The first of a series of three paintings entitled River, the present work relates to Gerhard Richter's Abstract Paintings in which the artist made exclusive use of vast squeegees to pull paint across the canvas in a regimented series of vertical and horizontal strips. The resulting body of work is uniquely comprised of material surfaces that nonetheless remarkably bear the suggestion of penetrable space. Seeming to both reveal and undermine illusionistic depth, the effect of these squeegeed strips with their myriad details of color and pattern is deliberately ambiguous. As such, these paintings dovetail into Richter's ongoing investigation into the nexus between illusionistic painting based on photographic reproductions and autonomous abstraction based on its overt claim to painterly physicality.
Evocatively entitled River, the horizontal expanse of predominantly blue canvas recalls a watery landscape resplendent with overhead reflections and the suggestion of a distant horizon. And yet, its conception as viscous pigment applied, scraped and layered across the surface is irrefutable. By invoking perceptual depth in seemingly "abstract" works such as River, Richter re-enacts play that is inherent in seemingly "illusionistic" Photo Paintings: for instance, his large-scale seascapes of 1969-70, smoothly over-painted to capture his signature "blur," dissolve into autonomous color and gesture upon close observation. Indeed, it is instructive to view Richter's entire oeuvre as not a polar division between photographic paintings and abstractions, but rather, as an attempt to close the gap between these two aesthetic extremes.
The deliberate ambiguity invoked in River is intended to demonstrate the complex and contradictory multiplicity of reality. Richter compares reality to an excerpt of Nature perceived through a window: no matter how arbitrary, coincidental and fragmentary it may seem, it comprises "truth" for a particular beholder at a particular point in time, and therefore, by extension, must exist in an infinite continuum according to subjective, temporal and geographic variables. Richter strives towards an art that is analogous to such reality, refusing to peg it to any ideology--political, spiritual or aesthetic--in order to keep it open-ended and indeterminate--and therefore as "realistic" as possible.
Since representational painting is necessarily a synthesis of what is observed, what is known and what is believed, it cannot by any account, reflect reality in all its plurality. If River alludes to landscape, specifically in the tradition of German Romanticism, it is entirely intentional. Richter invokes this tradition to highlight the German concept of Sehnsucht--an existential longing based on the human need to believe--that in Romantic thought became transformed into a transcendental (and therefore highly formulated) view of Nature. By referring to German Romantic landscape painting, Richter highlights the particular ideology that shaped it (and the horrors that it gestated during the Third Reich whose nationalistic rhetoric was rooted in Romanticism). Likewise, it is no coincidence if River evokes Abstract Expressionism through its gestural painterly passages. Richter calls attention to the rhetoric of self-assertion that underlies it, and by doing so, recalls the myriad of justifications for Modern art, in the name of Utopian ideals or spiritual transcendence. He reveals that belief systems, while comforting in the face of the unknown, are inherently artificially constrained and therefore bear no relation to reality.
In Richter's opinion, it is only in the abstract that an approximate sense of the unfathomable nature of reality can be found. Because the artist limits subjective interference by "letting the thing come rather than creating it" in a process that involves successive stages of creation and destruction, he captures the essential courses of Nature in paintings such as River. After an initial application of paint, Richter relinquishes control once he drags the squeegee across still wet layers; thereafter, it is chance that governs the interplay of colors, the uneven spread of pigment, the breaking apart, the blending, the overlapping and the erasing. He avoids the act of composition but nonetheless presides over the painting's progress and definitive result by choosing when to pile on, when to scrape off and when to stop; indeed, parallel to Nature, the decision to destroy is as important as the decision to create. Richter states "the making of pictures consists of a large number of yes and no decisions and a yes decision at the end." (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Gerhard Richter, 1991, p. 123).
The "yes and no decisions" that come into play in River create work of ravishing beauty that is redolent of Monet's Nymphaes. Following the horizontal sweep of the squeegee across the canvas, deep blues thread with yellows and oranges, as if reflecting starry skies or transporting flotsam, while coexisting with such visual evocations, the tactile undulations of color folding in and out of each other evince the flow of liquid itself. Simultaneously illusionistic and material, River collapses into an organic counterpart to nature, revealing Richter's supreme ability to balance the art of control and the element of chance. A now famous series of photographs documents Richter at work on his series of River paintings, acting as a catalyst to its brilliant gestation.
Gerhard Richter (B. 1932)
Oil on canvas
Signed, dated and numbered 'RICHTER 1995 822' (on the reverse)
Oslo, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, APENT ROM-Utvalgte Verk Fra Samlingen, May-September 1997.
Oslo, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Gerhard Richter: The Art of the Impossible--Paintings 1964-1998, January-April 1999, p. 98 (illustrated in color).
Oslo, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, From the Collection, August-September 1999.
Oslo, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Museum-Sommerutstillingen, June-September 2000, n.p., no. 13.
Oslo, The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Museum 2, April-September 2001, n.p., no. 35.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
80 x 120 in. (203.3 x 305 cm.)
H. Friedel and A. Zweite, Eds., Gerhard Richter Werkverzeichnis 1993-2004, Dusseldorf, 2005, no. 822 (illustrated in color).
Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London
Astrup Fearnley, Oslo
Acquired from the above by the previous owner