Arguably the foremost painter working today, Gerhard Richter’s prodigious oeuvre spans from exquisitely detailed photorealist paintings to gesturally rich abstractions. Although born in what is formerly known as East Germany, Richter artistically came of age upon his move to West Germany in 1961. Prompted by the discovery of American Pop Art, Richter began painting gray monochromes based on found photographic images. From the beginning, Richter’s negotiation of the figurative and the abstract has been consistently underpinned by the photographic.
Indeed, it was the photographic artifact that led Richter to abstract painting. In the late 70s, working from photographs of his own painterly sketches, Richter embarked on a series of soft abstracts, so-called because the images retained a sense of photographic mediation with an overall blurred effect. This foray inaugurated Richter’s largest body of work, the ongoing Abstrakte Bilder series of colorful, gestural abstractions; this sustained exploration of abstract painting is by far the most prolific of his career and far exceeds the artist’s contributions to his other enduring series.
While often casually referred to as abstracts, the proper translation of Abstraktes Bild better encapsulates the artist’s mission of creating an image as opposed to the more romantic notion of pure painting. This contradistinction is most clear in Richter’s mediated source material, the photographic genesis of the entire project. Richter, however, soon abandoned this intermediary step and opened his abstractions to an aleatory play. Distancing himself from the prescribed marks of the photographic resource, Richter embraced chance. As he later relayed, “I began in 1976, with small abstract paintings that 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, “Interview with Sabine Schütz,” Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters. 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 256).
With the transition toward chance operations, Richter also instituted a new technique—dragging handmade squeegees across the still-wet surface to abrade, mottle and modulate the varying layers of viscous paint. Beginning with the photo-based abstractions, Richter had built up the canvases by utilizing spatulas of different lengths, layering veils of color upon each other. The uneven distribution of paint allowed for a certain degree of chance to enter the composition. But with the introduction of the squeegee—itself quite humble, a wooden handle attached to a strip of Perspex—the artist ceded much more control over the finished product. “Not all control,” he has cautioned, “but some control. It depends on the angle, the pressure and the particular paint I am using” (G. Richter, quoted in Nicholas Serota and Gerhard Richter, “I Have Nothing to Say and I’m Saying It,” Panorama, London, 2011, p. 27).
The present lot exhibits a virtuosic display of painterly practices. While decidedly abstract, Abstraktes Bild retains a traditional compositional scheme of foreground, mid-ground and background due to the overlapping of three vertical planes. At the same time, the flat registers read as reverberating, almost plastic forms. In addition to the mottling and scraping of the squeegee, Richter has manipulated paint with spatulas and decorative brushes—notably in the two large white swatches—unusually lyrical elements—that dance across the top. Rising out of the lower right foreground are a series of frothy green swatches, a result of the quick, rhythmic application and reapplication of the decorative paintbrush. Due to the choice of color and the buildup of brushstrokes, the looming figure takes on the appearance of a tree in a landscape. “For me,” Richter said, “there is no difference between a landscape and an abstract painting. In my opinion the term ‘realism’ makes no sense” (G. Richter, quoted in Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 273). Richter has signaled this slippage in select titles, as in the related painting of the same year, Ölberg, or Mount of Olives (Saint Louis Art Museum).
Layers of kaleidoscopic colors reveal the authority of Richter’s painterly process, a masterful meeting of chance and forethought. As the artist has relayed, he reworks his abstractions “much more often than the representational ones. They often turn out completely different to what I’d planned” (op. cit., p. 17). From the upper left corner, we can see the artist has dragged his squeegee in a contra-compositional direction and disturbed various under layers of red and pale green paint. The lower half of the composition reveals a different strategy—Richter has pulled his squeegee down the length of the canvas, abrading layers of red and ochre paint and adding an additional veil of bright blue to the mix—an element that he goes on to stamp or imprint in short staccatos across the canvas.
The vivid striations of color and the seemingly haphazard application of paint recall the gestural abstractions of the Abstract Expressionists. The layered veils of the present lot, in particular, call to mind the thinning gradations of color in a classic Rothko. Whereas Rothko and his contemporaries were searching for a pure form of expression and as a result an expressive communion with the viewer, Richter denies this possibility: “…the ability of color to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely it’s always canceling itself out” (G. Richter, quoted in Benjamin Buchloh, ed., October Files 8: Gerhard Richter, Cambridge, 2009 p. 23). For Richter, this denial of the painterly sublime is rooted in chance operations that are paradoxically aleatory and determined: “Above all,” he opines, “it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that is always planned, but also always surprising. And I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I’ve worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I’m often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am” (Ibid, p. 27).
Building upon the techniques of the Abstract Expressionists but with a painterly self-reflexivity, Richter’s Abstrakte Bilders stand as one of the greatest bodies of abstract painting produced in our time. As Robert Storr, curator and Dean of the Yale School of Art, commented: “Richter doesn’t want to be the next king, but he has taken painting farther than just about anyone else”(R. Storr, quoted by K. Crow, “The Top Selling Living Artist,” Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2012).