With its mesmerising, kaleidoscopic surface, 7.3.86 belongs to the series of oils on paper that form a fascinating complement to Gerhard Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder (Abstract Paintings). Titled after their date of creation, these works punctuate the artist’s practice at various intervals from the early 1980s onwards; other examples from March 1986 are held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Kunstmuseum Winterthur. Diverse in colour and rich in textural variety, they provided a crucial forum for Richter as he made the pivotal move towards free abstraction during the mid-1980s, allowing him to experiment with new tools and approaches. ‘Drawing or painting on paper is more impulsive than painting on canvas’, he explained. ‘… It’s less possible to control and that makes the work more intimate, and closer to your feelings. Another thing that fascinates me is that the whiteness of paper creates a space that is different from canvas’ (G. Richter, ‘Interview with Anna Tilroe’, 1987, reproduced in D. Elger and H-U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter – Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 192). Seemingly infinite in its rich chromatic depths, 7.3.86 demonstrates the artist’s burgeoning exploration of the squeegee: a tool to which he would fully surrender himself in 1986, and which would give rise to some of his finest works. Indeed, the achievements of this period precipitated an era of professional triumph, marked by his first major touring retrospective held in Germany that year. Included in the exhibition Gerhard Richter: Works on Paper 1983-1986 at the Museum Overholland, Amsterdam, shortly afterwards, the present work offers a compelling insight into the genesis of Richter’s greatest period.
Richter’s abstract paintings were initiated in 1976, following the controlled rigour of his photorealist paintings, colour charts and grey monochromes. Initially, these so-called ‘Smooth Abstracts’ relied heavily on sketches and photographic material, which Richter would project onto canvas and use as a guide. By the early 1980s, he had begun to dispense with these props, working freely on large-scale surfaces for the first time. Rejecting structured premeditation, the artist embraced the unruly substance of paint as his primary subject matter, exploring and manipulating its properties through a series of implements. By the time of the present work, Richter had begun a sustained engagement with the squeegee, which would subsequently become his signature tool. Swept over layers of wet-on-wet paint, it produced unpredictable patterns of marbled colour, creating near-geological terrains of fissures and rivulets. ‘For Richter, the squeegee is the most important implement for integrating coincidence into his art’, writes Dietmar Elger; ‘… he came to appreciate how the structure of paint applied with a squeegee can never be completely controlled’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 251). Whilst the present work retains the illusionistic under-layer characteristic of works from this period – a half-visible structure reminiscent of branches – it bears witness to the fervent energy with which Richter harnessed this new approach. Hints of squeegeed texture collide with visible modifications made by the artist, overpainting and carving into his mottled surface using both ends of the paintbrush. In its seemingly endless hypnotic layers, we see Richter revel in the new creative possibilities that would take his painterly investigations to new heights over the following decade.