This work will be included in the forthcoming volume five of the Gerhard Richter Catalogue raisonné, edited by Dietmar Elger for the Gerhard Richter Archive Dresden, as cat. no. 903-7.
With its topography of primary and secondary colors—greens, yellows, blues, and reds—scored into a landscape and whitened hues that both obscure and suggest a mysterious terrain, the surface of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (903-7) openly displays the complex nature of its construction. The sense of freedom to which Richter often refers when talking about these paintings has been chiseled away by great movements of the squeegie, the large tool Richter wields to maneuver and manipulate the paint across the surface. The tactility which the viewer perceives comes in part from the artist’s actions, so that what is perceived is, in a sense, the trace of the artist’s actions. There is also a sense in which the whiteness of this example from his iconic series, creates atmospheric effects, something that Richter does not deny. As much a photographer as a painter, Richter is keenly attuned to visual information, whether literal or allusive. As art historian Robert Storr points out, “Richter insists on the term ‘Abstract Pictures’ in order to keep the cultural legacy of referential painting in the forefront” (R. Storr, The Cage Paintings, London, 2009, p. 63).
Richter’s process is governed by factors not entirely under the control of the artist: a drip here, a swatch of color emerging there. Such unforeseen moments are set up by Richter’s method and the paintings become the products of his own making. The only “plans” are the repeated interventions with the painted surface, attacks made after either eliminating or building upon the results of previous decisions. Richter’s surfaces also record the quickness or slowness of his gestures, gestures made with physical effort, but mediated through large unconventional tools, such as house paint brushes taped to long bamboo rods and variously sized squeegees edged with transparent Plexiglas. These instruments Richter loads with opaque paint that under varying pressures, glide over surfaces, moves paint around or chip it away. In this sense, Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (903-7) is a conventional easel picture made by unconventional means. These are employed to expose in some sense the artifice behind the seemingly planar image, a way to bring the beholder closer to the process of creating the image and to insist in so doing that unlike historic painting that invites the viewer to enter the scene, what is being beheld is the act of painting itself.
Yet, even in confounding the viewer the result can be stunningly evocative. It was made by layering wet-on- wet paint as if engaging in historic alla prima painting and then allowing the layers to begin drying only to scrape them away in unbridled motions of intense muscularity. Multi-directional scrapes and drips keep the surface alive even as they mime gestures associated with earlier expressionism both in America and Europe. By creating surface through physical effort and then, in effect, eviscerating it, Richter may have tried “to show its impossibility in the most direct way imaginable: that is, by making gestures that promise nothing and deliver nothing, yet have the visual and tactile immediacy of those that attempt to do both” (Storr, ibid., p. 68).
That the image itself is reminiscent of landscape is not surprising. Even the movement of the squeegee traces contour in some sense, suggesting figuration as colors expand and shrink. Richter’s abstract works were begun in 1976 after a series of grey paintings that seemed to deny color, to disguise directionality and oppose image making. Announcing a new premise, these multicolored atmospheric complexities, boundless in their imaginative excitations, demonstrated Richter’s own understanding of this activity: “Painting is the creation of an analogy to the non-descriptive and unintelligible…” (G. Richter, in H. Heere, Abstrakte Bilder, 1976-1981, Munich, 1981, p. 21). Part of Richter’s technique in these works is to apply paint opaquely with enough pressure that it sticks to the underlayer. This adhesion on, or more often, lack of adhesion, causes both fusion and breakage down to the initial paint layer. This process, paired with actions of the palette knife, create an unpredictable bedazzlement of colors. Further, suggestions of vertical and horizontal ridged or straight “lines” of impasto, as if in relief against the planar surface, manifest the interrupted action by the squeegee. As in late Monet or Giacometti, gridded and criss-crossed complexities create an almost opaque screen against recessional depth, and thus space seems flattened and schematized: the play of white within vertical and diagonal striations brings to mind a late water lily canvas by the impressionist master, while a light-infused landscape by Giacometti demonstrates an obvious affinity with Richter’s cascading, prismatic chromatic affects.
With its palette of high-keyed primary color, suffused and crystallized into a snow-driven landscape, Abstraktes Bild (903-7) fires the imagination as it dazzles the senses. Heightened visual excitement derives from an inherent contradiction in process: “I was trying to combine constructive elements in paintings with areas that contained destructive elements – a balance between composition and anti-composition, if you like … (G. Richter, “On Abstract Painting,” in Writings: 1962-2007, New York, 2009, p. 270). At the hands of this celebrated master such pleasure in structural oppositions create a work of unparalleled beauty. Abstraktes Bild (903-7) shines brightly with the history of its making. It is a representation of all that is past in present time. In his Abstraktes Bilder, “Richter’s only aim is to establish, beyond familiar activity, the accomplishment of the specific existence of painting as a reality in itself” (D. Zacharopoulous, Gerhard Richter, Paris, 1987, n.p.).