When Gerhard Richter was commissioned to create a new stained glass window for south transept of the world renowned Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) in 2007, he returned to a series of works on which he had been working on since 1966, the Farbtafels or Colour Charts. The extraordinary finished window encapsulated over 4900 glowing rectangles of colour and added a sense of divine spirituality to a series of works which seem to have endless points of reference. Glowing with a fizzing chromatic intensity onto which the eye could not settle for one split-second, the works offer ample reference to the mechanics of representation whilst simultaneously emptying the painting of all direct figurative content. From the initial Ready-Made inspiration of Pop, through the structured order of Minimalism and the programmatic intelligence of Conceptual Art, Richter's Colour Charts ambitiously embraced all manner of influences to create a series of works which, in their distinct purified, beauty, deconstructed the very notion of painting itself.
1025 Farben is one of the last canvases he made in this series before his recent return. Executed in 1974, the extraordinarily intense concentration of colours on this scale is arguably the ultimate realisation of his concept for Richter himself has described this group of works as the 'culminatory' series. Painted in lacquer on a perfectly refined and smooth white background the tabs of immaculately hand-applied colour sit proud and have retained their original fresh intensity to this day.
The creation of the first Colour Chart painting in 1966 precipitated an intense period of experimentation lasting roughly ten years which are generally recognised as some of the most fruitful in Richter's oeuvre. Alongside the Photopaintings, Richter had begun to develop other models for the examination of visual perception: the slightly abstracted Cityscapes and Mountainscapes, the Panes of Glass, the Mirrors, the Grey paintings and the Colour Charts all represented, in their different ways, direct examinations of the mechanics of painting. Here was an artist who, perhaps more than anyone else in art history, was expanding the painterly form to attempt to come to terms with the simple notion of looking; someone who was trying to uncover the elusiveness of reality. As he has stated: 'Every time we describe an event, add up a column of figures or take a photograph of a tree, we create a model; without models we would know nothing about reality and would be like animals.' (Gerhard Richter in Germano Celant, The European Iceberg: Creativity in Germany and Italy Today, Milan 1985, p365)
It is the gradual generation of the Colour Charts between 1966 and 1974 that perhaps most convincingly explains this 'elusiveness'. From the initial Pop-influenced development of the Photopaintings into otherwise unaltered, enlarged copies of paint sample cards, Richter began to remove the representational responsibilities from the colours and instead to investigate the relative roles of the colours themselves. Despite the direct outside references to physical objects and decisions of tastes in the first Colour Charts, Richter increasingly used colour without mediation, celebrating its autonomy and dissociating it from its traditional descriptive, symbolic and expressive tasks. However this was not a controlled investigation into colour theory along the lines of Josef Albers or Victor Vasarely. On the contrary, Richter orchestrated process-based random arrangements of colour which offered an elaborate interplay between Conceptual 'model' and arbitrary 'choice'. Using the three primary colours, plus grey, Richter has explained: 'The arrangement of the colour tones in the fields was coincidental, so as to achieve a diffuse, indifferent overall effect and thus permit exciting details. The rigid screen prevents the formation of figurations, although these can be made visible if an effort is made. This type of artificial naturalism is an aspect which fascinates me'. He went on to state that he hoped it would make it 'possible for an image to emerge; to get it as an unexpected gift. It would then be better than anything I could create myself, and that was the main reason for doing it.' (Gerhard Richter, quoted in Roald Nasgaard, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London, 1988, p. 77)
The extraordinary intensity of 1025 different colours occupying an almost square 120 by 123cm., the clinical order and meticulous placement of each tab of colour within the gleaming white grid shows the true genesis of the series of Colour Charts. Entirely liberated and simplified to its absolute essence, each colour buzzes with energy. Colour is no longer dependent on form but rather becomes it. Alternating between the slightly raised glossy surfaces of the lacquer colours and the matt white primer which forms the grid beneath, each colour block creates a friction with that situated above, below and next to it. Interestingly enough around 1974, Richter had observed that, in this system, the maximum number of colours possible before the differences became imperceptible to the human eye was 1024. As the eye gazes across the breadth of the canvas attempting to register each of the 1025 tones flashing across the retina, new illusory forms and colours are created. As such, through an artificial system which emphasises random application and chance, Richter has managed to re-create the beautiful accidents of nature. Thus painting, refined and stripped down to its simplest form, continues to regenerate the possibility of a new kind of imagery which edges closer to reality.