Painted in 1989, Kind (Child) dates from the beginning of Gerhard Richter’s finest period of abstraction. In this enigmatic and captivating painting, a sheet of white cascades down the full length of the canvas in a single sweep, simultaneously revealing and concealing the rich myriad of colors that lies beneath its calm surface, as though multiple layers of paint have been melted together, smoothed into a coherent, resonant whole. The underlying kaleidoscope of color is veiled, but not eclipsed. Bright yellow, forest green and fiery red glow warmly through the more austere curtain of white, while a dynamic smattering of air pockets offer a tantalizing insight into what lies beneath. The process of creation is subtly suggested, while the painting’s history—its previous incarnations—intermittently break through the controlled, sleek surface.
By the time Kind (Child) was made, Richter had reached international prominence as an artist, widely respected for his understanding and commitment to painting, and his fearlessness in challenging its traditional functions. Seen to be exemplary the recent developments in Richter’s conceptualization of abstraction, Kind (Child) was exhibited at Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam later that year as part of a major survey of his work to date. The celebrated Eis cycle of paintings, now housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, were to follow soon after, and other paintings from this year are now in the permanent collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum, (Atem, or Breath), Kunsthalle Bielefeld, (Kurs, or Course), as well as the Tate (Abstraktes Bild 726), the Kunsthalle Hamburg (727) and the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (734).
The momentous body of abstract paintings that arose over the next five years spurred Richter on to further global acclaim. 1991 saw his breakthrough exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, while Documenta IX in 1992 was the first major presentation of his work in Germany since the showing of 18 October 1977 in Krefeld in 1989. In 1993, he went on to receive a touring retrospective, Gerhard Richter: Malerei 1962-1993, curated by Kasper König, the first of several retrospectives that would follow over the next two decades.
Richter’s illustrious career has been marked over the decades by his diverse, but highly considered, investigations into the possibilities of painting. While his approach to art making contests the idea that an artist must stay loyal to one particular style or line of enquiry, at its core there is a concern with the fundamental nature of looking, and the philosophical nature of appearance. Working predominantly, but not exclusively, with oil on canvas as a medium, his work has bounded easily across genres, from more traditional photorealism, still life, landscape and portraiture; to sleek glass installations, extreme minimalism and highly controlled abstraction. Heavyweight ideas concerning historical memory, the readymade and the limitations of objectivity in art are under continual interrogation, eliciting a complex and often contradictory body of work.
Visually powerful and conceptually intriguing, the abstract works dating from the late 1980s and early 1990s stand among the most successful iterations of his painterly investigations. In the past, Richter has often spoken of how he feels that they are able to manifest some of the oppositions inherent to his work, and those elements that are difficult to resolve. “I can... see my abstracts as metaphors,” he has said. They are “pictures that are about a possibility of coexistence. Looked at in this way, all that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom” (G. Richter, quoted in “Interview with Benjamin Buchloh, 1986,” Gerhard Richter. Writings 1962 -93, p.166).
Kind (Child) was created at a time of seismic political change. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was collapsing and the European continent was starting to throw off the mantle of repressive communist regimes. In a move that was almost prophetic of this political sea change, in 1988 Richter turned to the subject of the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the events of 18th October 1977. The cycle of fifteen works, known as the Baader-Meinhof paintings, document the deadly conclusion to the violence between the West German state and the far-left leaning terrorist group. Rendered from stark photocopies of the original photographs, Richter painted the mysterious death scenes and subsequent funerals of the figureheads of the RAF: Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Jan-Carl Raspe with speechless emotion.
Carried out in a palette of diametrically contrasting lead white and grey, the October cycle of paintings suspend their images in thick, velvety oil paint. This rich texture is translated into the viscous, tactile ripples of white paint, which spread like a glacial moraine across the canvas in Kind (Child). In Funeral (1988), the largest of the October works, Richter has depicted the funeral procession of Baader, Ensslin and Raspe in Stuttgart. The painting has a distinct dynamism, the image swept from left to right to the point of abstraction. Kind (Child) shares this same pronounced horizontality, resonating like the blur of the photograph. In Funeral, the wake itself is hard to decipher, the three coffins of the RAF leaders appearing as brightly illuminated, but illegible spots in the center of the composition. Just as we search for meaning in the continuous haze of this scene, so we seek some figurative allegory in the multitude of visual effects conjured up by Kind. As the artist has acknowledged, “even those paintings that are supposed to be nothing but a monochrome surface are looked at in that same searching manner” (G. Richter quoted in A. Borchardt-Hume, “Dreh Dich Nicht Um: Don’t Turn Around. Richter’s Paintings of the Late 1980s,” Gerhard Richter: Panorama, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London 2011, p. 173).
For Richter the Baader-Meinhof paintings were neither partisan nor confrontational, but motivated out of a desire for catharsis and reconciliation. A similar desire is articulated in the marriage of color, horizontal and vertical movement in Kind. As Richter has elaborated, “I can also see my abstracts as metaphors in their own right, pictures that are about a possibility of social coexistence. Looked at in this way, all that I am trying to do in each picture is to bring together the most disparate and mutually contradictory elements, alive and viable, in the greatest possible freedom. No paradises” (G. Richter ibid., p. 174).
Richter’s approach to abstract painting is both a radical and informed response to its wider position within the history of art and contemporary society. Although work like Kind (Child) resonate with the aesthetic strength and, to an extent, have formal similarities to Abstract Expressionist painting of the immediate postwar period, Richter approached abstraction from a significantly different angle. During the course of conversations with Benjamin Buchloh in 1986, Richter criticized his forebears’ aspiration to the sublime, describing it as “an assault on the falsity and the religiosity of the way people glorified abstraction, with such phony reverence” (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York 2002, p. 69). By contrast, Richter’s work explores painting itself – how to make marks, gestures and subjective decisions about color – without being expressive. He is highly conscious of what it means to be a painter today when it is has, time again, been dismissed as irrelevant or superfluous method of representation in a contemporary world abounding with images. Richter’s abstract works reflect these concerns, and paintings like Kind (Child) are celebrated for their ability to convey, as he has said: “my presence, my reality, my problems, my difficulties and contradictions. They are very topical for me” (G. Richter, quoted in “Interview with Dorothea Dietrich, 1985,” in D. Elger and H. Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Gerhard Richter, TEXT: Writings, Interviews and Letters: 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 146).
Richter’s abstracts are the result of chance as well as subjective decision. He worked on several at the same time, placing a number of prepared canvases around the studio. A ground color will be applied, sometimes left to dry, before more colors are layered on top. “This,” as he says, “is comparatively simple and for half a day looks quite beautiful and full of feeling.” But then it must be altered, because they are “too slight, too stupid, or too sentimental, because in any case they are not what I wanted.” (R. Nasgaard. “The Abstract Paintings” in T. Neff (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London, 1988, p. 108). An alteration is made, often, as in Kind, with a hard-edged squeegee, which is dragged across the surface of the canvas with enough pressure to disrupt the smooth upper layer of print, and to reveal the colors below and its previous states. The squeegee is a favored way of integrating coincidence into his art, because it can never be fully controlled. They are finished when the painting has an independence of its own, or in his own words: “when there is no more I can do to them, when they exceed me, or they have something that I can no longer keep up with” (R. Nasgaard. “The Abstract Paintings” in T. Neff (ed.), Gerhard Richter: Paintings, London, 1988, p. 108).
The effect is one of dualities. There is great atmosphere in the cool grey-white veil created by the squeegee in Kind, evocative of natural phenomena such as landscape and weather. Yet it is difficult to identify a sense of the artist himself, as one might in a Romantic or Impressionist painting; Richter has succeeded in creating the illusion that he is absent from the painterly process. “Above all,” he told Buchloch, “it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that is always planned, but also always surprising. And I need it in order to carry on, in order to eradicate my mistakes, to destroy what I’ve worked out wrong, to introduce something different and disruptive. I’m often astonished to find how much better chance is than I am” (G. Richter, interview with B. Buchloch, H. Obrist (ed.), Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 159).
Embodying contrary characteristics such as personalized and mechanized gesture, reality and fiction, construction and destruction, the abstract works are in many ways a natural development from his earliest works were based on photographs—mainly taken from newspapers and books—which were then enlarged and skillfully painted in a range of grays. Using photographs gave Richter a purportedly objective subject matter, which allowed him to concentrate on the process of applying paint to canvas, and separate them from any expressive associations. He also made a series of paintings based on color charts, which allowed a similar freedom from meaning, and a reduction of painting down to its most essential, physical elements.
Richter’s work today continues to reflect a deep respect for the medium, and a profound engagement with the inherent mysteries of perception. The recent arrival of digital technology has created new pathways for him to explore, as photography once did in the 1960s. His work still consciously investigates the basic principles of painting in relation to these new technologies. In doing so, it is a testament to the relevance of art, which continues to manifest his long-held conviction that, “since there is no such thing as absolute rightness and truth” he revealed in 1962, in one of his earliest pieces of writing, “we always pursue the artificial, leading, human truth. We judge and make a truth that excludes other truths. Art plays a formative part in this manufacture of truth” (G. Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter, Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007, London, 2009, p. 114).
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE SWISS COLLECTOR
Signed, numbered and dated ‘Richter 1989 687-3’ (on the reverse)
Gerhard Richter , 1980s, Paintings, Germany, Post War
Rotterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Gerhard Richter 1988-89, October-December 1989, pp. 111 and 161 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
38 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (97 x 92 cm.)
M. Hübl, "Gerhard Richter," Holbein Art Forum, No. 20, 1990-91, p. 84 (illustrated).
B. Buchloh, ed., Gerhard Richter: Werkübersicht/Catalogue Raisonné 1962-1993, vol. III, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1993, no. 687-3 (illustrated in color).
D. Elger, Gerhard Richter. Catalogue Raisonné 1988-1994, vol. 4, Ostfildern, 2015, p. 209, no. 687-3 (illustrated in color).
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Private collection, London
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 15 February 2012, lot 14
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
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