Gerhard Richter is universally recognized as one of the foremost painters of his generation. In a career devoted to exploring the potential and diversity of his chosen medium, Richter has single-handedly suspended the conventional opposition between figurative and abstract modes of expression to articulate the manifold possibilities of painting as a conveyor of truths about how we perceive the world. A triumphant act of painting, Abstraktes Bild, from 1991 epitomizes the mature achievement that is Richter's abstraction. It is a striking example of Richter's bravura technique and capacities, standing out as a seminal illustration of 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 Photo paintings, 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).
Abstraktes Bild embraces the luscious reds and deep pinks and blues that are so clearly created from Richter's signature and singular style of layering and reworking the paint surface of his canvases. The color red has been considered the most important to Richter and in this painting the canvas is brilliantly saturated with its luminous intensity. The flecks of green, white and blue peek through the red surface, hinting at what lies beneath and what came before. The infinite subtlety of tone and mark employed here emphasize the illusion inherent to painting as the mesmerizing beauty of the artist's vision emerges from an ethereal mist of brushwork and scraping. Given their purposeful open-endedness, Richter's Abstracts 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, the shapes and colors of Abstraktes Bild come together to form a drama that is completely at the behest of the viewer's own eye and consciousness.
Richter's brilliant progression from the Photo paintings of the 1960s to the Abstract paintings of the 1990s are all grounded in the same principles of technique and the same desired effect - his virtuosity with paint belies the choice to emphasize the photograph as subject matter rendering it abstract. Richter's handling of oil paint in the present work, as with the other Abstract paintings, deftly obscures any attempt the viewer might make to "see something" within the work, rather, he prefers to transform what can only loosely be read as a "landscape" into a fleeting, passing moment which verges on the sublime. As evidenced in his gray and white Photo paintings the smearing and blurring serves many purposes: firstly, it erases or cloaks the content of the image, thereby forcing the viewer to step out of the narrative framework one expects to be informed by, and to enter a more abstract domain that focuses the eye on issues of perception and conception. By feathering the paint or dragging a hard edge through the wet, still-drying pigment, Richter's paint surface creates a wonderfully dynamic effect of an image being conjured or captured at great speed, as if the scene had been fleetingly observed. The oscillating quality of the paint surface of Abstraktes Bild is of the most sophisticated skill level - vibrating with life on the canvas.
When describing his own work Richter once stated, "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). With Abstraktes Bild, Richter has indisputably created something that exceeds the bounds of simply "correct" - the painting reiterates the necessity of Abstraction and possesses transcendental qualities that are among the most compelling from the artist's extensive oeuvre.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Liliane et Michel Durand-Dessert, Gerhard Richter, September - October 1991, n.p., illustrated in color
44 1/8 x 40 1/4 in. 112 x 102 cm.
Angelika Thill, et. al., Gerhard Richter: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, cat. no. 748-6, illustrated in color
Galerie Liliane et Michel Durand-Dessert, Paris
Sean Kelly Gallery, New York
Christie's, London, June 30, 2008, Lot 30
Acquired by the present owner from the above