Gerhard Richter, Düsseldorf, 1971. (c) bpk / Angelika Platen / Art Resource, NY
"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).
The constant tussle between abstraction and figuration that is the hallmark of Gerhard Richter's best work plays out across the surface of this monumental example from the artist's iconic Abstracktes Bild series. The intricate layers of multi-colored paint that extend out across the surface of this 1983 work envelopes the viewer in an enigmatic shroud of energy and color. With Richter's signature paint handling technique he manipulates the canvas to become an active site of discovery as the eye meanders across the canvas in an enticing journey. Richter deliberately throws a wedge in interpretation's door, keeping our faculty for reading images open; where a figurative work would have been seen, recognized and dismissed; 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 Fall one can observe the traces of so many different abstract elements peeking through the gaps between various layers of color, manifesting Richter's range of technique, movement and action.
Upon large planes of expansive color, drawn out to an almost translucent delicacy, Richter embellishes the serenity of the surface with a series of bright yellows, hot pinks and cool blues. Criss-crossing, tumbling and intertwining between the flat, planer elements, these threads of color carry the eye on a journey of exploration that traverses the canvas, penetrating into the deepest recesses of the work. This 1983 example succinctly and beautifully demonstrates the eternal conflict in Richter's mind between ideas of abstraction and figuration. While Richter has deliberately avoided any figurative hints creeping into this painting, nonetheless a shimmering quality serves only to make the painting more absorbing, further engaging us. The fragmented composition also disrupts any sense of horizon, banishing the landscape-like quality of some of his earlier Abstract Pictures and removing another potential interpretative pitfall.
The rich textural quality of Fall 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 freshly laid paint layer, leaving a coating so thin that it becomes translucent and reveals the remnants of the preceding layer beneath it.
In its size, composition and date of execution, Fall exemplifies the power of Richter's art from this period and the command the artist had of his medium at this time. Richter's preoccupation 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 color 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, as he once noted, "In abstract painting we have found a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible; because abstract painting deploys the utmost visual immediacy - all the resources of art, in fact - in order to depict 'nothing'. So, in dealing with this inexplicable reality, the lovelier, cleverer, madder, extremer, more visual and more incomprehensible the analogy, the better the picture. Art is the highest form of hope" (G. Richter, Ibid, p. 100).