4096 Farben (4096 Colors) is the last and most ambitious of Gerhard Richter's series of Color Chart paintings. Richter painted three series of Color Chart paintings between 1966 and 1974, each series growing more ambitious in their attempt to create through their purely arbitrary arrangement of colors what the artist described as a fascinating 'artificial naturalism'.
Richter's first series of Color Charts painted in 1966 had appropriated the ready-made aspect of industrial paint charts in a Pop Art refutation of the lofty ideals of abstract color-theorists like Kandinsky and Albers. They were intended, Richter once explained, as "an assault on the falsity and religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phoney reverence. Devotional art - all those squares - Church handicrafts." (G. Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, ed., Hans-Ulrich Obrist, London, 1995. p. 141.) Richter's second series of Color Charts was begun in 1971 and consisted of only five paintings. In what was probably a response to the Minimal tendencies of much of the art of this period, Richter abandoned the original paint chart pretext and created a mechanically progressive series of grids where the color of each square was chosen according to a law of random permutations. The range of the colors used was determined by a mathematical system for mixing the three primary colors in graduated amounts. Each color was then randomly ordered to create the resultant composition and form of the painting.
In the final series of Color Charts which preoccupied Richter throughout 1973 and 1974, additional elements to this permutational system of color production were added in the form of mixes of a light grey, a dark gray and later, a green. The addition of these colors to the mathematically structured mix generated a far wider range of color --one that Richter hoped would express all possible shades of color within one single painting. In the first of these works Richter kept faith with the white grid structure of the 1971 series, but in the later works he refined this further creating pure squares of randomly organized color that mosaic-like allow their shimmering pixel-like squares of resonant color to contrast and vie with one another for the eye's attention. Unavoidably, in these works, patterns and figurations, suggested by the random array of color seem to begin to assert themselves in a way that anticipates the deliberate artifice of Richter's later abstract paintings. The human being's desire to find aesthetic beauty in the world is so strong, these paintings seem to argue, that they project it onto the random banality of meaningless permutation. "This aspect of artificial naturalism fascinates me," Richter explained, "as does the fact that if I had painted all the possible permutations, light would have taken more than 400 billion years to travel from the first painting to the last." In order to represent "all extant color shades in one painting," Richter continued, "I worked out a system which - starting from the three primaries, plus gray - made possible a continual subdivision (of color) through equal gradations: 4x4=16x4=64x4=256x4=1024. The multiplier 4 was necessary because I wanted to keep the image size, the square size and the number of squares in a constant proportion to each other." (Op. cit, p. 82). Working in this way Richter came to realize that there was a maximum number of color permutations possible before the difference between one shade and another became undetectable. This point was reached in 4096 Farben, the ultimate work of the series which employed 4096 different colors.
"I painted this series of Color Charts in the hope that they might be exhibited (but) which did not happen at the time," Richter recalled, "the size of the canvases, the design of the grids, as well as the size of the individual boxes were subjective decisions. I was helped while painting them by students who did much of the actual work applying the paint to the canvas. I had made smaller Color Charts during the 1960s, which I did not feel were as successful as the later series, which are so strong and suggestive that it makes it difficult for them to be shown alongside other paintings. I made one painting with over four thousand color boxes, directly abutting one another in a quite impressionistic way, but with each color repeated four times. I hoped with my Color Charts to retain a picture which stood up on its own." (G. Richter cited in Gerhard Richter, exh. cat. London, 1991, p. 128).
Richter's hope to have arbitrarily created a painting that might stand up on its own" in these works is both indicative of the artist's innate romanticism and expressive of his "hope" that through art he may be able to propose something new, revelatory or enlightening. Something that, under close questioning from Benjamin Buchloh, he described as an "expectation" that through deliberate opposition "something will emerge that is unknown to me, which I could not plan, which is better, cleverer, than I am, something which is also more universal."
Gerhard Richter, Atlas, color chart studies
Richter and his assistant working on a color chart painting, 1973
Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance, 1951-53