Gerhard Richter is, without question, one of the most important artists of his generation. There are few artists who have been as influential and perhaps none who have mastered their medium more absolutely. Within this extraordinary pantheon of production is the present Abstraktes Bild (849-3), the third and final majestic gesture in Richter's set of the paintings numbered 849. This unapologetically profound picture is comprised of variegated depths of attenuated color that are scraped into submission across a seemingly endless expanse – an epic gesture of straightforward beauty. In the Romantic sense of the word, much as Michelangelo emancipated his forms from the marble, through his artistic process, Richter liberates beauty from his chromatically rich surfaces. ''My works are not just rhetorical, except in the sense that all art is rhetorical. I believe in beauty.'' (Gerhard Richter as quoted in Michael Kimmelman, "Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms," The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). It appears that Richter's paintings bear an ontological proof to the very pursuit of beauty, both for the artist and his audience if we uphold the belief that "beautiful is cognized without a concept as the object of a necessary satisfaction." (Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, New York, 2000, 5:240).
Richter's greatest fait accompli is that he is an extraordinary virtuoso who defies categorization. He frustrates attempts at codified critical interpretation by brazenly flaunting his chameleonic dexterity. Continually interchanging figuration and abstraction, his supporters are quick to point out that ''He's not playing hard to get, he's doing something that is hard to get.'' (Robert Storr as quoted in Michael Kimmelman, "Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms," The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). An exultant act of painting, Abstraktes Bild (849-3) epitomizes the mature achievement that is Richter's abstraction and its defiance of labels or classification. The physical and intellectual elasticity of Richter's work however is deeply indebted to the Abstract Expressionists for fundamentally realigning the possibilities of painting. Richter's deliberate emotional distance between himself and the canvas was an abrupt contradiction to the brooding subjectivity and emotive assault of the Abstract Expressionists. The spirit with which Richter approaches his art is also philosophically contradictory to the Abstract Expressionists. "By nature I am a skeptic. I don't dare to think my paintings are great...Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate." (Michael Kimmelman, "Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms," The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.).
Abstraktes Bild (849-3) may be a philosophical departure from the Abstract Expressionists, yet the scale is not. Rendered on a two by three meter canvas, the monumentality of the work and its sister painting, Abstraktes Bild (849-2), now in the permanent collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, are a gentle, yet perhaps not deliberate, nod to the acknowledged profundity of scale as set forth by Mark Rothko: "I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting something very grandiose is pompous. The reason I paint them – however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside of the experience...however, you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command." (Mark Rothko, "A Symposium on How to Combine Architecture, Painting and Sculpture," Interiors, vol. cx, no. 10, May 1951, p. 104). While Richter may have embraced the energetic, individualistic compositions of the scions of Abstract Expressionist painting, he resisted the ideological confines and limits of it. Rather than dwell in the shadow of the historic genre's decline, Richter's value resides in his prescient acknowledgment of its future.
Richter's painterly exploits therefore, are almost entirely antithetical to the axioms outlined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg, who stated "the gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from value, political, aesthetic, moral...rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-design, or express an object." (Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters" ARTnews 51, no. 8, December 1952, p. 23). Richter is undeniably at direct odds with this paradigm, once famously asserting that it was his purposeful objective to "invent nothing – no idea, no composition, no object, no form, and receive everything: composition, object, form, idea, picture." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter, Forty Years of Painting, 2002, p. 251).
An aesthetic statement in oil with no subject or object or predicate, but a 'verbification' composed by his visceral anti-trompe l'oeil stance, Richter's artistic output has been a vital and necessary renewal to the very act of painting, with no hierarchy privileged other than paint itself. As such, his surfaces are an incredible zone of kinetic potential, which not only seduce the viewer to reconsider how pictures are seen and read, but also to simply fathom how they are possibly made.
Oil on canvas
London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Gerhard Richter 1998, September - October 1998, cat. no. 849-3, illustrated in color
Barcelona, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Gerhard Richter: Atlas, 1999
102 3/8 x 133 7/8 in. 260 x 340 cm.
Armin Zweite, Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1993 - 2004, Düsseldorf, 2005, cat. no. 849-3, illustrated in color (image upside down and reversed)
Exh. Cat., New York, Marian Goodman Gallery, Gerhard Richter: Paintings from 2003 - 2005, 2005, p. 110 (text reference)
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Private Collection, Essen
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2000