"Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte)" (1967) by Gerhard Richter. 139.7 x 148 cm. From an auction (estimated at 9,000,000—12,000,000 USD).
From the catalogue:
Gerhard Richter is recognised as one of the foremost painters of his generation. In a career devoted to exploring the potential and diversity of his chosen medium, Richter has single-handedly suspended the conventional opposition between figurative and abstract modes to express the manifold possibilities of painting to convey how we perceive the world. In the Photopaintings of the 1960s, such as the remarkable Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte), Richter engaged explicitly with issues of perception and illusion in art, challenging the representational nature of painting. He intended the subject of the work to be the photo as an objective representation, so the work becomes a human painterly reproduction of a mechanically reproduced image of a human moment in time. The lush sophistication of Richter's liquid paint strokes, the careful modulation of tonality and the blurring of the reproduced image all highlight the artificial role of the object as art and the maker as artist.
Influenced by American Pop art, Richter formed Capitalist Realists in 1963 with Sigmar Polke and Konrad Lueg, dedicated to the objective depiction of consumerism in an increasingly bourgeois Germany. Richter's use of photographs connected him to American artists such as Andy Warhol: both chose anonymous subjects to eschew traditional painterly concerns such as color, style and composition. For Richter, "the photograph is the most perfect picture" in its negation of aesthetic pretensions. Its role is to record factual information and not, as in the case of art, to apprehend the nature of an object and try to convey that nature through the subjectivity of the artist. The art of the 1960s was to a great extent defined by its reaction to the emphasis on originality and the artist's psyche-laden content of the 1950s, and Richter was not alone in seeking a means to strip away the recent past and examine the nature of painting. Just as Andy Warhol chose commercial products and Jasper Johns chose American flags, Richter's epiphany for a discourse on art was the photographic reproduction. As Richter commented: "There was no style, no composition, no judgement. It liberated me from personal experience. There was nothing but a pure picture. I wanted to process it and show it - not to use as a means for painting but to use painting as a means for the photograph." (interview with Rolf Schön in Exh. Cat., Venice, Biennale Internazionale dell'arte, Gerhard Richter, 1972, p. 23)
Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte) is an outstanding example of Richter's investigations of female images from 1966-1967. The female nude is one of art history's most sacred and recurring genres, appearing throughout time whether in the form of primitive fertility objects or the more recent masterful interpretations of Picasso and de Kooning in the 20th century. While Picasso and de Kooning chose the female form as a vehicle for expressive representation and abstraction, Richter takes on this loaded subject in service to his more neutralized, intellectual investigations. Richter culled his sources from newspapers, magazines and photographs - many found in Atlas, his ongoing survey of the photographic images he has used to stimulate his work since the early 1960s. As Atlas reveals, unlike Warhol, Richter selects his images not for any distinguishing characteristic or celebrity, but rather for their comprehensive ordinariness. However, that is not to say his selection was completely devoid of content or emotional references. Sex and death, fundamental themes at the universal heart of human existence, appear from the beginning and frequently thereafter whether in paintings of nudes or in the later still-lifes of skulls and candles.
In the 1966-1967 paintings of female nudes, Richter chose from sensational sources. The famous group work of Acht Lernschwestern (Eight Student Nurses), painted in 1966 and in the collection of Kustmuseum, Winterthur, is the most harrowing subject in this group as it is sourced from newspaper photographs of serial killer Richard Speck's victims, all brutalized and murdered in one night in the same Chicago townhouse. Other works focusing on female nudes, such as Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte), are derived from anonymous pornographic images. Yet in the process of using such loaded images, Richter's technique negates the factual nature of the source, highlighting the inability of photography - even the most immediate of mediums - to capture truth.
The infinite subtlety of tone and mark employed in Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte) emphasizes the illusion inherent to painting as the mesmerizing beauty of the two nudes emerges from an ethereal mist of brushwork. Yet, Richter's virtuosity with paint belies the choice to emphasize the photograph as subject matter. Richter's handling of oil paint here, deftly obscured to make the object appear like a fleeting, passing moment - or more precisely a blurred photograph - verges on the sublime but also distances the viewer from the photographic source. The blurring serves many purposes: firstly, it erases or obscures the content of the image, thereby forcing the viewer to step out of the narrative framework one expects to be informed by, and to enter a more abstract domain that focuses the eye on issues of perception and conception. By feathering the paint or dragging a hard edge through the wet, still-drying pigment, Richter's paint surface creates a wonderfully dynamic effect of an image being conjured or captured at greet speed, as if the scene had been fleetingly observed. The mimesis quality of picture-making - that is, to convey information on what an object is by what it looks like - is countered and obscured by the oscillating quality of Richter's paint surface.
As Sean Rainbird has noted, "Photography supplied pictures unconnected to [Richter] in their origination, possessed of their own intrinsic objectivity and free of connotation." (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Gerhard Richter, 1992, p. 16) Photography's inherent element of chance and muted colour range appealed to the artist's aesthetic appreciation, and lent themselves easily to the softness and subtlety of his painting style. The mass reproduction of the medium subverted traditional notions of artistic creativity and originality, and Richter recognised its potential to liberate painting such as Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte) from representational obligations. It enabled the conditions he had been searching for in his painting: pictorial objectification, subversion of the conventional role of the artist-creator, and most importantly, the perception of the painting as an independent entity.