Rendered in a blazing palette, Abstraktes Bild (798-3) is a visually arresting masterpiece by Gerhard Richter dating from his finest period of abstraction. Acquired directly from Anthony D'Offay Gallery, this is the first time Abstraktes Bild (798-3) has been seen by the public for nearly twenty years. Executed on a monumental scale, it immediately captivates with its dramatic swathes of hot red oil paint, interrupted by palimpsests of midnight blue, alabaster white and verdant green. The canvas has a profound gravity to it, the viewer being drawn in by the painting's luxuriant surface, grand scale and enveloped by its sensual palette. In Abstraktes Bild (798-3), Richter has truly perfected his technique, submitting himself to the hypnotic rhythm of painting with the squeegee. In this majestic work, there are no signs of conflict, but rather free flowing, intuitive gestures; the squeegee adding and subtracting layers of paint to reveal myriad colors through the beautifully worked surface. There is a palpable momentum and sense of dynamism inherent to the painting, derived from the artist's physical journey across the canvas. From its hilt to the base, Richter has spread rich oil paint in sublime and vertiginous columns. On top of these antecedent layers he has then crossed the surface left to right, allowing the paint to interact wet-on-wet, and producing the elegant contours that make the present work so spectacular.
Before Richter embarked upon his series of abstract paintings, few would have described him as a colorist, but as Robert Storr has enthusiastically attested, in works such as Abstraktes Bild (798-3), "it is hard to think of him as anything other than one of the great colorists of late twentieth-century painting" (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 70). In many respects the opulent red palette and large format employed in Abstraktes Bild (798-3)recalls the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. For this generation of painters, the ambition was to immerse the viewer in the evanescence of color, subjecting them to a deeply emotional and extrasensory experience; what Robert Rosenblum was later to describe as the 'Abstract Sublime.' As Rosenblum explained, the viewer stands in front of the great abstract painting with the same wonderment as the small figure depicted alone in front of a staggering landscape.
In Abstraktes Bild (798-3), the viewer is similarly enveloped by the radiance of the composition; his or her sphere of vision entirely saturated by color. For Richter however, these associations have often been uncomfortable, the artist expressing two minds on the subject. As Robert Storr has elaborated, "for eyes accustomed to emotionally heated Action Painting or exultant Color Field abstraction, Richter's masterful but abrupt cooling down of the rhetoric of Post-War art can be even more disconcerting than Pop or Minimalism because it seemed at first glance to have employed that rhetoric" (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 69).
During the course of conversations with Benjamin Buchloch in 1986, Richter fervently distanced himself from the earlier generation of Abstract Expressionists, claiming "an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phony reverence" (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, p. 69). Indeed he expressed doubt over Rothko's transcendental approach suggesting, "While I certainly prefer that to cynicism there was a kind of science fiction coming from Rothko's darkness that was Wagnerian or had a narrative side which bothered me" (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 70). With time however, Richter's thinking on the subject has evolved, the gulf closing between the earlier generation and his own practice. In discussion with Mark Rosenthal in 1998, he conveyed his admiration for Rothko's seriousness: "I am less antagonistic to 'the holy,' to the spiritual experience, these days. It is part of us and we need that quality" (R. Storr, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 69-70).
For Richter, his free abstraction is the product of a long investigation into the possibilities of painting spanning more than five decades. Coming full-circle from his early Table (1962) in which he cancelled his photorealist image with haptic swirls of grey paint, Richter began in the 1980s to freely overlay his canvases with colorful streaks and drags of pigment using his signature squeegee. 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" (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2009, p. 251). In using the squeegee, Richter was attempting to remove the artist's hand from his composition; this method was to find its purest articulation between 1989 and 1994 with large-format paintings such as Abstraktes Bild (798-3).
Deconstructing the relationship between figure and ground, Richter was embracing the contingency of his medium, enjoying the chance effects of the spontaneous yet confident application of paint. Once asked how chance in his paintings related to the chance embraced by Jackson Pollock or Surrealist automatism, Richter explained: "it certainly is different. Above all, it's never blind chance: it's a chance that is always planned, but also always surprising. And I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I've worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I'm often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am" (G. Richter, interview with B. Buchloch, H. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 159).
The near sublime beauty and balance of Abstraktes Bild (798-3) can be understood as a reflection of the artist's great personal satisfaction during this period. In spite of his many claims to the contrary, the work appears to betray a sense of his own emotional life, the ebullient red resonating with the new found success in his career. The early 1990s were a time of supreme contentment for the artist; in 1991 he had held his breakthrough exhibition at Tate Gallery, London and in 1993 he received a major touring retrospective Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993 curated by Kasper Knig, with a three volume catalogue edited by Benjamin Buchloch. This latter exhibition containing 130 works carried out over the course of thirty years, was to entirely reinvent Richter's career. As critic Doris von Drathen wrote shortly after, "here are exhibitions that, like great milestones, reset the standards in contemporary art. Richter's retrospective, launching now at the ARC in Paris, is of this quality" (D. von Drathen quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 323).