Selected by the artist for inclusion in his recent seminal retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, Gerhard Richter's epic Abstraktes Bild Violett is positioned at the very heart of the artist's investigations into the fundamental nature of painting. Considered one of the pre-eminent painters of the Post-War period, Richter has spent his career putting the medium of painting under a microscope and, painted in 1986, Abstraktes Bild Violett was executed at a point in his career when the artist was at his most contemplative. Through this multi-layered work, Richter not only pays homage to paintings' past, but also projects forward as this work marks an important period when his oeuvre would become increasingly dominated by abstraction. The abstract paintings have become some of Richter's most celebrated, and this majestic example not only demonstrates the artist's supreme aesthetic vision and technical virtuosity but also scrutinizes the struggle between the dominance of abstraction and figuration within Richter's work, the result of which is a new way in which a deeper and more powerful view of the world is rendered.
Laid out across a monumental canvas, Richter's rich diversity of paint application-daubing, scouring, and dragging paint across the surface of the canvas-results in an expressive lattice of horizontal and vertical gestures that integrate several of his distinctive painting practices. Upon a kaleidoscopic bouquet of jewel-like pigment, Richter lays down luscious swathes of darker purples, violets, and more muted tones that are crowned by a series of rigorous criss-crossed lines that pierce through the previous layers to reveal the astonishing complexity of Richter's composition. Brushes, squeegees, and even sharper-edged implements wielded by the artist sweep, smear, and scour paint across the surface, arriving at an almost infinite variety of visual textures. Using these tools, Richter excavates each layer to reveal signs of its ancestry; from the traces left by the predecessors of the impetuous white brushstrokes in the upper portion of the canvas to the delicate freckles of color that congregate down the left side, Abstraktes Bild Violett presents a visual medley of Richter's rich variety of techniques.
A measure of the importance of this particular painting within the artist's oeuvre can be seen in its inclusion in the seminal exhibition of his work organized by London's Tate Modern. Held to mark the artist's 80th birthday, the exhibition bought together some of his most significant paintings and was distinguished by the artist's close involvement in the selection and placement of works for this major restatement of Richter's oeuvre. The exhibition was both a popular and critical success with Souren Melikian of the New York Times describing it as "a landmark that will be remembered long after the show closes" (S. Melikian, "Gerhard Richter, Grand Master of Our Time," New York Times, October 28, 2011). Although the exhibition contained iconic examples from throughout his career, it was his abstracts such as Abstraktes Bild Violett that garnered most attention with Laura Cumming of the Guardian newspaper capturing the essence of the viewing experience: "Richter is passionately drawn to the experience of the eye and the light that makes everything visible. If these paintings are analogies of anything specific, it is our human love of looking at the world" (L. Cummings, "'Gerhard Richter: Panorama' - Review," Guardian, October 8, 2011).
While aesthetically Richter's Abstraktes Bilder may recall the work of earlier abstract artists, philosophically and contextually, they differ. Richter has often criticized abstraction because of the "phony reverence" it inspires, declaring, in contrast, that his abstractions were "an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction" (G. Richter, interview with B.H.D. Buchloh, 1986, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 141). Rather than an homage to abstraction, Richter's abstract pictures address the problems of painting and the difficulties confronting contemporary painters working under the great weight of the history of painting at a moment when many artists had abandoned the medium itself. According to Richter, his abstract works represent "my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions" (G. Richter, quoted in D. Dietrich, "Gerhard Richter: An Interview," The Print Collectors Newsletter, 16, no. 4, September-October 1985, p. 128).
With its rich chromatic variety and wide assortment of painterly techniques, Abstraktes Bild Violett represents a decade distinguished by transitions both technically and thematically. Having established his career with his iconic paintings based on black-and-white photographs, by the 1980s, Richter felt he had exhausted this genre and technique and was searching for something new. "My paintings became more and more impersonal and general," he said in 1985, "until nothing was left but monochrome grey or colours next to each other, unmodulated colour. Then I was totally outside my paintings. But I didn't feel well either. You can't live like that, and therefore I decided to paint the exact opposite" (G. Richter, quoted in C. Morineau, "The Blow-Up, Primary Colours and Duplications," in M. Godfrey and N. Serota (eds.), Gerhard Richter: Panorama, London, 2011, p. 123).
The result was the emergence of his Abstraktes Bilder, early examples of which were characterized by their chromatic palette and layering technique. This aesthetic would become more intricate and complex as Richter began to push the boundaries of this new found form as the decade progressed. As the 1980s drew to a close, Richter's work underwent a thematic shift in his painting practice to focus more on the "political," according to the curator of Richter's Tate retrospective, Camille Morineau, with his controversial 18 October 1977-a series of fifteen paintings in which Richter repainted photographs of members of Germany's Baader Meinhoff terrorist group who had been found dead in their prison cells in 1977. In this context Abstraktes Bild Violett, with its bright and lavish perimeter edges and its more complex interior, stands at a crossroads between two important bodies of work. As such, Richter's Abstraktes Bild Violett becomes the embodiment of the artist's philosophy during this pivotal period of his career, as he himself has noted: "Abstract paintings are fictitious models because they visualize a reality, which we can neither see nor describe, but which we may nevertheless conclude exists. We attach negative names to this reality; the un-known, the un-graspable, the infinite, and for thousands of years we have depicted it in terms of substitute images like heaven and hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood" (G. Richter, quoted in R. Nasgaard, "Gerhard Richter," in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1988, p. 107).
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Signed, numbered and dated '600-2 Richter 1986' (on the reverse)
Gerhard Richter , 20th Century, Paintings, Germany, Post War
New York, Marian Goodman Gallery and Sperone Westwater, Gerhard Richter: Paintings, March-April 1987.
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Private Eyes: Selected Works from Collections of Friends of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, June-August 1989.
London, Tate Modern, Gerhard Richter: Panorama, October 2011-January 2012, pp. 156 and 298 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
78¾ x 70¾ in. (200 x 179.7 cm.)
B. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, p. 180, no. 600-2 (illustrated in color).
Sperone Westwater, New York
Private collection, United States
Private collection, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner