When Gerhard Richter turned to gestural abstract painting in 1976, he did so vigorously and unapologetically in an environment highly mistrustful of expressionist qualities in picture-making. More than three decades later, Richter has come to personify the genre of contemporary abstract painting. Grounded in an investigation of figure-ground oppositions and relations, Richter's richly tactile paintings retain an unusual objectivity; as he constantly refers to paintings as illusionistic, mediated experiences, asserting:
"If I paint an abstract picture (the problems are not dissimilar with the other works) I neither know in advance what it is supposed to look like, nor where I intend to go when I am painting, what could be done, to what end. For this reason the painting is a quasi blind, desperate effort, like that made by someone who has been cast out into a completely incomprehensible environment with no means of support – by someone who has a reasonable range of tools, materials and abilities and the urgent desire to build something meaningful and useful, but it cannot be a house or a chair or anything else that can be named, and therefore just starts building in the vague hope that his correct, expert activity will finally produce something correct and meaningful" (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Gerhard Richter, 1991, p. 116).
A triumphant act of painting, Abstract Painting (780-4) epitomizes the mature achievement that is Richter's abstraction. It is a remarkable example of Richter's bravura technique and capacities, standing out as one of the artist's most impressive contributions to his continued investigation into the nature of process. In his abstract works, spontaneous, reactive gestures of adding, moving and subtracting paint create an illusion of space. Despite unnatural palettes, sheets of color, and obvious trails of the artist's tools, the Abstract Paintings often act like windows through which we see the landscape outside. Just as in his representational paintings, there is an equalization of illusion and paint. Richter exalts intuitive mark-making to a level of spatial logic and believability. Where in the Photopaintings, the model is the source photograph, in the Abstract Paintings, the paradigm is fictitious "because they visualize a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude exists" (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, Gerhard Richter Paintings, 1988, p. 107).
Paintings such as Abstract Painting (780-4) have an elastic quality to them, both physically and intellectually. In the present work, a soft ground of red and blue is applied only to be subsequently altered by large strokes. The painting then undergoes multiple mutations in which each new accretion brings color and textural juxtapositions that are reworked until they are completely harmonized. Such manipulation is the product of Richter's chief concern with process. Here, he uses wet and dry brushes, long spatulas and squeegee boards to apply the oil paint. In turn, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to penetrate the canvas while being absorbed by its vast surface area, a referent to the large scale format of both academic painting and the New York School of the 1950s. Richter's paintings are finished only when he can do no more, when they exceed him, or they have something that he can no longer keep up with. (Ibid, p.108). Given their intricate specificity and open-endedness, his works are never executed in one session, rather each stroke is carefully considered before it is allowed to make an appearance that could seriously deter the overall desired effect. "One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting." (From Richter, 'Notes 1973', in Hans-Ulrich Obrist (ed.), The Daily Practice of Painting, London, 1995, p.78). Physically, because of the way that Richter seems to stretch paint around the canvas, eking every possibility out of the medium he employs; intellectually, because they are not grounded to any narrative, and thus fuel the imagination of the viewer, shapes and colors come together to form a drama that is completely at the behest of the viewer's own eye and consciousness.
Oil on canvas
New York, Marian Goodman Gallery, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, September - October 1993, cat. no. 21, illustrated in color
102 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. 260.4 x 200 cm.
Angelika Thill, et. al., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné, 1962 - 1993, vol. III, Osterfildern-Ruit, 1993, cat. no. 780-4, illustrated in color
Gertrud Koch, "Sequence of Time", Parkett, no. 35, 1993, p. 81, illustrated in color (studio photograph)
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Eugene Stevens, Columbus
Christie's, New York, May 11, 2005, Lot 45
Acquired by the present owner from the above