Demystifying Gerhard Richter’s gestural abstraction: Painting in the gap between abstract expressionism and pop art
by Herbert R. Hartel, Jr.
In the mid-1970s, Gerhard Richter began making large, colorful, tactile abstract paintings whose sketchy, rough, and blurry effects make us aware of the tools and techniques used and the complicated pictorial thinking involved.1 Sometimes paint is applied with brushes, but more often it is smeared, dabbed, rubbed, blotted, streaked, and dripped with house painting brushes, palette knives, squeegees, and pieces of wood or glass. The emphatic paint textures created may be sensuous or plain, coarse or smooth, even or inconsistent. The shapes created are irregular, vague, incomplete, overlapped, and compressed. These paintings have been described as “gestural” or “painterly,” although Richter refers to them as his “Abstracts,” and they now constitute the largest and most consistent portion of his enormous, erratic oeuvre. They have made him one of the leading abstract painters of the last 40 years and have been the subject of much discussion, yet a cogent, plausible understanding of them is still needed. How should we interpret, respond to, and contextualize them art historically? These works have been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Expressionism, but are not easily situated in any of these. They are most frequently interpreted as examples of the problems and complexities of postmodern painting. Scholars have concluded that Richter’s work demonstrates that painting since the 1960s has become meaningless and irrelevant and that expression and content are no longer possible, intended, or desired. They claim that he is causing this deconstruction of painting, that his work is as much a part of the process as it is indicative of it. The problem with these interpretations is that they are counter intuitive to the creative impulse and replace it with postmodern theoretical discourse. How is it possible for an artist to devote his life to such a nihilistic project as destroying the importance, appeal, and efficacy of his own creations? These interpretations linger even though Richter has refuted them in numerous statements and interviews over the years. Scholars often mistakenly take Richter’s comments about his technical process and visual thinking as explanations of meaning and purpose.
These interpretations relate Richter’s abstract paintings to Conceptual Art since they claim his works explore ideas about contemporary painting and are not important as individual images. The supposed historical self-awareness and reflexive ontology of Richter’s paintings are basic to postmodernism and related to Conceptual Art. Although they do not seem as expressive, emotive, spiritual, or philosophical as the mid-century abstract painting to which they are visually most similar, they are not as detached, aloof, and impenetrable as usually thought. Realizing this requires looking at them without imposing theoretical agendas on intuitive responses or substituting them for artistic purpose. We must remember that artworks that are connected stylistically sometimes convey or elicit very different ideas, responses, and feelings. The connection of Richter’s abstractions to Neo-Expressionism seems logical at first because this movement originated in Germany around the time Richter began making these works. However, if Richter is questioning and undermining expression and meaning, how is he part of a movement that supposedly revitalized painting and its expressive capabilities? Moreover, Neo-Expressionism is such a broad and varied movement that it seems almost a moot point to debate Richter’s place in it.
Richter’s abstract paintings have definite stylistic affinities to Abstract Expressionism in their painterliness, residual evidence of technical processes, bold and powerful effects of color and light, and large scale. Yet they are obviously different in their aesthetic, emotive, and expressive effects. What explains their ambivalent similarity to Abstract Expressionism? They are better understood if their relationship to Pop Art is reconsidered. Pop Art is the mitigating bridge to earlier abstraction that helps explain this complex relationship. This is not surprising since Richter’s career blossomed in the early 1960s, shortly after he moved to West Germany and immersed himself in modernist painting and abandoned the Socialist Realism he studied in his youth. This was just when Pop Art was rapidly gaining attention and acclaim and Abstract Expressionism was falling into historical context. In the 1960s Richter was very interested in Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. His abstract paintings evolved as he absorbed, reinterpreted, and synthesized various aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. The connection between Richter and Pop Art is rooted in his blurry paintings based on photographs of his youth, family, Germany during and after World War II, current events, and political issues, such as “Uncle Rudi” (1965), “Eight Student Nurses” (1966), and “October 18, 1977” (1988). Since these emulate but distort mass media imagery, they have been associated with Pop Art, and Richter became a major proponent of the style in Europe. Over the years, critics have related everything Richter has done to Pop Art in one way or another. Richter’s drastic shifting among different painting styles has further complicated how his work has been interpreted. He demonstrates how stylistic development has become so complex, unpredictable, and erratic since the 1960s. In spite of widely accepted postmodernist theories which suggest otherwise, we still expect an artist to develop in a rather linear, orderly, logical way and are surprised when he does not.
Lichtenstein’s paintings of brushstrokes, such as “Little Big Painting” and “Big Painting No. 6” (both 1965),2 make us acutely aware that a painting consists of brushstrokes and marks of paint deliberately created. Done in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, they seem to be satirical criticisms or expressions of doubt about the philosophical and spiritual capabilities of painting, especially abstraction, and attempt to demystify its aesthetic and expressive possibilities. Lichtenstein’s diagrammatic isolation of a few brushstrokes in the manner of comic book illustration parallels Richter’s fascination with paint marks and brushstrokes, which often led him to a curious arbitrariness and ambivalence in his disconnected, barely modeled paint application. Whereas “Red-Blue- Yellow” [Catalogue Raisonné 330] (1972) is a jumble of squiggly brushstrokes, “Abstract Painting” [CR 398–1] (1976) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 432–8] (1978) feature distinct brushstrokes described emphatically while evading emotion. In the earlier painting the scattered gray and white paint lines are most noticeable, while in the later painting the most conspicuous brushstrokes are the intersecting broad areas of blue and yellow. Many of Richter’s early abstract paintings were based on photographic close-ups of paint surfaces. In “July” [CR 526] (1983), narrow strokes of green, broad patches of lightly shaded gray, red, yellow, and scribbles of orange create a composition with sharply discordant colors and textures and unevenly dispersed shapes. Richter has discussed his pursuit of “rightness” in pictorial composition, color, and technique, but this idea about painting seems anachronistic today. “July” offers an elusive resolution of purely abstract elements rooted in Pop Art’s vivid, gaudy colors.
In “Abstract Painting” [CR 551–6] (1984), swirling streaks of gray and green and broad, thick, slightly modulated brushstrokes of dark green and brown allude to the evocative possibilities of painterly abstraction, but never achieve the potent feeling or genuine sensitivity of Abstract Expressionism because Richter’s technique is not as fluid and elegant. This composition is rather similar to Gottlieb’s Bursts (1957 – 74), except the irregular, brushy forms across the bottom of Gottlieb’s paintings are more nuanced and indicative of the artist’s presence and feeling. Richter is receptive to Lichtenstein’s skepticism about the mystique of painting but does not completely agree with it. The complex relationship between Richter and Abstract Expressionism is apparent if Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 587–5] (1985) is compared to de Kooning’s large abstractions of the late 1950s, such as “Palisade” (1957). In de Kooning’s painting, violently brushed areas of blue, brown, and tan streak, twist, and crash into one another, while Richter’s painting features a large red blotch, spiky black lines, and broadly scraped marks of green. Both have lots of blue and brown, but Richter’s are so smoothly rendered as to suggest a landscape background, while de Kooning fluidly integrates these colors spatially with more spontaneous, liberated rendering and traditional blending of different colors and tones. De Kooning achieves a cohesion of forms, textures, and colors that Richter fails to achieve and probably never attempted. In the de Kooning we sense genuine self-revelation and feeling. This is much less apparent in the Richter, and Pop Art’s filtration of earlier abstraction is the reason.
From 1969 to 1972, Lichtenstein did numerous paintings about mirrors and their reflections that used the Ben-Day dot system and various illustration techniques to explore these complex visual phenomena. These paintings may be mildly satirical comments on Greenbergian modernism’s ideas on the absence of space when total flatness is achieved. This series led to the merging of the mirror surface with the painting surface in works like “Mirror # 3 (Six Panels)” (1971),3 which are purely abstract in their own right. Richter has often explored the picture surface in similar ways. “Abstract Painting” [CR 554–2] (1984) has broad areas of blue, gray, and yellow-green that are smoothly rendered in most areas, except their intersecting, overlapping contours make it seem as if they squirm against one another as they confront or cling to the picture plane. The long, bent marks of green and orange on the left are similar in pictorial effect to the short parallel lines commonly used in illustrations to indicate reflections in mirrors and other shiny surfaces. “Abstract Painting” [CR 630–4] (1987) has rectangular areas of evenly-textured blue and yellow-green applied with a paint roller that engage the picture plane and attempt to merge with it. In the late 1980s and after, with the enormous “January” [CR 699] (1989) and “Abstract Painting” [CR 840–5] (1997), Richter’s fusion of painting and picture plane is virtually complete. Both Lichtenstein and Richter flaunt the mass printing methods that they have employed or imitated. Richter uses squeegees, sponges, wood, and plastic strips to scrape, flatten, abrade, and congeal paint in an even, consistent way over the entire canvas. The use of various implements creates systematic, mechanical effects of textures and colors that mitigate the expressive connection usually expected between a painter and his media.
Warhol demonstrated for Richter some of the most salient aspects of Pop Art, like serial repetition, even dispersal of compositional elements, the blunt presentation of the subject, and the quasi-expressive distortion possible with vivid, garish colors and other visual effects derived from advertising, packaging, and mass printing. Richter absorbed these innovations into a more expressive, abstract mode. He has said he was particularly fascinated with Warhol’s ability to obscure and dissolve images and that he was moved emotionally by his Death and Disasters series. This series consisted of paintings in which Warhol silkscreeened photographs of electric chairs, automobile accidents, suicides, murders, and similarly disturbing subjects onto canvases and probed their meanings by repeating the same photographs, adding vivid colors, blurring, fading, and shifting the photographs while printing them, and altering their scale. Serial repetition and the strict emulation of commercial imagery are first apparent in Richter’s abstractions in his color chart paintings of the late-1960s, in which many small rectangles of single hues are evenly dispersed on the canvas. These were based on color charts produced by paint manufacturers. Although their subject is typical of Pop Art, their flatness, composition uniformity, and large size are just as characteristic of Color Field painting. They are a virtually perfect merger of these separate but concurrent movements.
Warhol’s influence on Richter’s abstract paintings is most apparent in his work of the past 25 years. “Abstract Painting” [CR 758–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 759–1] (both 1992) are two examples of how serial repetition across the composition is the primary visual effect. In the first, silvery gray vertical streaks cling to the picture plane as paler tones between them suggest depth. In the second, a sketchy grid of purple-gray blotches and streaks has the look and feel of an early Warhol silkscreen painting. “Abstract Painting” [CR 795] (1993) is a good example of Richter’s success in combining serial repetition with deliberate fading and blurring. Vertical strips of green, red, blue, and orange rendered as fuzzy, hazy forms create horizontal vibrations on the canvas. This suggests that the painting presents a frame from a film of totally abstract images or a ruined and stained film, forever changing yet never really doing so. Warhol used repetition, fading, and blurring for emotional resonance very effectively in “Marilyn Diptych” (1962),4 creating an elegiac mood appropriate for the untimely death of the actress. Richter often uses blurring and fading in his paintings based on photographs, where their emotional impact is similar. In the past 25 years, he has often used the same pictorial devices in his abstractions to evoke similar emotions.
“Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] (1992) is particularly interesting because it is an expressive abstract image based heavily on what Richter learned from Warhol. It features a grid-like array of white square areas tainted with blue and yellow. Oil paint has been textured methodically but creatively with large brushes and squeegees on the smooth metallic surface to create long, thin lines that make the shapes appear to shimmer and vibrate horizontally. Small areas of bright red are dispersed across the composition; some are rectangular blotches of thick, smooth paint and others are drips and streaks of fluid paint. This manipulation of red conveys a sense of shock, danger, and violence similar to Warhol’s Death and Disasters. A good comparison with Richter’s painting may be made with Warhol’s “Red Disaster,”5 in which a photograph of an electric chair is drenched in red ink and repeatedly printed as blurry in a grid-like arrangement on the canvas. Richter has admitted to his concerns about social malaise, psychological alienation, death, loss, and self-doubt, which he observed during his childhood in post-World War II Germany as the damage done by the war to many Germans became apparent. Warhol’s “Statue of Liberty” (1962)6 is intriguingly similar to Richter’s painting in its emotively suggestive impact. This painting repeats a photograph of the American monument as blurred, hazy, and tilted with empty space on the left while large areas of blue and gray and smaller areas of bright red stain the printed and altered photographs. Warhol has shocked the viewer with the unsettled, endangered, and violated presentation of this American icon. However, his blunt repetition and lack of personal touch ultimately render his meaning uncertain, and our initial emotional response is quickly halted. Warhol said that emotional responses to these provocative and disturbing photographs were neutralized by their abundant reproduction in the news media, that this desensitized viewers to the horrors shown. Richter’s abstract paintings often do very much the same thing.
The vivid, garish, and clashing colors in many of Richter’s abstract paintings were probably inspired by those Pop artists who exaggerated the simplified, bold, and eye-catching qualities of magazine illustrations, posters, signs, and billboards. Rosenquist’s billboard paintings demonstrate how the intense, vibrant, and sensuous qualities of his subjects are made acutely obvious, gaudy, overwhelming, and chaotic through abrupt and improbable juxtapositions of forms, the extreme distortion and intensification of shapes, colors, and textures, and compositions where crowding, overlapping, and bizarre scale play with our recognition and interpretation of the familiar. Richter has known Rosenquist since at least 1970, when they met in Cologne, and he saw his work there and in New York City that year. Some of Rosenquist’s billboard paintings of the 1970s and 1980s are quite similar to Richter’s abstractions from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s. Since the 1970s, Rosenquist has explored an increasingly wider range of subjects, including the cosmic, supernatural, and imaginary, and his style has often become more abstract, with lurid, dazzling, and startling colors as well as extreme, surprising textures that often clash visually.
Richter’s “Clouds” [CR 514–1] (1982) is a large horizontal canvas with broad brushstrokes of dark green across the top, smoother, wider areas of blue across the bottom, and dabs and streaks of orange textured with squeegees and trowels on the right. The most jarring aspect of this painting is that the blue which we would assume is the sky is illogically located in the bottom of the composition, as if the world is upside-down. Such bizarre transformations and dislocations are common in Rosenquist’s paintings and have become more extreme over the years. They are apparent in “Star Thief” (1980), in which a sliced view of a woman’s face, bacon, and various metallic forms float in outer space, and “The Bird of Paradise Approaches the Hot Water Planet” (1989), in which a colorful bird-insect creature passes through layers of thick clouds with the radiant yellow light of a sun filling the space behind it. Richter’s “Pavillion” [CR 489–1] (1982) consists of firmly isolated areas of disparate colors and textures with irregular, barely described contours, including smooth areas of blue and green, mottled lava-like orange, and wavy strokes of gray. This painting seems to contain abstract equivalents to the atomic blasts, clouds, astronauts, and canned spaghetti in Rosenquist’s “F-111” (1964 – 65). Richter’s “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] (1986) is a tour de force of vivid, explosive colors and extremely rich, sensuous textures, which vary from flowing, lava-like orange on the right to darker tan on the left, plus dry streaks of green and indigo scattered across the composition but mostly gathered in the left and center. A precisely rendered, dark triangular form that resembles a designer’s ruled square juts into the foreground through an opening in these clumps and masses of paint. It is similar to many of Rosenquist’s later paintings in its vivid, lush, and unrealistic textures and colors.
Although Richter’s abstract paintings were affected greatly by the aesthetics of Pop Art, they have no connection to most of the subjects that Pop Art usually explored. Despite being visually related to Abstract Expressionism, they are not particularly spiritual, philosophical, introspective, cathartic, or existential. The best explanation of what they mean actually comes from Richter, but it has long been buried under verbose theory. He has said that these abstract paintings are visualizations of imaginary places and experiences, of what has been conceived and invented by the artistic imagination. This is similar to the changing themes in Rosenquist’s works in the 1970s and 1980s, to his bizarre, fantastic, and dreamlike subjects, although Rosenquist’s paintings have always remained representational. Richter’s pursuit of pictorial “rightness” in his abstract paintings, of organizing and balancing the components of a composition for visual, emotive, and expressive impact, is also essential to their meaning. This is as traditional as it is timeless, but some of his works are clearly more effective than others in this respect. “Abstract Painting” [CR 591–2] and “Abstract Painting” [CR 778–2] seem to have this elusive pictorial “rightness,” when colors, textures, shapes, and forms come together in an image that is whole, appealing, and captivating.
- To see the Richter paintings discussed in this essay, consult gerhard-richter. com.
- See, respectively, whitney.org/ Collection/RoyLichtenstein/662, lichtensteinfoundation.org/0391.htm.
- See artic.edu/aic/collections/ artwork/184362.
- See tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ warhol-marilyn-diptych-t03093.
- See mfa.org/collections/object/ red-disaster-34765.
- See http://www.warhol.org/ArtCollections. aspx?id=1541.
- For the works by James Rosenquist, see http://www.jimrosenquist-artist.com.
HERBERT R. HARTEL, JR. received his doctorate in modern, contemporary and American art from the CUNY Graduate Center and his B.A. in studio art and art history from Queens College. He has taught at Hofstra University, Baruch College, John Jay College, and Parsons School of Design. He has published articles in Source: Notes in the History of Art, Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and New York History, and numerous reviews in The Art Book and Cassone: The Online Magazine of Art. He is particularly interested in 20th century American art, abstraction, and symbolism.