Gerhard Richter - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "With its palimpsest and fissures of pure color, Abstraktes Bild is one of the most impressive works of this period. It is unique in its wonderful sense of rupture, which renders layer upon layer visible, and the exquisite balance with darker tonalities that lends the painting considerable depth. Its distinct clarity of composition anticipates the purest articulation of Richter's signature style in the 1990s."
    — Cheyenne Westphal, Global Chairwoman

    A stunning example of the artist’s abstract works, Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (678-1) represents both the artist’s unrelenting formal innovation as well as his career-long quest to probe the natures of truth, perception, and reality. Completed at  a major highpoint in the artist’s career, when Richter truly established himself as a wholly peerless artist, the present work represents a culmination of Richter’s decades-long exploration of abstraction, a mode of representation that had consumed his career since his first shift from figuration in the late 1960s. Richter’s practice has always oscillated between interrogations of the formal capabilities of the two approaches to painting, often blending both abstraction and figuration into hybrid styles. Richter has intensively examined the successes and failures of both forms of artmaking; his first mature abstractions, and those that have since received the greatest international attention, were those in the late 1980s that, like the present work, incorporate the artist's innovative “squeegee” technique, inviting chance into the creation of the work. Abstraktes Bild is a stunning example of this breakthrough in the artist’s approach to painting, representing not only his ongoing inquisition of the artform but also the unending innovation with which he approaches his craft. 

    "With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can neither be seen nor understood."
    — Gerhard Richter


    Calculated Chance


    Abstraktes Bild is a powerful example of Richter’s countercultural affirmation of his practice when conceptual art had eclipsed painting as the dominant force in the international art world. In the mid-1980s, Richter started utilizing a homemade squeegee to smear and scrape paint across his canvases. A counterpoint to modernism’s fetishism of the artist’s hand, his use of the squeegee introduced a new instrument, the effect of which straddles the line between intention and coincidence.  Utilizing a wet-on-wet procedure, in which he applied the top shade before the prior layers completely dried, Richter created distinctive formations of paint that both melt into each other and separate in a complex lattice of vivid metamorphoses of colors.


    Rebelling against the anti-painting stance of the international avant-garde, who had declared the death of the medium in the 1980s, Richter assumed a reactionary defense that became revolutionary in its own right. By using a squeegee to incorporate elements of uncertainty into his work, Richter adapted the transcendent coincidence of contemporaneous conceptual art to the age-old artform. By the time he completed Abstraktes Bild at the end of that decade, Richter had mastered the use of the squeegee and forged a unique and profound mature style. The squeegee "is the most important implement for integrating coincidence into his art. For years, he used it sparingly, but he came to appreciate how the structure of paint applied with a squeegee can never be completely controlled,” Dietmar Elger observed. “It thus introduces a moment of surprise that often enables him to extricate himself from a creative dead-end, destroying a prior, unsatisfactory effort and opening the door to a fresh start.”i



    The chance effect of Richter’s idiosyncratic process partially removes the artist’s hand from each composition as he distorts the surface of the work, creating quasi-mechanical palimpsests of richly layered color. As Richter, however, crucially pointed out, “above all, it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that’s 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.”ii 
"When I look out of the window, then truth for me is the way nature shows itself in its various tones, colors and proportions."
    — Gerhard Richter 

Richter’s reveling in the lyricxal potential of chance demonstrates a strong affinity with that of the great experimental composer John Cage. Cage’s concept of the impossibility of saying nothing once a frame of communication had been constructed—as emptiness would then have the ability to speak—resonates beautifully within Richter’s abstract oeuvre. Richter first encountered Cage, after whom he would later name one of his most celebrated series of abstractions, when the composer gave a performance at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1960s in which he wrote with a microphone attached to a pen, resulting in the transmission of the scratching sound of the pen as it moved across the paper. Describing his abstract compositions as “something musical,” Richter similarly demonstrates a willingness to allow spontaneity into his workiii. Richter’s abstract paintings are constructed with a structure in mind, but ultimately, as his adagio expressions unfold, individual cadences of both dissonant and consonant color take on a life of their own as they unfold with the tempos of a symphony—where moments of delightful silence are followed by utter grandeur.

  • A Journey to Abstraction

  • Glimpses of Truth


    Richter’s primary artistic concerns deal with the triumphs and failures of painting in the contemporary era and the capabilities of perception and representation, issues he has addressed since his early photo-paintings. All of his works confront these issues using a distinct intellectual ambivalence and a devout adherence to traditional language of painting. Richter, a reverent student of the history of art, conceptualizes the canvas using the terms first postulated by Leon Battista Alberti in the 15th Century, as a finestra aperta which offers glimpses into fictive realities. He asserts that his paintings offer indistinct views into the unassailable truths of reality, articulated in an indecipherable and incomprehensible language; they are “fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”  


    Claude Monet, Weeping Willow, 1920-1922. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, Image credit © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Adrien Didierjean

    "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 live heaven and hell, gods and devils. With abstract painting we create a better means of approaching what can be neither seen nor understood." 
    — Gerhard Richter

    In all of his experimentations with abstraction, from the semi-abstract breakthrough Tisch (Table) in 1962 to the grand, richly textured compositions of the present, Richter has forged a unique model for the relation of abstraction to its sources in the material experiences of the world. This model does not strive to achieve the traditional idealized image of an aesthetic, harmonious composition, but rather endeavors to reveal to the viewer the fundamental verities of lived experience, the imprecision, uncertainty, transience, and incompleteness of reality.



    A triumph among his early mature abstracts, Abstraktes Bild presents Richter’s dilemma concerning the inadequacy of representation in both formal and conceptual terms: covered in thickly applied layers of paint, the work hints at a sublime eternal truth that exists within the canvas, one that is only partially revealed in the palimpsests of pigment that hover behind vibrating striations of painterly texture. Passages of vibrant color, archaeological evidence of lower layers of color, shine through below velvet washes of black and green, alternately poured onto and scraped away from the canvas to create thick cloaks of color; Abstrakes Bild reflects this murky inexactness of perception and the grasping inadequacy of representation. In this sense, his abstract works address the same issues of truth and perception as his figurative paintings do in their nebulous renderings of found and decontextualized photographs, instead in the sublime metaphysical language of abstraction: Are painting’s efforts to represent truth futile? In our attempts to imitate truth, do we obscure it? Can truth truly be apprehended? Ever skeptical, Richter leaves these questions unanswered; instead, he presents the viewer with silent meditations on “transparency and opacity, proximity and distance, forgetting, remembering, and expecting.”iv


    Cut from the Archives 


    i Dietmar Elger, Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting, Chicago, 2009, p. 251.
    ii Gerhard Richter, quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, ed., Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting—Writings 1962-1993, London, 1995, p. 159.
    iii Gerhard Richter, quoted in Benjamin Buchloh, “Interview with Gerhard Richter,” Gerhard Richter: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1988, p. 28
    iv Peter Osborne, quoted in Andre Rottman, Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2020, p. 82.

    • Provenance

      Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
      Private Collection
      Alan Koppel Gallery, Chicago
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Gerhard Richter: Werkubersicht / Catalogue Raisonné 1962 – 1993, vol. III, exh. cat., Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 1993, no. 678-1, p. 185 (illustrated, n.p.)
      Dietmar Elger, ed., Gerhard Richter: Catalogue Raisonné 1988-1994, vol. 4 (Nos. 652-1 – 805-6), Ostfildern, 2015, no. 678-1, p. 176 (illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Gerhard Richter

      German • 1932

      Powerhouse painter Gerhard Richter has been a key player in defining the formal and ideological agenda for painting in contemporary art. His instantaneously recognizable canvases literally and figuratively blur the lines of representation and abstraction. Uninterested in classification, Richter skates between unorthodoxy and realism, much to the delight of institutions and the market alike. 

      Richter's color palette of potent hues is all substance and "no style," in the artist's own words. From career start in 1962, Richter developed both his photorealist and abstracted languages side-by-side, producing voraciously and evolving his artistic style in short intervals. Richter's illusory paintings find themselves on the walls of the world's most revered museums—for instance, London’s Tate Modern displays the Cage (1) – (6), 2006 paintings that were named after experimental composer John Cage and that inspired the balletic 'Rambert Event' hosted by Phillips Berkeley Square in 2016. 

      View More Works

Property of an American Private Collector


Abstraktes Bild (678-1)

signed, inscribed and dated “678-1 Richter 1988” on the reverse
oil on canvas
38 1/4 x 36 1/4 in. (97.2 x 92.1 cm)
Painted in 1988.

Full Cataloguing

$3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for $4,265,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278 


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020