Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild glows with an opulent radiance, in which strains of red, orange and yellow, spiked with dusky green and blue tones, intermingle to form a rich illusionistic space. Painted in 1980, its fiery palette bears witness to Richter’s fast-developing credentials as a colourist par excellence, and marks a true departure from the grey monochromes that occupied his oeuvre between 1966 and 1977. Richter was certainly no stranger to colour, and indeed his famous ‘colour charts’ stem from this earlier period; yet the clinical rigour of these chromatic exercises is turned on its head here, as the canvas is transformed into a tapestry of delicately interfused tones – a veritable spectrum of warmth. Having produced his first works of polychromatic abstraction in 1977, it was a style that was to consume him almost exclusively until 1987, and was to be returned to over the course of his later career. Prompted by a desire to free himself from creative constraints, Richter set out to explore the expressive possibilities of a painterly idiom in which ‘I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there.’ (G. Richter, quoted in J. Harten and D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1962-1985, Dusseldorf 1986, p. 89).
This work is situated at a key point in Richter’s artistic practice. His early abstractions drew inspiration from his former photo-based methods: the work was first sketched in oil paint, photographed and projected onto canvas, then re-worked with further layers of paint. Consequently, as Roald Nasgaard writes, ‘the paintings that resulted, the “Soft” or “Smooth” Abstract Paintings, beginning in 1977 and concluding […] in 1980 (no. 460), are really immaculately crafted photographic paintings’ (R. Nasgaard, ‘The Abstract Paintings’ in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1988, p. 106). The present work sits at the peak of this technical paradigm, marking a transitional moment in Richter’s diverse exploration of the medium. What followed was a move towards free abstraction and the development of Richter’s renowned squeegee technique, elements which are arguably nascent in the textural contours of Abstraktes Bild.
The question of whether art had the power to express – or indeed to represent – anything at all has occupied Richter throughout his career. Whether these paintings can be said to prompt an answer remains a matter of opinion; yet it is certain that, in contrast to the quasi-spiritual rhetoric that drove much of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Richter’s works from the period 1977 – 1987 were motivated by a return to painting in and of itself – a motivation shared by a number of his contemporaries in the early 1980s, notably Philip Guston and Georg Baselitz. For Richter, the modernist obsession with flatness was replaced by a glorification of the rivulets, waves and crests arising from the liberal application of paint to canvas. In Abstraktes Bild, there is a sense in which the paint almost generates its own feeling of landscape – a subtle reminder, perhaps, of the multi-faceted nature of abstraction.