‘When I look out of the window, then truth for me is the way nature shows itself in various tones, colours and proportions. That’s a truth and has its own correctness. This little slice of nature, and in fact any given piece of nature, represents to me an ongoing challenge, and is a model for my paintings’ – Gerhard Richter
‘Somewhere along the line it no longer satisfied me to paint photographs; I took stylistic devices of photographs – accuracy, blurring, illusoriness – and made doors, curtains, and pipes with them’ – Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild is a dreamscape, a glimpse of the world through half-closed eyes. Thick smears of forest green, streaks of pink and a dense pool of ice blue fill the canvas; a single sliver, a cascade of slate, rushes from the upper edge. The painterly renderings summon a wooded landscape, and Richter’s masterful application of paint transports the viewer to an illusory land of rich colour and texture. For his celebrated series Abstraktes Bilder, Richter became captivated by a rhythmic application of paint, and these works are the product of a protracted investigation into the material’s potential. Richter chose his series’ nomenclature purposefully to unify each canvas no matter the supposed figural imagery; as the critic Robert Storr observed, ‘The choice of title is significant in that it reinforces the impression conveyed by the illusionistic description of shoals, riptides, and cresting waves of pigment that these are pictures of gestural paintings, not of the spontaneously eventful real thing’ (R. Storr quoted in D. Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, London 2009, p. 251).
Richter’s journey towards complete abstraction was an incremental process defined by technical prowess and conceptual innovation. The Abstraktes Bilder developed out of his series of photorealist works, and in both, he played with obfuscation and concealment, submerging reality under increasingly thicker layers of untamed paint. As curator Richard Cork noted, ‘The blurring that resulted from the horizontal or diagonal striations seemed to have connections with his earlier habit of pulling a brush over the wet surface of his photo-based canvases. So, a continuity became apparent, founded above all on his perennial need to alter the image he had already constructed’ (R. Cork, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly: Reflections on Gerhard Richter’, Gerhard Richter, exh. cat., Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London 1991, p. 8). This progression makes clear Richter’s understanding of painterly themes, for he sees abstraction and representation not as duelling opposites, but instead as complimentary forces.
For the artist, images develop, be they naturalistic of abstract, purely through an accumulation of paint. Within this conceptual framework, art does not imitate reality; art generates new realities. As he explained, ‘Paintings always depict something that they are not. We even read into abstract paintings, examining them to find out what is being shown. If it were just about colour, after all, that would be boring’ (G. Richter quoted in D. Elger, ‘Abstraction and Semblance in Gerhard Richter’s Oeuvre’, Gerhard Richter: Abstraction, exh. cat., Museum Barberini, Potsdam 2018, p. 23). In Abstraktes Bild, there is a clear sense of discovery layered in the glossy brushwork, a central element of Richter’s approach. Shifting away from the ‘unreal’ as constructed in both photography and the historical German Romanticism, Richter locates the ‘real’ within his abstractions. Enveloping its viewer in this new existence, the painting conjures a dense thicket which challenges both orientation and vision. As an abstracted rendering of the experience of place, the work presents the eloquent negotiation between reality and representation, fiction and truth, which has come to define Richter’s practice.