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Abstraktes Bild

Abstraktes Bild
signed, inscribed and dated ‘680-1 Richter 1988’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 ¾ x 71 1/8 in. (200 x 180.7 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
The artist
Private collection, Cologne
Private collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2015
B. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, p. 185, no. 680-1 (illustrated).
D. Elger, Gerhard Richter. Catalogue Raisonné 1988-1994, vol. 4 (nos. 652-1 – 805-6), Ostfildern, 2015, pp. 184-185, no. 680-1 (illustrated).
Vienna, Galerie nächst St. Stephan, Gerhard Richter, June-September 1992.
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A venerable titan of twentieth century painting, Gerhard Richter has always forged his own artistic path. His expansive oeuvre is a testament to this fact, and will most assuredly continue to influence countless generations of artists. Part of his highly-acclaimed Abstraktes Bild series, this monumental canvas is a vibrant and visually rich example of Richter’s ingenuity and adept handling of raw materials. Probing the depths of his practice in his customarily methodical, inquisitive manner, Richter works in a nearly automatic mode involving a series of layers, scrapes, and smears. The painter responds to how each action changes the canvas and this, in turn, sets up a sequence of subsequent actions. “I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned,” Richter has noted. “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 2009, p. 312). This spirit of inevitability renders each of the works in his Abstracts series forthright in their own unique personalities. Diverging aesthetically from his earlier practice, much of which centered around order and recognizable source material, paintings like the present example illustrate how broad of a net Richter has cast in his experimentation.

A riot of sumptuous color and a visually complex framework of paint, Abstraktes Bild revels in the pure energy of its creation. Given over to an abundance of golden yellow on the topmost layer, the canvas offers up a dizzying mix of red, pink, blue, green, black, white, and various other hues in between. In the middle of the composition, a shock of white shines out from beneath the turmoil to anchor a central spine. To its right, the dark viscosity of deep black covered in tendrils of meaty red creates a site of absorption that competes with the rest of the canvas. The entire left section, from bottom to top, is a swirl of flaming gold that exhibits jewel-like tones and small pockets reminiscent of exquisite cloisonné work in medieval metalwork. Of course, all of this turmoil and fervor is a result of the delicate dance Richter performs to appease his capricious media.

Thinking about the ways in which works like Abstraktes Bild were made in the late 1980s, the artist mused, “If the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything…I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless…My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures – even though they treat me any way they like and somehow just take shape. Because it’s still up to me to determine the point at which they are finished (picture-making consists of a multitude of Yes/No decisions with a Yes to end it all)” (G. Richter, quoted in A. Borchardt-Hume, “‘Dreh Dich Nicht Um’: Don’t Turn Around: Richter’s Paintings of the Late 1980s” in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2011, p. 172).

“I want to end up with a picture that I haven’t planned. 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.” Gerhard Richter

Giving up some of his artistic control to the paint and process itself results in a synergistic relationship more powerful than before. Though this might seem at odds with his earlier photo-based works, Richter is still beholden to his sources and seeks a thorough investigation of the process. Just as in his previous series, the Abstracts begin with a number of primary rules and expand exponentially from there. Whereas works like Familie am Meer [Family at the Seaside], 1964, (MKM Museum Küppersmühle für
Moderne Kunst, Duisburg) peer at the connections between photograph and painting through a reproductive process, Abstraktes Bild looks not at an image but at the paint and process itself as a starting point. Seeking to visually describe the mixing and melding of color with kinetic motion, Richter puts his very technique on display.

Using a massive squeegee in a process of his own design, in addition to the more traditional brushes, Richter paints the canvas only to then obliterate his marks with a swipe of his smearing instrument. Initially seeking a mode of painting that was at odds with his previous, more exacting methods, the painter realized he had to give up some of the control he had so staunchly desired up until that point. His first forays into the type of abstraction exhibited in Abstraktes Bild, he mused, “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). The Abstracts from the late 1980s, the series from which Abstraktes Bild hails, show an important transition from more geometric abstraction to the process-based compositions that really embrace Richter’s personal working methods. In the 1970s and early 1980s, straight lines, discrete brushstrokes, and some allusion to formal shape still held strong in between the artist’s more expressive incursions. However, as he continued in this mode, the ability to completely obliterate the hand of the artist and diverge from any semblance of pre-planning or lyricism grabbed hold of the painter’s brain and pushed him further into his dance with abstraction. The squeegee became the great equalizer in his working methods and invited more freedom than ever before.

Richter is insistent on his devotion to the idea of a more pure understanding of abstraction. He does not endeavor to create emotive canvases (although the energy and tension are certainly there for the viewer). Rather, he revels in the surprise and the chance encounters made when one layer is pressed and scraped and mixed against another. Reminiscing about his watershed moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Richter noted, “[...] I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again. In this process, I don’t actually reveal what was beneath. If I wanted to do that, I would have to think what to reveal (figurative pictures or signs or patterns); that is, pictures that might as well be produced direct. It would be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect” (G. Richter, “Notes 1992” in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 245). Works like Abstraktes Bild are evidence of an exploratory gesture. They are completely nonrepresentational but are also bereft of the machismo and heroic action of the Abstract Expressionists. Instead, Richter gives the compositions their power by presenting the viewer with physical density and visual intrigue. The sheer amount of impasto smears on the painting’s face and below create an opulent surface that beckons one inward indefinitely.

Born in Dresden, Richter studied at the Kunstakademie there from 1951 to 1956 before moving to West Germany in 1961. There he continued his studies in Düsseldorf for another two years and was exposed to American and British art that had only recently made its way to Europe, namely the work of the early Pop artists. While at school, he became close friends with Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg with whom he staged exhibitions and demonstrations. Inspired by these activities, as well as the Fluxus Movement and other avant-garde trends, the young artist began to explore the nature of images and the crossroads between photography and painting. Works like Kuh [Cow], 1964, (MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst, Duisburg) were painted enlargements of found black-and-white photographs, and helped the artist further explore this connection. Despite his conceptual and Pop leanings, however, Richter always thought of himself first and foremost as a painter. Over the years, working primarily in discrete series, the artist has navigated various aspects of the medium in a way that carefully plots an examination of reality seen through his ever-evolving practice. "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. Schön, “Gerhard Richter: 36. Biennale di Venezia”, in R. Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1998, p. 9). Even in his representational works, the subject is borrowed from an external source. Richter consistently makes work that asks us to step back and look at painting for what it is, not just the subjects or emotions it represents.

Though sometimes derided early on for his disparate styles, Richter’s ability to use various methods in pursuit of a common goal has given his oeuvre its lasting power. Even his early works that referenced found photographs are connected more logically to canvases like Abstraktes Bild than might be seen at first glance. Speaking about this in the 1970s as he looked to expand beyond his breakthrough representational works, Richter noted, "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). By setting up a solid conceptual framework for his paintings, the artist has avoided a purely emotional reading of his output and brings the divergent series together under a set of common principles. Abstraktes Bild is a clear example of this masterful process, and exquisitely highlights the dynamic fervor with which Richter approaches each of his endeavors.

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