Dating from one of the most majestic periods of Gerhard Richter’s abstract practice, Abstraktes Bild is a rich, complex and enigmatic work that demonstrates the extraordinary flourishing of his technique during the early 1990s. Vertical ribbons of deep, opulent color cascade down the length of the picture plane, flickering like folds in a veil. Below, a shimmering ground of pink, blue and piercing green tones weaves in and out of focus, illuminating the darkness like shards of light through trees. Painted in 1992, during a period of thrilling international acclaim, the work belongs to a distinctive group of canvases created by dragging a spatula and palette knife in vertical bands over a squeegeed underlayer. At once rhythmic and chaotic, these works set a new benchmark within Richter’s oeuvre, staking out virtuosic new ground in his lifelong exploration of the relationship between abstraction and figuration. Included in the 12th Sydney Biennale in 2000 after two years on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, the present work takes its place alongside examples held in the Kunsthalle Hamburg and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., amongst others.
With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood.”
By the 1990s, Richter had fully mastered the squeegee technique that had fuelled his investigations since the beginning of the previous decade. Swept across the canvas over layers of wet paint, the tool allowed him to fully exploit the dialog between chance and control that lay at the heart of his oeuvre. The addition of a new vertical dimension, as demonstrated here, unlocked further layers of potential, allowing Richter to effectively overwrite the patterns created by the squeegee. Occasionally, he cuts through the surface with a palette knife, forcing rills of paint to run up the edges of the bands like cresting waves. Elsewhere, horizontal threads seem to intersect with the vertical striations, creating a seemingly impossible web of interwoven layers. As Robert Storr wrote, “Richter has taken to flaying the painted skin of his canvases with a spatula in broad strokes or long, wavering stripes leaving behind abraded, shimmering surfaces that at their sheerest and most luminous look like the Aurora Borealis suspended above various red, orange, yellow, green, blue or violet planets” (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 81).
Richter has taken to flaying the painted skin of his canvases with a spatula in broad strokes or long, wavering stripes leaving behind abraded, shimmering surfaces that at their sheerest and most luminous look like the Aurora Borealis suspended above various red, orange, yellow, green, blue or violet planets.”
The early 1990s saw Richter take his place on the global stage. His breakthrough retrospective was held at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1991, while Documenta IX the following year constituted the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. In 1993 he mounted a landmark touring retrospective, Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993, curated by Kasper König and accompanied by a three volume catalogue raisonné edited by Benjamin Buchloch. The exhibition not only transformed international perception of the artist’s work, but also—according to the critic Doris van Drathen—“reset the standards in contemporary art” (D. von Drathen, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2009, p. 323). The triumphant joys of this period found expression in his paintings, which—as well as the present work and its companions—included historic cycles such as Wald (Forest), 1990, and Bach, 1992 (Moderna Museet, Stockholm). The former, in particular, offers pertinent context for the present work, foreshadowing its strident sense of verticality.
In many ways, the painting may be seen to chart a journey through Richter’s practice. On one hand it bears witness to the significance of the squeegee within his oeuvre: a tool that permitted him to fully embrace free abstraction. Armed with this seemingly utilitarian implement, the artist was able to dispense with visual props and guides altogether, moving away from his “Smooth Abstracts” of the 1970s and letting paint determine its own destiny. “Consciously, I can’t calculate the result,” explained Richter. “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). At the same time, as with the artist’s most engaging works, the painting quivers with echoes of his figurative practice. Interestingly, some of Richter’s earliest photo-paintings had taken the curtain as their subject, focusing on the play of light and shadow across its undulating folds. As well as evoking the subtle, luminous tonalities of his Seascapes and Cloudscapes, created during the late 1960s, the present work also conjures the ethereal semi-darkness of his celebrated 1980s Candles, whose lone vertical beacons were shrouded in a dim, otherworldly glow.
For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again ... It would be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect.”
Such resonance speaks to Richter’s central thesis: namely, that abstraction and figuration were two sides of the same coin. The latter, for him, was a lie posing as the truth; the former was reality dressed up as fiction. By excavating his squeegeed surfaces in the manner of the present work, Richter was able to demonstrate paint’s extraordinary capacity for misdirection. Though loosely evoking the bars of a grid—the ultimate Modernist archetype—Richter’s broad vertical strokes blurred the boundaries between representation and illusion even further, creating a screen that seemed to amplify the suggestion of an inscrutable reality beyond. “For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again,” he explained in 1992. “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” (G. Richter, “Notes 1992” in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p. 245). Evocative of Francis Bacon’s “shuttering” technique, most famously showcased in his series of screaming Popes, the effect is one of near-cinematic suspense, in which the dynamics of creation and destruction are held in a permanent state of tension.
For many years, Richter had positioned himself in opposition to the transcendental rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism. During the 1990s, however, he began to revise his position. “I am less antagonistic to ‘the holy,’ to the spiritual experience, these days,” he told Mark Rosenthal in 1998. “It is part of us and we need that quality” (G. Richter, quoted in M. Rosenthal, “Interview with Gerhard Richter” in Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1998, p. 365). Loosely reminiscent of Barnett Newman’s “zips,” or indeed the quivering portals of Mark Rothko’s color fields, the present work seems to hint at the grand, emotive drama envisioned by his forebears. The artist’s chromatic sensibilities, meanwhile, may equally be seen in the context of earlier predecessors: among them Claude Monet, whose optical pyrotechnics are echoed in the work’s kaleidoscopic tonal spectrum. In a world where technology posed ever-greater threats to painting’s future, works such as the present staked a claim for its mercurial power, conjuring reality from abstraction, and light from darkness.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).