Gerhard Richter‘s abstract paintings are a visual feast of complexity and depth. Using a massive squeegee that he carefully pulls across an enormous paint-laden surface, Richter enables the imagery to bubble up from below. The visual effect is stunning. While a whole generation of painters have emulated his oleaginously lush technique, nobody does it quite like he does.

Now Richter has found another way to explore the complexity of the abstract image, but this time creating enchantment with a more mathematical, structured approach. In a new publication, Gerhard Richter: Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated, Richter has parsed the surface of one of his paintings to create a thick book of textured explorations.

This description of his process is from the book promotional material:

Richter took an image of his work “Abstract Painting” (CR: 7244) and divided it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, up to 4,096 strips. This process, involving twelve stages of division, results in 8,190 strips, each of which is reproduced here at the height of the original image. With each stage of division, the strips become progressively thinner (a strip of the 12th division is just 0.08 millimeters; further divisions would only become visible by enlargement). Each strip is then mirrored and repeated, producing an incredibly detailed patterning. The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size. The resulting 221 patterns are reproduced here on landscape spreads, making for a truly extraordinary reading-viewing book experience.

This project is fascinating and provocative on a number of levels. The book is a visual feast just on its own terms. The parsing of a shared reality object—a painting—into its multitudinous parts is a variation on the legendary video made by Ray and Charles Eames, Powers of 10. Starting with a couple picnicking by the lake, the view of the image shifts outward until our galaxy is just one speck of light among millions of others. Then, returning to earth, we move inward, down to the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule in a white blood cell. Everything is multiple, many, complex.

But Richter’s book also brings to mind Eastern meditation practices, like the descriptions of esoteric meditations techniques that train a seeker to hold the image of an elaborate structure in the mind in its fullness, down to the tiniest ornate tendril. Or the way trained eyes can look at the 2-dimensional structure depicted in a Buddhist tangka and visualize it in its 3-D fullness.

As many mystics have documented, going into a mystical state is to pass beyond the opposites of the world, to experience the union of those opposites in a “radiant burst of energy.” Milarepa‘s wisdom is that all things are present in all other things. “The state of non-duality, wherein all opposites, even good and evil, are seen as unity.”

I am left with a profound sense of how objects can become a source of power, wisdom and expansion—an idea in keeping with the spiritual intentions of many who pursue abstraction. But it is also the insistent reminder that connectedness is also fundamental, even in the face of this flourish of extravagant visual expansion.

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