Fiery red and gold blaze across the intimate panorama of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1980. Embellished with rich streaks of thick impasto, the work depicts a scorching wave of molten colour, an eddy of vibrancy that erupts across the canvas. Evoking a cosmological expansion, the painting itself is a meditation on becoming and transformation: as Richter explains, ‘This first, smooth, soft-edged paint surface is like a finished picture; but after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it, and in the next stage of painting I partly destroy it, partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, till there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished. By then it is a Something which I understand in the same way it confronts me, as both incomprehensible and self-sufficient. An attempt to jump over my own shadow’ (G. Richter, quoted in ‘Interview with Wolfgang Pehnt, 1984’, in H-U. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter. The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 112).
Abstraktes Bild represents a pivotal moment for the artist during which he more fully defined his visual idiom and point of inquiry. Beginning in 1976, Richter’s Abstraktes Bilder represent one of the most significant and extensive strands of his practice, spanning multiple decades and witness to several technical innovations. The initial abstractions were a series of small-scale works that the artist endeavoured to translate across larger canvases using slide projections and sketches. Struggling to reconcile his bold vision on a grander scale, Richter wrote to art historian Benjamin Buchloh in 1979 about his inability to realise ‘an old dream of mine which I always try to make real – to paint ... like a proper painter, cleverly and beautifully organizing a surface with colour and form ... And when I do it, I am convinced every time that I am on the right path and every time I see, sooner or later, that it has turned out to be nothing’ (G. Richter, letter to B. D. Buchloh, 15 May 1979). Together, the Abstraktes Bilder establish a remarkable thesis on the relationship between chance and the artist’s purposeful intervention, themes Richter explored in the present work. Indeed, arrested with a small frame, Abstraktes Bild nevertheless conveys Richter’s force and anticipates the evolution that was to come.
In the Abstraktes Bilder, the image is determined entirely by the paint and its colour alone: as the artist himself said, ‘When I paint an Abstract Picture, I neither know in advance what it is meant to look like nor, during the painting process, what I am aiming at and what to do about getting there. Painting is consequently an almost blind, desperate effort, like that of a person abandoned, helpless, in totally incomprehensible surroundings’ (G. Richter, quoted in J. Harten and D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: Paintings 1962-1985, exh. cat., Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1986, p. 89). Yet within these fully realised images are whole words that appear entirely genuine yet do not truly exist. Recalling the same sense of sublime awe found in Romantic scenes by Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner, Richter’s series captures an expressive and impulsive potency. In posing new possibilities, the primordial explosion of Abstraktes Bild suggests a similarly irrevocable and cataclysmic extreme. Within the unpredictable and unconstrained image, is the next world, shattered and then remade anew.