Executed in 1991, Abstraktes Bild (rot) manifests the strident exemplification of Gerhard Richter's intellectual inquiry into abstraction - an investigation that reached its mature zenith surrounding the moment of this work's creation. Designated as number one in the concise four-part series of red Abstrakte Bilder numbered 743 in Richter's Catalogue Raisonné, this towering painting delivers a breathtakingly symphonic and enveloping field of primary colour. During this decade the thematic deployment of red represents a pronounced and important conceptual engagement for Richter. Contemporaneous to the esoteric corpus of Blood Red mirrors and antecedent to the cycle of six monumental diamond canvases entitled Abstraktes Rhombus permanently housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, this work is accompanied by a remarkable host of red abstracts in the collections of numerous institutions internationally. Furthermore, belonging to The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the sister painting to the present work Abstraktes Bild (rot, verschwommen), was prominently chosen as the front cover of the Tate's major 1991 Gerhard Richter retrospective; here the soft blur and subtle variegation is anathema to the intensity of sharp composition and crackled textural surface masterfully essayed in the dramatic vertical sweep of Abstraktes Bild (rot). Thus, exhibiting a powerful profusion of vivid pigment masking the intimation of a world behind the cutaneous red curtain, this painting dispenses a superlative equilibrium between illusion and allusion, erasure and construction, veiling and revealing.
After decades of scrutinising painting in relation to competing visual cultures, the emergence of the Abstrakte Bilder stand as the crowning achievement in Richter's mercurial oeuvre: as propounded by Benjamin Buchloh, Richter withholds a position of "incontrovertible centrality in the canon of abstraction in the present" (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 'Richter's Abstraction: Gesture, Facture, Imprint', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Cologne, Museum Ludwig and Munich, Haus der Kunst, Gerhard Richter Large Abstracts, 2009, p. 9). Chromatically expansive, the sweeping theatrical primary of red, undulating with the intimation of subtly pulsating green, yellow and grey calls forth a "reality in which we can neither see nor describe but which we nevertheless conclude exists" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Kassel, Documenta 7: Gerhard Richter, 1982, n.p.). Representing a conflicting balance between artistic agency and autonomous contingency, Richter's Abstrakte Bild masterfully problematises yet mediates a relationship with the instinctual, spontaneous and the arbitrary. In wielding the squeegee as an intermediary tool to physically deploy and inform compositional and chromatic distribution, Richter summons a language of abstract self-referentiality founded in chance, which in turn philosophically invokes a transcendental inquiry into the unknowable and inexpressible realm that lies beyond the veil of representation.
Richter's self-referential abstraction of painterly compression and layering, strives towards "something incomprehensible, something on a higher plane" (the artist cited in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It: Conversation between Gerhard Richter and Nicholas Serota, Spring 2011' Op. Cit., p. 19). The abstracts prove that what cannot be articulated can be made, shown and seen: "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" (Brigit Pelzer, 'The Tragic Desire' in: Benjamin H. D. Buchloh ed., October Files 8: Gerhard Richter, London 2009, p. 62). Indeed, as expounded by Pelzer, Richter's abstracts go beyond mere representation and become an enigmatic presence, even an absent-presence: "Gerhard Richter's work investigates and explores malaise- that void, that gap, the speck of death" (Ibid., p. 66). The notion of a kind of temporal and cognitive suspension evoked within the dense strata of chromatic streaks provokes an ineffable encounter with infinitesimal vibrations of nuance and timbre comparable with musical notation and composition. In this respect, Richter's elemental colouristic schema shares a commonality with Jean-François Lyotard's post-modern conception of the sublime as principally perceived in the work of Barnett Newman.
Lyotard broaches his philosophical enquiry via a discussion of Newman's minimal abstract expressionist paintings: here Lyotard identifies an arrest, or indeed a malaise, inherent within the referentially absent fields of strident colour. Via a tangible sense of the "here-and-now" present in the abstract artwork, Lyotard elaborates that something or indeed nothing might be happening in the present: "In the determination of pictorial art, the indeterminate, the 'it happens' is the paint, the picture. The paint, the picture as occurrence or event, is not expressible and it is to that that it has witness" (Jean-François Lyotard, 'The Sublime and the Avant-Garde' in: Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Stanford 1991, p. 93). Liberated from representational obligation, painting unto itself affects a deferral of rational cognition that invokes a disorienting intimation of the nonsensical void. In Newman, as in the work of Richter, the purely chromatic fields of abyssal abstraction provide a rhythmical wavering between aesthetic nothingness and enveloping excess. Indeed, this is mirrored in Richter's execution of his abstract works: "The intention: to invent nothing – no idea, no composition, no form – and to receive everything: composition, object, form, idea, picture." (Gerhard Richter cited in: Hans-Ulbrich Obrist, Ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting. Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London 1995, p. 129). In the work of both Newman and Richter, the semiotic absence of sign and symbol calls forth a powerfully emotive effect that operates outside of rational cognition.
However, though greatly indebted to the ingenuity of the Abstract Expressonists' fundamental realignment of painting, Richter's attendance to such a history is led by a clinical detachment: "Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate" (the artist in: Michael Kimmelmann, "Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms", The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). Rather, by surrendering to the aleatory and relinquishing the direct agency of the intrepid brushmark, Richter fundamentally negates the contrived and heroic will to validate painting as harbinger of a transcendent absolute truth. Benajmin Buchloh outlines the fundamental resistance to the possibility of spiritual ascension in Richter's abstract works: "...the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely it's always cancelling itself out. With so many combinations, so many permutational relationships there can't be any harmonious chromatic order, or composition either, because there are no ordered relations left either in the colour system or the spatial system" (Benjamin H. D. Buchloh cited in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Op. Cit., p. 155). As works in which compositional form is realised solely in the contingent act of painting without determinacy or design, Richter attributes the painterly concerto of his abstract works as dislocated from his own will as an artist: "they do what they want. I planned something completely different" (the artist in: Gerhard Richter: Painting, Dir. Corinna Belz, Zero One Film 2011).
At once, Richter's corpus of abstraction is inimitably challenging, esoterically dense yet strikingly beautiful. Emanating from a deep and clear understanding of the plight of painterly abstraction in its varying modalities, Richter's Abstrackte Bilder embody a nuanced and ambiguous response to such formal tensions and their contrasting histories. Akin to the repeated nihilistic erasure and its antithetical creative complement, Richter's abstraction wavers between a simultaneous negation and affirmation of the ineffability of the beyond. As commandingly propounded within the layers of arresting pigment giving way to sweeping glimmers of an entirely alternate visual plane behind the strident red screen, Richter magnificently delivers a glimpse of "somewhere you can't go, something you can't touch" (the artist in: 'I Have Nothing to Say and I'm Saying It', Op. Cit., p. 19).
Oil on canvas
Frankfurt, Galerie Achenbach, Gerhard Richter, 1991
200 by 140cm. 78 3/4 by 55 1/8 in.
Angelika Thill, et al., Gerhard Richter Catalogue Raisonné 1962 – 1993, Ostfildern-Ruit 1993, Vol III, no. 743-1, illustrated in colour
Galerie Achenbach, Frankfurt
Faggionato Fine Arts, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner circa 1993