At the top of his game
How an experiment resulted in Gerhard Richter’s evocative recent works in ink
By Alexander Adams. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 13 June 2013
Although Gerhard Richter came to prominence in the 1960s with blurred photo paintings, in recent decades abstract painting has been central to his practice. This interest is not a recent development. When Richter, who began his painting career in the isolated East German republic, talks about the post-war art that captured his imagination when he first visited the West, he mentions Lucio Fontana and Jackson Pollock in particular. Furthermore, during Richter’s early years in West Germany, many of his colleagues were members of the Art Informel, Tachisme and Zero groups, all strong in non-representational art.
While photo paintings dominated Richter’s output in his first decades, he also made more experimental work. His Vermalungen (“in-paintings”) were exercises in random surface generation: he applied paint in dabs to a canvas, then pushed a brush over it until the canvas was covered in paint. In his monochrome “Grey Paintings”, the artist worked a seam of Minimalism that was popular in the early 1970s. There were other short-lived experiments in abstraction that seemed more anti-painting than painting.
In retrospect, it seems clear from the brevity of these forays that Richter was looking—unsuccessfully—for an approach that was sufficiently rich and expansive to match his ambition to be a serious abstract painter. From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, Richter made large (sometimes very large) oil paintings that combined multiple paint layers, dramatic colour juxtapositions, deep pictorial space and photo-style blurring. These are problematic works in that they emphasise diversity of style and application above all else (very much in the postmodernist idiom) and thus risk becoming all guile and no substance. The artist, unable to find a single synthesised style, seemed—paradoxically—to be too detached and trying too hard at the same time.
Then, in the early 1980s, Richter made a significant breakthrough. He started making paintings by dragging wet paint across surfaces using a wiper, before scraping off and reapplying the paint. These paintings succeeded in a way previous works had not—by creating dense, coherent, colour-rich planes animated by surface incident. Richter allowed the paint to form its own surfaces largely out of his precise control and thereby developed a unique synthesised technique. The paintings have a geological, sedimentary character and gain through viewers’ associations with natural processes, in addition to allusions to mechanically worked materials. These are dynamic, audacious, complex and truly beautiful paintings that rank as some of the great achievements of abstract art.
In November 2008, Richter began a seemingly idle experiment. He applied ink droplets to wet paper, using alcohol and lacquer to extend and retard the ink’s natural tendency to bloom and creep. These “November” sheets were a significant departure from his previous watercolours in that the pervasive soaking of ink into wet paper produced double-sided works. Sometimes the uppermost sheets bled into others, generating a sequentially developing series of images.
The muted colours (indigo, violet, orange and pink) and shapes in the “November” sheets are similar to those in chromatographs, where the separation of ink on blotting paper records the presence of certain compounds. The stippled swirling clouds also recall the cosmos—galaxies and clusters of debris unimaginably huge in scale, familiar to us through photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. Thus we have images that are humble in origin yet evocative enough to prompt thoughts of surpassing wonder. Richter’s microscopic-macroscopic “November” paintings extend the transcendent-sublime strand in abstract art, which includes Pollock, Sam Francis and the Colour Field painters and ultimately derives from landscape painting by Claude, Turner and Friedrich.
The publication of Gerhard Richter: November—including a text by Dieter Schwarz, who explains the genesis of the sequence—will enable viewers to appreciate the series properly. This facsimile in book format works well, reproducing the two-sided sheets as pages and duplicating the double-sided and sequential nature of the original sheets, all at 1:1 scale. Published in a signed and numbered edition of 800, the volume is sure to become a favourite for collectors of Richter rarities and those interested in abstract art.
Gerhard Richter: November, Gerhard Richter with a text by Dieter Schwarz, Henri Publishing, limited edition of 800, 111pp, £400 (hb)
The writer, a British art critic and artist based in Berlin and Brussels, has written for publications including The Art Newspaper, the Burlington Magazine, Apollo and the British Art Journal
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