'If the Abstract Paintings show my reality, then the landscapes and still-lifes show my yearning. This is a grossly over-simplified, off-balance way of putting it, of course; but though these pictures are motivated by the dream of classical order and a pristine world - by nostalgia, in other words - the anachronism in them takes on a subversive and contemporary quality.' (Richter, quoted in H.U. Obrist, "Gerhard Richter, Notes 1981", in The Daily Practice of Painting, London 1995, p. 98).
Gerhard Richter's radiant Untitled presents an eloquent summation of the artist's predominant concerns: pictorial representation, painting itself, and the intersection of the two. The serene and finely painted image of a low, flat horizon line beneath a hazy, cloudy sky is abruptly interrupted by two dramatic vertical slashes of viscous, pearly paint. The glossy, abstract brushstrokes shatter the illusion of the picture plane, traditionally a 'window' into another world, bluntly revealing the magician's trick of illusory representation. Landscapes, like many other canonical art historical genres, represent a significant part of the artist's chosen subject matter, which under Richter's brush cycles back to interrogate the act of painting and the medium itself. This particular landscape, with its soft tones and glowing light, summons up another giant of German painting: Caspar David Friedrich, the master of Romantic landscapes, whose transcendental handling of light is famous for evoking the sublime. But the undeniable slashes of paint rupture the possibility of escapist illusionism which Friedrich's landscapes so effectively provided. Rather, the friction created by the clashing abstract brush strokes against the smoothly painted landscape builds a distinct tension between abstraction and figuration, shifting the work's focus from subject matter (ostensibly, the depicted landscape) to the act of painting, and therefore of representation, itself. The concept of stylistic incongruity as a stylistic principle in itself, or Stilbruch als Stilprinzip, is frequently used to summarise his work of the late 1960's and encapsulates Richter's use of diverse styles 'as different but equally important methods for artistic appropriation of reality.' (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter Landscapes, Hanover 1998, p. 8).
The landscape depicts an indeterminate time of day - sunrise? Early twilight? - which has a distinctly tenuous feel, as if a rising sun would burn away the lingering, gauzy mist, or if a breath of wind could dissolve the fragile fog. The elusiveness of the image is reminiscent of the fleeting moment immediately before a camera lens shifts into crisp focus, refusing to resolve or lend clarity. Indeed, photography is critical to Richter's painting: after a holiday in Corsica in the late 1960s, he increasingly began using his own photographs as source images for his paintings rather than appropriating found photographs. As always, the reliability of memory is questioned in Richter's work - drawing a comparison between memory and painting, Untitled may suggest that in fact both are forms of representation, both constructed and susceptible to manipulation. The work also presages a later series of landscapes partially over-painted with abstract brush strokes, in which 'the two realities of paint - its illusionistic spatiality and its material presence - collide with some force.' (ibid, p. 15) Richter would also later smear photographs themselves with his signature brush strokes, bringing the process full-circle.