Gerhard Richter exhibits an ambidextrous, post-modern ability with artistic styles. On the one hand, he has created some of the most beautiful, lushly rendered landscape paintings of the last quarter century. On the other hand, his abstractions are among the most dazzlingly painted, oft-times moving works of this style over the same period by any artist. But whereas his approach to landscape is rife with contradiction, his interest in abstraction is less ambiguous. His abstract works of the 1970s represented to him "my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions" (D. Dietrich, "Gerhard Richter: An Interview," The Print Collectors Newsletter, 16, no. 4, September-October 1985, p. 128).
In his initial foray with the language of abstraction, Richter made color chart compositions in 1966, even as he was painting his gray, photo-based, representational images. Antagonistic toward abstraction, especially because it inspired a "phony reverence" by observers, (G. Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, ed. H.-U. Obrist, trans. D. Britt, London, 1995, p. 141). Richter made the most deadpan type of pure painting starting in 1966. Like his representational work, these early abstractions have a powerfully ironic tone, similar to the sensibility of a Pop art joke. But gradually, in the early to mid 1970s, Richter embraced abstraction with a kind of enthusiasm and unabashed pleasure.
Claudius is one of Richter's most accomplished and ambitious abstract paintings. In size, it is among the largest of all his works. Extravagantly complex, the veils of color are layered, with streaks and splatters, as well as light particles, all of which activate the whole surface. Explosiveness typifies Richter's approach, hence Claudius is a large plane of wildly varying moods and tonalities. It is at once expressive and impersonal, grandly sweeping in its impact yet meticulous in its details.
What is it about in literal terms? Richter says his love of abstraction is based on its lack of obvious meaning: this mode provides "a better way of gaining access to the unvisualizable, the incomprehensible'nothing'" (Richter, Ibid, p. 100). Quoting John Cage, elsewhere, he reports that "'I have nothing to say, and I am saying it'" (Ibid., p. 122). Indeed, Richter conveys his ineffable subject matter in the most direct and painterly way possible. As with the emperor Claudius, for whom the painting is uncharacteristically named, Richter proves himself to be an exceedingly astute observer, with a strong sense of history, in his case the history of art.
Richter had seen the work of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana at an early point in his career, in 1958, and especially admired their great "brazenness" and "liberation" from all constraints. (Ibid., pp. 132-133). With such work, art could be more real, he felt, unlike the dream implied by nature. In other words, he exhibited the Romantic approach of many abstractionists starting with Kandinsky, all of who had a missionary approach to art making, as if it was a moral act that could change the world. Undertaking abstraction thus gave Richter the courage to speak of art as "the highest form of hope" (Ibid., p. 100).
Fig. 1 Andrea Mantegna, The Trumpeters, circa 1490s, Her Majesty The Queen
Fig. 2 Richter's Studio, Cologne, 1984, photograph by Benjamin Katz
Fig. 3 Richter, 1985 photograph by Isa Genzken