Painted in 1969 – the year that man first landed on the moon – Gerhard Richter’s Sternbild (Constellation) is a beautiful and enigmatic picture of the stars. This vast canvas, unseen in public since its creation, is one of the artist’s celebrated ‘photo-paintings’, which are based on printed photographs. By placing the image at this remove from direct observation, Richter troubles the impact of his subject matter, and questions the power of paint to bridge the divide between man and nature. Sternbild envisions space not as a zone of infinity where we might ponder our place in the universe, but as a painted object based on a mechanical capture of light. Fine scrapes run through the work’s black pigment like clouds of TV static, underscoring its physical texture. Its stars are hazy and indistinct, as if out of focus. Its striking vertical composition – standing two metres high by one-and-a-half wide – is more a monolith than an open expanse. Painting at a moment when space was unfolding to human exploration like never before, Richter makes the heavens feel profoundly remote.
Much as Richter’s photo-based landscape paintings subvert German Romantic ideals of the sublime, Sternbild denies the night sky any transcendent grandeur. We are a far cry from Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th-century composition Two Men Contemplating the Moon, which invites us to join the observers in considering the glory of nature and the unending cosmos. At the same time, Sternbild’s nebulous ‘all-over’ surface of white, grey and black at once evokes and refutes Abstract Expressionism’s later painterly strain of the sublime, snuffing out the emotive pyrotechnics of Pollock or de Kooning with cold, meticulous monochrome. Indeed, several of Richter’s other Sternbilder – there are nine in total, painted between 1969 and 1970 – are entirely ‘in-painted’ with thick grey brushstrokes, aligning them with his contemporaneous ‘grey paintings’: inscrutable, neutral abstract surfaces that reduce painting to iterated statements of empty anomie. Despite the nihilistic cast to Richter’s thought in this period, however, works like the present harbour a glow of hope in their subtle, ambiguous beauty. ‘A painting can help us to think something that goes beyond this senseless existence’, he would later say. ‘That’s something art can do’ (G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr, ‘Interview with Gerhard Richter’, 2001, in Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2003, p. 112).
Outer space and hope for humanity were closely aligned in 1960s thinking. In 1957 – the year that Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, was sent into orbit – the ZERO group had been founded in Düsseldorf by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack. Sharing in the ‘Spatialist’ vision of Lucio Fontana in Italy, these artists saw space as a tabula rasa for the wrecked world of postwar Europe, a countdown to zero from which art could relaunch. Many of their works were dedicated to the exploration of light and of monochrome white, the ecstatic primary condition that Piene called ‘a zone of silence and of pure possibilities for a new beginning’ (O. Piene, ‘The Development of the Group “Zero,”’ The Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 1964, pp. 812-13). When Richter arrived in Düsseldorf from East Germany in 1961, he entered an artistic environment invigorated by ZERO’s activity. That same year saw a major development in the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the USA, with Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to enter outer space.
Although he would become friends with some of ZERO’s affiliates – he gave his 1966 painting ZERO-Rakete (Zero-Rocket) to Heinz Mack in exchange for one of Mack’s own works, and collaborated with Günther Uecker in 1968 – Richter was not convinced by their ideas. In a compromised postwar landscape, painting, for him, had forever lost its innocence. ‘It was too unbroken, too esoteric – the pure light, the pure white’, he said of ZERO. ‘One would have to be very faithful in order to create and propagate something like that’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 34). Like his haunted visions of the German countryside, Sternbild ultimately figures a loss of faith in painting as an unclouded view onto reality. A restrained and powerful work, it takes its place in what Robert Storr has called ‘Richter’s masterful but abrupt cooling down of the rhetoric of postwar art … a puzzling iconoclastic enterprise, which exploited reflex feelings of existential or transcendental identification only to quell them with a dazzling display of painterly ability conspicuously free of any drama, struggle, or ecstatic abandon. In contrast to Pollock, the painter was never “in” his painting nor, given Richter’s opinions on the matter, did he ever think of himself as “nature”. In contrast to Rothko, the absolute was not merely veiled by Richter, it had retreated beyond reach – into painting’ (R. Storr, ibid., pp. 110-11).