'We only find paintings interesting because we always search for something that looks familiar to us. I see something and in my head I compare it and try to find out what it relates to. And usually we do find those similarities and name them: table, blanket, and so on. When we don't find anything, we are frustrated and that keeps us excited and interested'
(G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr, "Interview with Gerhard Richter," exh. cat., Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, ed. Robert Storr, New York, 2002, p. 304).
In this majestic work painted in 1984, Gerhard Richter dramatically demonstrates the constant tussle between abstraction and figuration that has become the hallmark of his most exceptional works. Using a compositional device he utilized in only one other painting, Richter engages in a direct dialogue between two of his greatest series of paintings, namely his Abstracts and Candle Paintings. Outwardly a large example of one of those celebrated abstracts, the intricate layers of this multi-coloured canvas begin to reveal up a remarkable secret -- the vestiges of the largest Candle painting Richter ever worked on. Nestling in the lower portion of the canvas the ghostly totem-like form of the candle can be seen swathed in panes and striations of vivid colour. Photographs of Richter working on this very painting show how close the dividing line is between abstraction and figuration for the artist, as the hyper-realist candle is built up from layer upon layer of abstract forms. Working in this way Richter deliberately throws a wedge into the interpretative process, keeping our faculty for reading images open; where a fully figurative work would have been seen and recognised, Richter's dramatic composition keeps us engaged. In this way he forces the viewer to consider how pictures are seen and read, and also how they are made. Looking at the surface of Abstraktes Bild one can observe the traces of so many different elements peeking through the gaps between various layers of color, manifesting Richter's range of technique, movement and action.
Upon large planes of expansive colour, drawn out to an almost translucent delicacy, Richter embellishes the serenity of the candle with a series of warm orange, hot red and cool silvery-blue striations. Criss-crossing, tumbling and intertwining between the flat, planer elements, these threads of colour carry the eye on a journey that traverses the canvas, penetrating into the deepest recesses of the canvas. This Abstraktes Bild succinctly and beautifully demonstrates the eternal conflict in Richter's mind between ideas of abstraction and figuration.
Richter has deliberately secreted any figurative hints deep within the composition of the painting, further involving us with the work, as the artist noted, "We only find paintings interesting because we always search for something that looks familiar to us. I see something and in my head I compare it and try to find out what it relates to. And usually we do find those similarities and name them: table, blanket, and so on. When we don't find anything, we are frustrated and that keeps us excited and interested" (G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr, "Interview with Gerhard Richter," exh. cat., Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, ed. Robert Storr, New York, 2002, p. 304).
In 1982 Richter began working on a series of paintings that were to become some of the most important of his career. His paintings of lit candles standing before a window create a finely crafted painterly meditation on light in all its physical, metaphorical and spiritual dimensions. He was drawn to these images of burning candles in part because it had romantic or even religious associations, which were deemed off-limits according to the dominant artistic ideology of the time. These large works often soared over a meter high, with the some rising up to a meter and a half tall. Standing at nearly two meters tall, the candle in this Abstraktes Bild soars majestically higher than any other candle that the artist painted. Richter used a candle painting as the basis of only one other Abstract Pictures painted around the same time as the present work, similarly blurring and obliterating the figure of the candle under layers of paint. Painted at the height of his bstraktes Bild period, this particular combination of figurative and abstract elements allows Richter to demonstrate that neither tradition is superior. The Abstract pictures present their own reality, according to Richter, as they do not purport to signify anything other than their material existence. The dazzling array of intensely high-key hues and the way that they erupt on the canvas have no obvious reference point in nature, and indeed no precise counterpart in any other art.
The rich textural quality of Abstraktes Bild is due in part to the artist's interesting combination of painting techniques. Using a variety of implements, ranging from traditional brushes to his signature use of the squeegee, Richter is able to combine the pigments into a luxurious tapestry of strokes, marks and liquescent applications of paint. Using his squeegee technique, he takes a large rubber blade, sometimes as wide as the canvas itself, and pulls layers of fresh paint across the surface of the canvas, often exerting just enough pressure to remove parts of the newly laid paint layer, leaving a coating so thin that it becomes translucent and reveals the remnants of the preceding layer beneath it.
This delicate method builds upon Richter's 20 years of exploration of the aesthetic properties of paint. By employing these methods he slowly and methodically ekes out the painting's final appearance in a gradual process that he himself has likened to a chess match. Richter deliberately detaches himself, which allows him to remove emotion from the picture. He will often work on several paintings at the same time, often only returning to a particular painting after a few days to allow him time to fully consider the full aesthetic possibilities that each new paint layer presents him with. Speaking in 1984, the year he painted Abstraktes Bild, Richter explained "A picture like this is painted in different layers, separated by intervals of time. The first layer mostly represents the background, which has a photographic, illusionistic look to it, though done without using a photograph. This first, smooth, soft-edged paint surface is like a finished picture; but after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, till there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished. By then it is a Something which I understand in the same way it confronts me, as both incomprehensible and self-sufficient. An attempt to jump over my own shadow....At that stage the whole thing looks very spontaneous. But in between there are usually long intervals of time, and those destroy a mood. It is a highly planned kind of spontaneity" (G. Richter, 1984, quoted in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 112).
In its composition, size and date of execution, this 1984 Abstracktes Bild exemplifies the power of Richter's art and the command the artist has of his medium. The intricacy and delicacy of this particular work shines through the abundant layers of skillfully applied paint to make the surface come alive with both aesthetic and intellectual resonance. Richter's tussles with the formal nature of the differences between abstraction and figuration manifest themselves on the surface of this work with dramatic effect. With his planes of flat colour interspersed with streaks of liquescent iridescence, the artist teases us, pulling our understanding one way, then the other. This paradox lies at the very heart of Richter's work and makes him undoubtedly one of the most exciting and influential painters working today. In his hands, the medium of paint has been rejuvenated and Richter has taken the lead in ensuring that it remains at the forefront of artistic expression. SJ