‘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... That’s how abstract painting works’ (G. Richter, quoted in R. Storr, ‘Interview with Gerhard Richter’, in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 304).
‘Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings and landscapes that don’t exist, but they create the impression that they could exist. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘I Have Nothing to Say and I’m Saying It: Conversations between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota’, in Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2011, p. 19).
Rendered in a blazing, fiery palette, spiked with jeweled tones of green, blue and yellow, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (607-2) bears witness to the exuberant painterly freedom that defined the artist’s output of the mid-1980s. Dazzling in its optical complexity, the work confronts the viewer as a mesmerizing archaeological terrain of texture and colour, a richly layered palimpsest of fissures and collisions. Excavated using an arsenal of tools, the work’s tactile surface bears the marks of Richter’s interventions: scraping, smearing and dragging his paint across the canvas, the artist weaves a hypnotic panorama, using the end of his paintbrush to create linear interruptions in the layers of pigment. Painted in 1986, the work stems from one of Richter’s most experimental and fertile creative periods. After two decades of highly controlled, rigorous painterly investigations, exemplified in his Photo Paintings, Colour Charts and Grey monochromes, amongst others, the 1980s saw the artist embark upon a frenetic exploration of free abstraction. Without pictorial prompts or guidelines, Richter launched himself into a fervent celebration of painting’s contingency, embracing chance and rejecting structured pre-meditation. Painting, in and of itself, became his primary subject matter. The Abstraktes Bilder of this period precipitated an era of professional triumph: with his first major touring retrospectives in Germany and the United States of America, the international art world marvelled at his reassertion of painting’s autonomy. The forty paintings from 1986, many held in collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Albertina, Vienna, stand as a testament to this newfound liberation. With its sumptuous topography and near-geological strata of paint, the present work is a virtuosic example of Richter’s desire to ‘erase the pictorial object’s function as an illustration of reality and to replace it with the picture’s own reality’ (J. Nestegard, Gerhard Richter: Det Umuliges Kunst, Malerier 1964-1998, exh. cat., Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, 1999, p. 45).
Richter’s intense engagement with abstraction during the 1980s was to transform the face of twentieth-century painting. He had begun his series of Abstraktes Bilder in 1976, cementing the move towards abstraction that had been latent in his earlier body of figurative Photo Paintings. His initial abstract paintings struggled to move away from the supportive framework of photography, using magnified images and photographic sketches as the foundation for his abstract explorations. It was not until the early part of the 1980s that Richter made the seminal move towards free abstraction, allowing the natural evolution of paint across the canvas to dictate the appearance of his works. Yet, unlike the outpouring of energy espoused by his Neo-Expressionist contemporaries, Richter’s efforts retained the calculated nature of his earlier enquiries, and by the time of the present work, his abstract practice had evolved into sophisticated dialogue between chance and control. Though the squeegee, first exploited during this period, generated a certain amount of unpredictability, the end result was always highly mediated by the artist’s watchful eye. Speaking of Richter’s practice during this period, Roald Nasgaard explains how ‘Richter will begin a new group of paintings by placing a number of primed canvases around the walls of his studio, eventually working on several or all of them at the same time, like a chess player simultaneously playing several boards. He begins by applying a soft ground of red, yellow, blue or green… But then it must be altered, with a new move, a first form; a large brush stroke, a track of color drawn out with a squeegee, a geometric shape. Step by step the painting changes in appearance, sometimes sharply, with each new accretion, and goes through several states… They are finished “when there is no more I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with”’ (R. Nasgaard, ‘The Abstract Paintings’ in T. Neff (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London 1988, p. 108).
The mid-1980s brought about a period of great personal contentment for Richter, who had married the artist Isa Genzken in 1982. Richter’s gallerist Rudolf Zwirner offered the couple a large studio space Cologne, and the two artists left Düsseldorf behind them – a move that propelled Richter’s rise to international acclaim. In 1986, the year of the present work, Richter was granted his first major touring retrospective at the Städtisches Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, comprising 133 works and subsequently travelling to the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, the Kunsthalle Bern and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna. The critics’ reaction cemented his growing reputation as one of the leading artists of his generation: according to Dietmar Elger, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung named him ‘one of the most interesting skeptics and tacticians of doubt’, whilst Der Spiegel asserted that ‘No one else has explored the potential of painting in an age of mass photography in as coolly engaged and intelligent a manner as he has, or has been as tough and ready to experiment as he is’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 264). The 1986 retrospective was swiftly followed by an extensive North American exhibition in 1988, touring prestigious locations including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. By the end of the decade, Richter’s global reputation had soared, paving the way for the career-defining retrospectives of the 1990s.