"Chance is given; unpredictable; chaotic; the basis. And we try to control that by intervening, giving form to chance, putting it to use"
The artist in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicolas Serota, Spring 2011' in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 27
Pulsating with towering white waves against a galaxial black background, Gerhard Richter's spectacular Abstraktes Bild represents one of the most vivid, superlative and commanding works from the artist's astounding opus of abstraction. Comprising a graphically powerful schema of vertical stripes, this work belongs to a cycle of abstracts executed in 1992 in which Richter implemented the squeegee with swelling linear paroxysms of sweeping pressure. Standing among the most chromatic and compositionally exceptional from this remarkable striated corpus, Abstraktes Bild irrefutably rivals such paradigmatic examples held in the prestigious collections of National Gallery of Art Washington, San Francisco MoMA, the Kunstmuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and numerous others. Within the rectilinear forms and striking formalism this virtuoso painting essays an elegant dissipation of tonal variation that belies any superficial monochromism: ranging from subtly deep magenta to abyssal aquamarine, the masterful balance between sensitive tonality and sharp contrast posit this work as among the most compelling and exquisite of Richter's production. Furthermore, intensely evocative, Abstraktes Bild casts an illuminating arc spanning the breadth of Richter's ground-breaking conceptual inquiry into the fundamental objective of painting.
Contained within the graphic corrugation of sweeping painterly strokes, Richter's mercurial production is brought full-circle: the dramatic yet measured profusion of black, white and the incumbent variegation of greyscale casts an allusion back to the Photo Paintings that first brought the artist critical acclaim in the early 1960s. Indeed, formally reversing the central conceit of the monumental cycle of Curtains executed in 1965, where these photo-realist works hover on the verge of abstraction, Richter's Abstraktes Bild evokes the photographic. Measuredly dispensed against a blackened background, the delineation of white paint engenders a grid-like schema reminiscent of a photographic contact sheet. Moreover, in closer alignment to the early corpus of Curtains, while formally mirroring the vertical folds of Richter's blurred photographic translation, the sweeping white of the squeegee concurrently conceals and provides an intimation of that which lies beyond and behind the veil: "Almost all the abstract paintings show scenarios, surroundings and landscapes that don't exist, but they create the impression that they could exist. As though they were photographs of scenarios and regions that had never yet been seen" (the artist in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011' in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, 2011, p. 19). Thus, metaphorically and formally Richter's Abstraktes Bild casts an illuminating parity with this early series. Inherent within the two-dimensional picture-plane of both works, the notion of the curtain provides a somewhat ironical comment on the notion of painting as illusion. Nonetheless, where the blurred photo-realism suspends our understanding and utterly thwarts our perception of the curtain itself, the abstract allusion to something existing beyond the layers of chromatic expanse is thwarted by Richter's self-conscious and critical challenge to the history of abstraction – a practice intellectually suspended between the scientific and expressive conceptions of the painterly process. Aligned to Richter's greater artistic enterprise which since the early 1960s has scrutinised the role of paint within a media saturated culture, these works explore the possibility of abstract painting through the emotional detachment of visual and mechanical arbitration.
The abstract works represent the most demanding feat of Richter's craft; described by the artist as "complicated, messy, a bit of a battle", these works embody the terminus of Richter's life-long specularization of painting (the artist in: Ibid., p. 16). As expounded by Stefan Germer, any deliberation of Richter's abstract work is bound to a discussion of the artist's innovative painterly method (Stefan Germer, 'Retrospective Ahead' in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Gerhard Richter, 1991, p. 30). Disparate to working from a photographic model, Richter's deferral of quantifiable and predictable control requires a ritualistic and ordered process of preparation: "mixing the colours, finding the right hues, the smell, all these things foster an illusion that this is going to be a wonderful painting" (the artist in: Ibid). A number of primed white canvases are installed on the walls of the artist's studio, onto which Richter often works simultaneously, moving from one painting to another and back again. Over a protracted period of execution the works undergo multiple variations. Performed to sublime effect in the present work, each new sweeping accretion of paint brings colour and textural juxtapositions that are reworked until an optimum painterly threshold is achieved. Within this process grounds of arresting pigment are applied only to be effaced and drawn out by large track-like strokes of the squeegee. Unpredictable and ostensibly spontaneous in their lyrical grandeur, these overlaid marks are in fact carefully premeditated and cerebrally laboured.
This complex intellectual and often frustrating procedure, is comparable to a protracted and analytical game of chess: Richter critically diagnoses and acts upon each work until finally, "I enter the room and say, Checkmate" (the artist cited in: Michael Kimmelmann, 'Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms', The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). For Richter, these paintings tolerate no company, with every nihilistic graze of the squeegee an unanticipated painterly synthesis provokes a totally new condition he must antithetically react to: "each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free, until I conclude there is nothing left to do. When according to my standard, nothing is wrong, then I stop" (the artist in: Gerhard Richter: Painting, Dir. Corinna Belz, Zero One Film 2011). The attainment of compositional resolution within the thick impasto and atmospheric enshrouding of paint is perhaps more aligned to a kind of parity, or even stalemate, realised in the stand-off between controlled action and the reaction of chance. The painting itself reaches a point whereby Richter's own intentions have been alienated and overcome by the autonomy of the work itself: "Letting a thing come, rather than creating it – no assertions, constructions, formulations, inventions, ideologies – in order to gain access to all that is genuine, richer, more alive: to what is beyond my understanding" (Gerhard Richter, 'Notes 1985' in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting, Writings 1962-1993, London 1993, p. 119).
Within the tonally rich, graphically dramatic and conceptually multifaceted strata of Abstraktes Bild, the simultaneous negation and affirmation of contingency, expressivity, detachment, and transcendence comprises an encompassing host of contradictions that posit this work as a masterpiece of calculated chaos and paradigm of Gerhard Richter's mature artistic and philosophical achievement.
Oil on canvas
200 by 160cm. 78 3/4 by 63in.
Angelika Thill, et al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonne 1962 – 1993, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, Vol III, no. 768-4, illustrated in colour
Dora R. Stiefelmeier Collection, Zurich (acquired directly from the artist)
Nadia Clara Weber, Italy
Private Collection (acquired directly from the above in 1994)
Thence by descent to the present owner