Rendered on a human scale, yet at the same time pictorially vast, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (802-1) marks among the most stunning moments of the artist’s inventiveness and interrogation. Inventiveness, in the sense that here Richter marks the surface with a series of evenly distributed grids, subtly alternating the size as he passes the squeegee from one starting point to the next. Interrogation, in that Richter explores the exposed grid, which forms the basis not only of geometrical one-point perspective from the time of the Quattrocento, but also the basis of transferring images from one medium to another and scaling up from sketch to monumental mural paintings, frescos, tapestries. That Richter is a master of such traditions is only to say that this preeminent artist brings to bear the full range of Western art traditions. At once evenly distributed and unequal, Richter has pulled his squeegee horizontally, compressing his pigments—dazzling vermilion, pink, warm orange-yellow, and a rich ultramarine blue—into striations of liquescent coloration. At the same time, color assumes form, vertical bands, yes, but even more vibrations of color, as if hue, like radio waves, trembling in the act of transformation from matter to sound. Going into the canvas in repeated campaigns, Richter incises the surface, creating as if with a chisel in the process of engraving, strips of horizontal and vertical impressions. Surface activity is thus raised to a pitch of excitation, unprecedented in its activation. Areas of white and blue, centrally placed, radiate luminescence, as if the entire surface were backlit.
Richter introduced the squeegee into his art practice in 1976. Pedestrian in its handling—one simply draws it in broad strokes across a surface—it becomes, in Richter’s hands, a medium through which the artist demonstrates a kind of virtuosity. Just as the painter wields his brush, the wrist exquisitely pliant, so the squeegee has become Richter’s signature mark, producing striations of blended coloration, creating textures and design of prodigious mastery. Exhilarating and dexterous, Richter nonetheless subjects his signature mark making to chance operations. Relinquishing authorial control, he nonetheless is able to control his touch through a physical relationship to his materials. “It is a good technique for switching off thinking. Consciously, I can’t calculate the result. But subconsciously, I can sense it. This is a nice ‘between’ state” (G. Richter, quoted in, S. Koldehoff, “Gerhard Richter, Malerie ist eine moralilsche Handlung,” Wolkenkratzer Art Journal, April-June 1985, p. 40).
Heightening the vivid optical effect is the tension between prismatic colors—the red and blue—and their mixture with an outbreak of white in which hue is entirely absorbed. Having emerged from the artistic regime of enforced Social Realism in East Germany, Richter was also suspicious of the claims for Abstract Expressionism to which he was exposed upon moving to West Germany in 1961. Resistant to gestural expression, which he considered pretentious and false, Richter was invested in refusing the notion of genius, the individual authorial hand, and notions of a continuous evolution of historical style. Denying emotive content and associative references in this painting was a conscious goal, then as now. One of four works created in this series, Abstraktes Bild (802-1) is distinguished by its full realization of surface texture—detailed definition and nearly imagistic color patterning. Optically destabilizing, striations tremor and colors pulsates, activating multi-directional force. The point is that Richter’s abstractions can be understood simultaneously as generalized or schematic appearances of reality or as what has been termed “painterly becoming,” simply the bodying forth of the painted act, the physical analogue of Richter’s formidable creative imagination (P. Osborne, “Abstract Images: Sign, Image, and Aesthetic,” in B. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter, London, 2009, p. 96).
Works based on gridded geometries abound in twentieth century art. One thinks primarily of works by Jasper Johns, for example, his Flags or gridded numbers that are based on overlapping geometries or basic gridded patterning. Johns’s iconic Gray Numbers, 1957, or his Three Flags, 1958, are cases in point. They are at once objects, a presence, and a symbol of an idea of the gridded row of numbers or of the flag. Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (802-1) is likewise a thing in the world, a painted surface that represents the idea of a painting. Both Richter and Johns reveal their authorial hand—Johns, as in the “gesture” of the brush; Richter, as a master of the squeegee imprimatur. Both use the impersonal grid for their imagistic structuring and both leave an imprint of the artist’s presence. And both explore tensions between the relative impersonal matter-of-factness of process in the creation of their surfaces, and the dazzling pictorial statements these processes and systems of creation produce. This is their irony. In the process of taking out expression and the artist’s touch, both Johns and Richter allude to cubist processes by which volume is deleted from form. Marcel Duchamp, the great Dada artist who redefined for the twentieth century what art could be and what it could mean, spoke of the gap between what an artist intended and what a viewer feels it expresses. “If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?” (M. Duchamp, “The Creative Act,” 1957).
Richter, for one, has no answer. All we as beholders are left with, is the personal, the beauty and ethereality, not the pedestrian process nor the fact of painting materials and support. Of the effect of Abstraktes Bild (802-1), we are at the crossroads of verifiable process and aesthetic reception. “Richter’s painting explores the enigmatic juncture of sense and non-sense. His paintings encircle, enclose the real as that which it is impossible to say: the unrepresentable” (B. Pelzer, “The Tragic Desire,” in B. D. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, London, 2009, p. 118). Here, what Richter produces is an optical and tactile encounter where color, shape, and texture conspire to take our breath away.