The sheer size of Richter's oeuvre, over 2000 paintings, and the fiendish delight with which he likes to mislead any interpretation of his work or himself, form a formidable barrier against the understanding of his abstract works. To illustrate this difficulty I iattached a number of videos, in which Richter speaks for himself. The videos also give an idea of the physical size of his canvases, which is lost in any reproduction.
For the duration of this discussion I shall stay away from the large number of analyses of his work in order to first see, what I could observe myself. Ever since Heinrich Wölfflin, art criticism has been apt to analyze the painterly details, brush strokes, color schemes, and painting histories of an artist's work. Together with highly enlarged photographs of a painting's surface this method produces details, which in Richter's case yield very little or no insight.
My first discovery was that after his initial two decades of attempting to “unsharpen” the certainty of “Photo-Realism,” Richter began in the early 1980s to arrange his Abstract Paintings in groups, sets, or cycles, which though nameless, circumambulate a common subject – or vision. Such successive visions occur in intense meditation exercises on a central theme. They are mental images disconnected from “reality” and can take completely abstract forms defying space and time. Not surprisingly Richter refuses to describe the visions underlying his paintings, except that he insists that they are devoid of rational mentation, surpass time and space, and cannot be described in words or analytical terms.
Technically, it became obvious that such a unified vision could only be made visible by arranging the various images of his mental aspects in coherent sets next to each other. Such an arrangement is easily achieved in the present format, it has not been attempted in the various existing critical publications. I have tried to hold my commentary to the barest minimum to persuade the viewer to first see for himself. The success of this form of presentation is left to the judgment of the reader.
Series of paintings have been tried by other painters. An example is Kandinsky's “Composition VII” (1913) which consists of four large canvases and innumerable sketches. A monumental piece of work, the gestation of which was carefully photographed by Gabriele Münther (Lenbachhaus, München). However, there is a fundamental difference between Kandinsky and Richter. K. meticulously and consciously altered details, strokes, shapes and colors of each subsequent version, which are in fact “stages,” precursors to the “final” painting (Tretyakov, Moscow). Notwithstanding their chaotic appearance every minute detail, every curlicue and shape was carefully planned by Kandinsky. Nothing is left to chance – while in Richter's abstracts spontaneous chance is the single most important driving force. By comparison Kandinsky's abstracts produce a mechanistic boredom in the viewer the longer he looks, while Richter's are full of inexhaustible, unexpected surprises.
And therein lies the beauty of Richter's abstract paintings. This is perhaps most easily seen in his watercolors. Much smaller than his “Abstracts” and exuberantly colorful their beauty should strike even the hardened skeptic. My experience with his larger, more subdued abstracts is that their beauty becomes an almost palpable experience when one is surrounded by them in their full size. Reproductions are only poor substitutes. I insist that it is the spontaneity of Richter's method of applying paint, which gives the large abstracts their life. As an example look at the “Forest” series.
The reference to Kandinsky raises another interesting question about Richter. Kandinsky is known to have been a synesthete, that is, he had the gift of synesthesia, i.e., of seeing colored shapes when listening to music. People with this gift, a connection between the auditory and the visual neural cords, are exceptionally shy and secretive about their experiencing these “virtual” images, which they consider an intrusion into their thinking. During the past 20 years synesthesia has attracted the attention of the neurologists. I recommend a comprehensive internet article on the subject by Richard Cytowic.
Does Richter see images to music? This question has, to my knowledge, never been raised, undoubtedly because Richter's work does not exhibit the defined shapes that generally characterize synesthetic visions. Kandinsky's work after 1920 (Musee Pompidou) is completely dominated by such shapes. Does Richter overpaint his initial synesthetic visions?
In 2006 Richter painted a cycle of twelve 200x200-cm canvases, which he entitled “Cage” - in the singular. He dedicated them to the memory of the composer John Cage (1912-1992). Except for this unusual reference it is not easy to hear the connection between Richter's paintings and Cage's music. However, John Cage – who was much more talkative than Richter - provides us with a number of revelations which apparently attracted Richter and may illuminate his work. Cage, in defiance of conventional, post-Schoenberg, serial music, disregards harmonies, standard structure, timing and rhythm in his compositions in favor of employing a completely “abstract,” spontaneous free-style. Cage, in his own words, is deeply indebted to Far Eastern music in more than a simple imitative way. He used, for example, the Chinese “I Ging” as an instrument to select the sequencing of his compositions. - I refrain from explicitly connecting Cage's explanations to Richter and attach a you-tube video-performance of Cage's “In the Name of the Holocaust” played by Margaret Leng Tang (you-tube, 2 min).
While these questions intrude on Richter's personal sphere - and would be resented by him - the theory of the development of human consciousness by Jean Gebser does not. Gebser (1905-1973), a German-Swiss philosopher, linguist and poet is virtually unknown except among a small circle of followers. I attach an essay by Ed Mahood on Gebser's complex magnum opus, “Ursprung und Gegenwart” (English translation: “The Ever-present Origin”, Ohio Univ. Press, 1986).
Gebser perceives the development of man in four stages separated by quantum jumps of human consciousness: Archaic, Magical, Mythical, and Mental. Each level is characterized by a new ability and understanding of man and nature, which he traces to well-founded archeolgical evidence (e.g. cave paintings), literature (Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Petrarch), and changes in social structure (invention of tools, maternal-patriarchal societies, monotheism, the Renaissance).
Later he posits and develops the hypothesis that we are experiencing another quantum jump to an “aperspective, multivalent and diaphanous (transparent) world” which he calls “Integral.” The three spatial coordinates and their “fourth dimension” (Einstein) lose their separate autonomy. Man turns to an aperspective, arational, acausal, i.e., integral paradigm. Gebser illustrates this development with numerous images and quotations from science, literature, music, and the visual arts. The arational works of Richter and Cage would have been excellent examples for his argument.