We’re rapidly approaching the big November sales here in New York, and the star at Phillips auction house will be Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild, 1987. Richter is always popular at auction, of course, but this yellowy two-panel work isn’t quite like the others. It has been shown at the prestigious Carnegie International and towers over the viewer at nearly thirteen feet wide and nine feet tall. It is currently touring Asia and is expected to sell in the range of $30 million.
We caught up with Jeremiah Evarts, who serves as Phillips’ deputy chairman for the Americas and senior international specialist of 20th-century and contemporary art, to hear more about what makes this work such a standout this season.
Richter has done a lot of paintings like these, of course. What makes this one special?
This work is among a series of nine paintings of this scale that represent the culmination of Richter’s journey into abstraction between 1982 and 1987. The majority of works from this series now reside in renowned public collections ranging from the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris to the Toyama Prefectural Museum in Japan. In the 1980s, Postmodernist critics decried the death of painting, arguing that painting—whether figurative or abstract—had nowhere else to go. Richter famously disagreed. He actually created some of his most celebrated abstract paintings in that decade, when he first explored the dimensions of all-over abstraction and the use of the squeegee. At over thirteen feet across, one of the largest works from that celebrated period, this vibrant painting is emblematic of the qualities that are most sought-after in the artist’s work. Given its size, technique and exhibition history—having been shown at both Durand-Dessert and the Carnegie International—the sale of this Abstraktes Bild at our Evening Sale in November presents a very exciting opportunity for collectors around the world.
This is a series by Richter that continues to this day. How have these paintings changed over the years? Is this one representative of those made in the 80s?
As we look back on Richter’s career, which is thankfully not over, we now see the artist’s work from the late 1980s as his explosive entrance into abstraction. In contrast to his photo-based work of the decades prior, the 1980s paintings marked Richter’s talent as one of the greatest abstract painters of our time. To have a piece from that initial moment is increasingly rare, since many of them have ended up in institutions or prominent private collections from which they will not soon be sold. Although Richter would go on to explore further the potential of abstract painting, this work from 1987 boasts a vitality so particular to the artist’s first series of abstract paintings.
This painting will have toured Asia before it goes on sale. What is Richter’s reputation and market there?
We have seen tremendous global demand for Richter over the years. In Asia, he is revered as one of the great titans of the 20th Century and this is something that has only increased with his recent move to being represented by one of the most significant international galleries operating today. The decision to bring the work to Taipei and Hong Kong was intentional. Our teams on the ground in Asia truly have their finger on the pulse of the market and what excites their local communities, so we knew that there would be a strong interest in seeing Abstraktes Bild in person. The painting being offered in our November auction now represents the most valuable work by the artist to ever be showcased in Taiwan and we look forward to welcoming those in the area through our doors.
Given the estimate, I imagine that a lot of people want this painting. Why do you think this series has seen such sustained interest over the years?
While the interest and market for Ricther’s earlier, photo-based paintings has certainly held strong, it is the large abstract paintings that have climbed in value substantially over the past ten years. Within the last ten years, seven abstract paintings by Richter have sold for over $30 million. I do not believe many living artists can boast such a sustained level of market interest. I am looking forward to seeing how the market responds to this exceptional example at Phillips this fall.
I remember seeing an abstract Richter photographed in someone’s living room in an auction catalogue and I thought, “That’s great but… actually kind of hard to decorate against.” Do potential buyers ever express similar concerns to you?
When you’re reaching the masterwork level that this painting sits within, this is honestly less of a concern for prospective buyers. The magnificence of the painting is the number one thing on people’s minds, as works of this caliber seldom appear on the market. The one thing that is of note is the monumental scale of the work. I would suggest to the new owner that they design the room around the painting, not the other way around.
What can you tell me about the seller?
I wish I could give you some insight here, but I’m afraid the consignor has requested anonymity. What will be interesting is to see who the winning bidder will be. It’s very possible that the work will go to a private collection. I would, however, love to see a museum acquire the painting. As I mentioned, most of the nine works from this large-scale series are already held by major institutions. It will be exciting to see where the work finds its new home.
This year marked Richter’s first show with David Zwirner, having shown with Marian Goodman since 1983. Does that kind of move affect the market for a work like this?
Absolutely. The move to Zwirner marks a very tangible, visible testimony to the fact that the market stands firmly behind Gerhard Richter and the works that he is still creating in his nineties. Marian Goodman played a pivotal role in championing the market for Richter, and it will be interesting to see how Zwirner builds on that momentum.