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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Abstraktes Bild

Abstraktes Bild
signed, inscribed and dated '593-5 Richter 1986' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
47 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. (120 x 80 cm.)
Painted in 1986.
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Boston Children's Heart Foundation, Children's Hospital, Boston
Their sale; Sotheby's, London, 26 June 1997, lot 54
Collection of Thomas Olbricht, Essen
Schönewald Fine Arts, Xanten and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco
Galerie Terminus, Munich
Galerie Springer & Winckler, Berlin
Private collection, Seattle
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2007
B. H. D. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, vol. III, Osfildern-Ruit, 1993, no. 593-5 (illustrated).
New York, Marian Goodman Gallery, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, March-April 1987, p. 20 (illustrated).
Essen, Museum Folkwang, Moving Energies #3.1: Aspects of the Olbricht Collection, January-April 2004, n.p. (illustrated).
Munich, Galerie Terminus, Gerhard Richter: sichtweise-schichtweise, May-June 2006, p. 19 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Gerhard Richter began working on his career-defining Abstrakte Bilder paintings in 1976, and the present work is exemplary of the ongoing series’ enormous influence on the history of painting. Its reds, yellows, and oranges collide with a swath of grey, evoking sunshine before a storm. This is not a combative relationship, but rather a symbiotic one. Created at a turning point when Richter began to use a squeegee to manipulate his pigments, Abstraktes Bild epitomizes his innovations of the late 1980s. In 1986, Richter told his frequent interlocutor Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “What I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom” (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger and H.U. Obrist, eds., Gerhard Richter—Text: Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961—2007, London, 2009, p. 187). This expansive impulse is certainly evident in Abstraktes Bild, which evinces not only the freedom of the artist, but also the freedom and chance inherent in paint. Indeed, as critic Roberta Smith notes of the artist’s first exhibition with David Zwirner, New York this year, “It may be Richter’s genius to prove that his materials always have more to say,” (R. Smith, “Gerhard Richter Rides Again,” New York Times, March 16, 2023).

Exhibited in the important group show Moving Energies #3: Aspects of the Olbricht Collection at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, the present work is a pivotal canvas. It is like a set of crashing waves that provokes sublime awe. Richter’s admixture of vertical and horizontal swaths of paint has all the motion and depth of the sea—a Romantic gesture to be sure, but also a resolutely 20th century one that emphasizes the medium-specificity of his chosen materials. Like an Impressionist scene, the luminescent colors of Abstraktes Bild also become studies of light. Richter’s paintings have rightly been compared to Claude Monet’s Haystacks (1890-1891), which, like the present work, highlight painting’s ability to mark and embody time.

As with a storm or a choppy sea, every landscape has an uncontrollable element, for nature, like abstraction, is not entirely predictable. Richter’s homemade squeegee is an instrument of chance, which allows for the unique encounters between hues and forms found in Abstraktes Bild. Above all, it is unafraid to be beautiful. On the painting’s right side, a delicate swath of blue-green enters the picture, like a growing coral reef. In a 1986 review, Artforum observed that Richter has an “unflinching self-assertion of painting as a search for the beautiful, the true, the real” (A. Pohlen, “Gerhard Richter: Städtische Richter,” Artforum, May 1986). This transcendent, even reverential, aura is not unlike the Rothko Chapel of about 15 years prior or Richter’s own stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral.

Critics understood Richter’s movement into the Abstraktes Bilder paintings in 1985 as a watershed moment. Artist and art historian Coosje van Bruggen wrote, “Richter is not the type of painter who keeps working in any one style; he is too complex, too restless, and too responsive. He is engaged in a continuous process of discovery: it may be an obsession with a painterly idea to be followed to the end; he may dialectically choose to oppose his own work; or again, in asking questions, he may become aware of so many new problems that he has to start all over again” (C. van Bruggen, “Gerhard Richter: Painting as a Moral Act,” Artforum, May 1985). The new kind of abstraction manifest in Abstraktes Bild embodies that process of discovery that has driven Richter to consistently expand the possibilities of painting. Van Bruggen goes on, “Here Richter expresses what he feels and how he lives…They are not painted in a reaction to or in relation to any dominating art movement. Richter relies on himself, and as a result the ‘Abstrakte Bilder’ communicate more immediately his feelings, even when they are ineffable” (C. van Bruggen, “Gerhard Richter: Painting as a Moral Act,” Artforum, May 1985). There is certainly no unified art historical lineage that could contain Abstraktes Bild, which exists somewhere among Romanticism, Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism. This interdisciplinary approach pioneered by Richter in the late 1980s has indisputably influenced a number of contemporary abstract painters, like Amy Sillman and Mark Bradford.

Abstraktes Bild is the result of decades of work between media, styles, and histories. What Richter accomplishes in this painting is nothing less than a reinvigoration of abstraction. It is vibrant, evolving, bodily, and filled with unexpected unions and collisions. This work sets the stage for Richter’s ongoing importance as he turns 91 this year. His influence cannot be overstated, and paintings like the present work prove his centrality to any history of modern and contemporary art. Painting has always been a site of paradoxes, and Abstraktes Bild brings those seemingly incommensurate parts into a unified frame.

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