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Abstraktes Bild

Abstraktes Bild
signed, inscribed and dated ‘679-3 Richter 1988’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
47 ¼ x 39 ¼ in. (120 x 99.7 cm.)
Painted in 1988.
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Private collection, Malibu
Private collection
Anon. sale; Bonhams, New York, 18 November 2020, lot 17
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
B. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, no. 679-3 (illustrated).
Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., London, Tate Modern, 2011, p. 136.
D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 4: Nos. 652-1 805-6 (1988-1994), Ostfildern, 2015, p. 180, no. 679-3 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“All that 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.” Gerhard Richter

An exquisite example of Gerhard Richter’s celebrated Abstraktes Bild of 1988, the present painting is an ethereal painterly creation, where the sumptuous vestiges of the artist’s celebrated squeegee technique linger with a kind of talismanic presence. Painted during the peak years of this highly-coveted body of work in the late 1980s, Abstraktes Bild is a profound work balanced on the razor’s edge between chaos and control.

In Abstraktes Bild, wide swathes of yellow tinged with black are pulled across the painting’s surface, revealing cool blue tones ranging in hue from turquoise to aquamarine and cobalt. A fiery orange section within the lower register bubbles up toward the top, changing hue from bright persimmon to orange and culminating in pale yellow. The overall effect is one of fire and ice—as if both had been pulled through a prism or reflected in a mirror. Along the painting’s left hand register, there are bright patches of pure white. These skitter across the surface like the play of light across glass. They are not just white but white-hot, infusing the paintings with an airy and intangible sort of energy and heat. It is this particular kind of visual buzz that makes the Abstraktes Bild so exalted and revered. It results from what the art critic Benjamin Buchloh has described as “the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality [that] is presented and at the same time negated at all points, […] always cancelling itself out” (B. H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: October Files, Cambridge, MA, 2009, p. 118). 

In the mid-1980s, Richter began to incorporate a home-made squeegee in his abstract paintings that he used to scrape the paint across the surface. As in the present work, wide bands of pulled and dragged paint create a blurred effect, smearing the paints together in places and leaving pitted crags and ridges in others when the squeegee tripped and skipped across the surface. It is an intriguing blend of chaos and control, as the artist is able to somewhat manage the pressure he exerts on the squeegee as he moves it across the painting, but not the visual image it left in its wake. The artist explained the significance of this technique, noting that the Abstraktes Bild “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 painted surface of the present work serves as a sort of geological survey of the physical process of its own making; if not by the artist’s “hand,” then, by a curious mixture of chance and control. This radical new method of painting was essentially an act of erasure, the result of Richter’s removal rather than of building up. Ironically, the smeared surface of Richter’s Abstraktes Bild also visually echoes the blurred photo-paintings that Richter had created from black-and-white photographs in the 1960s. Like those paintings, the Abstraktes Bild are rather transient images—as soon as the image begins to coalesce, it only seems to dissolve again just as the viewer has come to perceive it. It is interesting to consider that Richter completed the pseudo photorealist painting Betty, 1988 (Saint Louis Art Museum), the iconic portrait of his daughter seen looking behind her, the same year as the present work.   

“As Richter has stated many times, art and beauty are the preserves of hope in the face of an often hard-to-bare reality,” the German art curator, Achim Borchardt-Hume, has so eloquently written in Panorama, the catalogue to Richter’s retrospective at the Tate in 2012. “Beauty, for Richter, is ‘the opposite of destruction, disintegration and damage.’ [...] in the artist’s own words, ‘We need beauty in all its variations'” (G. Richter & A. Borchardt-Hume, quoted in “Dreh Dich Nicht Um: Don’t Turn Around: Richter’s Paintings of the Late 1980s,” in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate London, 2012, p. 174).

"Art is the highest form of hope.” Gerhard Richter

An important component of the Abstraktes Bild of 1988, and following into the 1990s, is that Richter often painted them in series. The present work is the third in a small group of five in which Richter seems to have been exploring the concept of lightness and dark. The first painting of the group, is also predominantly yellow and touched with passages of red, white, blue and black; it was selected by the Italian curator Luca Massimo Barbero for an exhibit at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in 2014 called “The Empire of Light,” which explored the way that artists have rendered the effects of twilight, sunlight and nighttime in paintings throughout history. 
Indeed, the Abstraktes Bild of this series seem to explore the various ways in which light can be expressed through the contrasting of different colors and the use of pitch black to accentuate the predominantly yellow color that Richter uses throughout the series. It recalls his fascination with Old Master paintings, especially Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1757-59; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, and later restored between 2017-2021), which he would later re-make into his own painting in 1994, with Lesende (Reader), now in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The French art historian Camille Morineau, too, has described the “yellow veils” of color and light in the present work, Abstraktes Bild (679-1), writing in her essay in the Panorama catalogue. She writes, “The squeegee series are best defined by their color ambience: different hues of the same colour are exposed differently in each painting of the same series [such as] a yellow veil in CR: 679/1-5 (1988)” (C. Morineau, “The Blow Up: Primary Colors and Duplications,” in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate London, 2012, p.  136). 

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