With its hypnotic expanse of colour and texture, Abstraktes Bild is a monumental vision dating from a watershed moment in Gerhard Richter’s career. Acquired shortly after its creation, it is among the largest canvases produced during the pivotal year of 1984, standing alongside works held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Over a smooth ground of shifting chromatic registers, Richter layers glistening strata of vibrant red and green, demonstrating his early command of the squeegee that would become his signature tool. Thick horizontal and vertical beams punctuate the surface, interspersed with delicate linear fissures and flashes of brilliant white. Heralding the artist’s move towards large-scale free abstraction, the work belongs to a group of nine paintings created for the 1984 exhibition From Here: Two Months of New German Art in Düsseldorf, curated by Kasper König. It was with these canvases, according to Dietmar Elger, that Richter ‘finally succeeded in breaking through to the international art market’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 263). As the artist took his place on the global stage, fuelled by the prospect of his first major touring retrospective in 1986, the tenets of his abstract painterly practice began to solidify. The work’s complex, fractured surface bears witness to his expanding inventory of tools which – alongside the squeegee – included palette knives, different-sized brushes and their handles. Beneath this furore, it is illuminated with the same ethereal glow as his celebrated Kerze (Candle) photo-paintings of this period, flickering like a distant, fragile illusion. As hints of figurative reality jostle with painterly pyrotechnics, the work demonstrates the dialogue between abstraction and representation that has come to define Richter’s practice.
Between 1982 and 1987, Richter undertook some of his most important and innovative abstract explorations. His early ‘Smooth Abstracts’, begun in 1976, had relied heavily on pre-existing studies and snapshots as visual aids: indeed, the present work’s illusionistic under-layer recalls the near-photographic sheen of these initial canvases. By the early 1980s, however, he had begun to work freely on a large scale for the first time, allowing himself to be guided by the intrinsic properties of pigment itself. Embracing chance and contingency as essential elements of his practice, Richter postulated an increasingly autonomous existence for painting, bringing indeterminacy into a heuristic dialogue with his arsenal of painterly tools. Speaking of the artist’s practice during the 1980s, Roald Nasgaard explains how ‘Richter will begin a new group of paintings by placing a number of primed canvases around the walls of his studio, eventually working on several or all of them at the same time, like a chess player simultaneously playing several boards. He begins by applying a soft ground of red, yellow, blue or green … But then it must be altered, with a new move, a first form; a large brush stroke, a track of colour drawn out with a squeegee, a geometric shape. Step by step the painting changes in appearance, sometimes sharply, with each new accretion, and goes through several states … They are finished “when there is no more I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with”’ (R. Nasgaard, ‘The Abstract Paintings’ in T. Neff (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London 1988, p. 108). Photographs from the artist’s studio show the present work at the very heart of this process.
Having left Düsseldorf for Cologne with his new wife Isa Genzken, Richter entered a period of professional triumph during the mid-1980s. The resurgence of painting within Neo-Expressionist circles and elsewhere brought a new level of international interest to his abstract paintings. In 1981, Richter had featured in the legendary group exhibition A New Spirit in Painting, held at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, where his works were shown alongside canvases by artists such as Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Georg Baselitz, Cy Twombly and Sigmar Polke. Within this context, Richter’s works stood out as pioneers, counterbalancing the visceral painterly outpourings of his contemporaries with a thoughtful, near-conceptual approach to the medium. The sustained and purposeful nature of his approach was highlighted by the critical response to his 1986 retrospective: a major showing of 133 works that toured museums across Germany, Switzerland and Austria. As Dietmar Elger writes, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung named him ‘one of the most interesting sceptics and tacticians of doubt’, whilst Der Spiegel asserted that ‘No one else has explored the potential of painting in an age of mass photography in as coolly engaged and intelligent a manner as he has, or has been as tough and ready to experiment as he is’ (D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago 2009, p. 264). This landmark exhibition was followed by an extensive North American touring retrospective in 1988, which served to cement the artist’s reputation across the Atlantic. By the end of the decade, Richter was widely hailed as one of the most exciting artists of his time: a view that would continue to evolve during the 1990s.
Ultimately, Richter’s abstract works offered new hope to a generation that had lost faith in the act of painting. Appearing before the viewer like natural topographies, with little trace of the artist’s hand, they suggested that pigment had the power to create its own narratives. ‘I’m more concerned now to have [my paintings] evolve of their own accord’, he claimed. ‘I don’t work at random but in a more planned way, in the sense that I let a thing happen by chance, then correct it, and so on. The actual work consists in taking what appears, looking at it then deciding whether it’s acceptable or not’ (G. Richter, quoted in D. Elger and H-U. Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter – Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961-2007, London 2009, p. 275). The squeegee was to become one of Richter’s most important tools in this regard: coercing paint into independent, incalculable formations, it blurred the relationship between the artist’s mind, eye and hand. ‘It is a good technique for switching off thinking’, Richter explained. ‘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, Die Macht der Malerei’, in Art. Das Kunstmagazin, December 1999, p. 20). By limiting his own agency in this manner, Richter breathed new life into the medium. It was no longer simply a vehicle for depiction, but rather a means of envisioning alternative realities beyond the scope of human cognition. With its thin veil of light flickering like a beacon through the layers of paint, the present work eloquently captures the dawn of this brave new world.