‘Richter has taken to flaying the painted skin of his canvases with a spatula in broad strokes or long, wavering stripes leaving behind abraded, shimmering surfaces that at their sheerest and most luminous look like the Aurora Borealis suspended above various red, orange, yellow, green, blue or violet planets’
(R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 81).
‘For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again ... It would be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect’
(G. Richter, ‘Notes 1992’ in H.-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 245).
Glistening ribbons of colour cascade down the length of the picture plane in Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, forming a hypnotic translucent gateway to a world beyond the veil. Intense strata of bejewelled pigment hover like static distortions before our eyes, hinting at some intangible reality concealed behind their diaphanous membranes. As if lit from behind, the work glows with a radiant sheen, its marine blue palette evoking the shimmering depths of some unchartered underwater kingdom. Painted in 1992, the same year the artist first exhibited his large-scale abstracts to international acclaim at Documenta IX, and held in the same private collection since it was acquired directly from the artist in 1993, the work is a beautiful demonstration of the singular technique that consumed Richter’s practice during this period. Into the horizontal sweep of the squeegee, Richter cuts vertical striations using the hard edge of a palette knife. Rills of paint run up like tides alongside each band of blue, interspersed by broad apertures revealing earlier paint surfaces. Skeins of burnished red and saffron yellow rise up from beneath like cross-sections through a fossil. As Robert Storr has observed of these works, ‘Richter has taken to flaying the painted skin of his canvases with a spatula in broad strokes or long, wavering stripes leaving behind abraded, shimmering surfaces that at their sheerest and most luminous look like the Aurora Borealis suspended above various red, orange, yellow, green, blue or violet planets’ (R. Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002, p. 81). Abstrakes Bild takes its place alongside magnificent examples of this technique now housed in major international collections, including Abstraktes Bild 768-1 (Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden), Abstrkates Bild 771 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg) and Abstraktes Bild 780-1 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).
By 1992, Richter was on the brink of unprecedented global triumph. His breakthrough retrospective was held at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1991, while Documenta IX the following year constituted the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. In 1993 he received a major touring retrospective, Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993, curated by Kasper König accompanied by a three volume catalogue raisonné edited by Benjamin Buchloch. This exhibition, containing 130 works carried out over the course of thirty years, was tocompletely transform Richter’s career. The paintings created during the early 1990s are widely considered to represent the purest articulation of Richter’s abstract technique: the culmination of a rigorous, five-decade-long investigation into the possibilities of painting. Like the Bach suite, created during the same year and now held in the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the present work harnesses the sublime coincidence of wet-on-wet paint to exquisite effect, creating a fluid horizontal underlay. However, there is a sense in which the present work inverses the structure of the Bach paintings. In the latter, the horizontal motion of the squeegee appears to efface an implied barrage of vertical striations beneath. Here, however, the broad incision of the palette knife cuts through the left-to-right sweep of the squeegee, bringing the vertical dimension directly to the fore. The process is not one of addition, but, rather, of subtraction: as the palette knife travels from top to bottom in parallel planes, it destroys and reveals in equal measure. It does not obscure the layers below, but rather excavates the complex build-up of pigment that lurks within the depths of the painting.
During the early 1990s, this near-archaeological approach to the canvas became something of an obsession for Richter. In 1992, in a a statement that speaks directly to the present work, the artist explains how, ‘For about a year now, I have been unable to do anything in my painting but scrape off, pile on and then remove again. In this process, I don’t actually reveal what was beneath. If I wanted to do that, I would have to think what to reveal (figurative pictures or signs or patterns); that is, pictures that might as well be produced direct. It would be something of a symbolic trick: bringing to light the lost, buried pictures, or something to that effect. The process of applying, destroying and layering serves only to achieve a more varied technical repertoire in picture-making’ (G. Richter, ‘Notes 1992’ in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 245). This dynamic – the promise of reality and its continual deflection – had always been at the heart of Richter’s practice: from his earliest photorealist paintings, whose immaculate painted artifice sought to undermine the authority ascribed to photography, to his embrace of the squeegee, whose ruptures and apertures induced the sense of a long-lost figurative reality hovering beyond the work’s abstract surface. In works such as the present, however, this process is brought to something of an apotheosis. As paint is removed from the surface, the work’s deliquescence multiplies; as layers are erased and cut away, its visual complexity is magnified. As we dig deeper, we are increasingly drawn into the unknown. ‘With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood’, Richter once claimed (G. Richter quoted in R. Nasgaard, ‘Gerhard Richter’, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 1988, p. 107). Abstrakes Bild is an exquisite demonstration of this maxim.