notoriety in the 1960s for his paintings that took the photograph as an object and reproduced it in oil, by the 1970s Richter had begun to realize works completely devoid of subject matter. The artist described these early abstract paintings that “allowed me to do what I had never let myself do: put something down at random. 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 Gerhard Richter: Text, London, 2009, p. 256). Realizing that even if his photographic sources were detached and distanced from their real-world subject and original authorial intent through his offhand selection and laborious blurring process, he would eventually need to put aside any kind of representation in favor of a more intense focus on painting itself. Works like Abstraktes Bild rely not on a recognition of subject, emotion, or theme, but instead display a very visceral interaction between paint, canvas, and the artist’s tools.
Richter’s use of the squeegee has opened new possibilities for the artist as he pushes further into a full questioning of the painterly process. 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, op. cit., p. 251). There are no restarts or erasures within this action. Instead, each pull of the utensil inextricably changes the face of the work. Where once a thick line of white paint from a tube existed, now a billowing field of snowy streaks tumbles. Using a squeegee the size of his canvas, Richter is able to make changes to the entire picture plane at once. There are no small missteps or fiddling details. One grand gesture can make or break a painting.