The largest collection of Gerhard Richter seascapes ever to be displayed is on view from today at Guggenheim Bilbao. The renowned German painter – widely regarded as one of the most important living artists – is celebrated for his masterfully various oeuvre, that contains both sweeping abstractions and meticulous photorealism.

In a world that has already seen myriad Richter retrospectives, here, close attention is paid to the artist’s decades-long fascination with the sea, and so offering a new – if narrow – perspective, despite the artist’s vast history with solo museum exhibitions.

Richter Seascape 1998
Seascape [Seetück], 1998. © Gerhard Richter, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

Richter worked on the Seascapes series from the late 1960s up until 1998, when he produced his finale Seascape (Seestück) – a vast, almost 3 sq m oil canvas, that affixes a tumultuous sea with a peaceful sky. As the exhibition communicates, within this 30-year period Richter’s brush moved with the waves, dancing between moments of melancholy and upbeat vacation snapshots. He once defined these works as ‘absent of opinion’. Instead, they’re philosophical musings on perception; and art’s ability to represent the natural world effectively.

As the French photographer Gustave le Grey did 100 years prior, Richter often knitted together two different photographs, in which to base his painting from. He would collage an image of the sky with an image of the sea, glued at the horizon in an illusory composition. They possess the kind of photographic realism early Richter became famous for, but they’re recreating a landscape that never existed, forecasting his later abstract work.

Gerhard Richter Seascapes exhibition at Guggenheim Bilbao
Seascape (grey) [Seetück (grau)], 1969. © Gerhard Richter, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2019

As he did with renowned works like Candle (1983) and Reader (1994), Richter made many of his photorealistic Seascape paintings appear slightly blurred – as if the photographer had been ruffled by a gust of sea air when taking the shot. It adds to the complexity of the viewing: muddling the line between photograph and painting, and tricking the eye.

Among these realistic works, that make you look twice, there’s one smaller item that diverges from the rest in both scale and feel. Seascape (Grey) [Seestück (grau)], made in 1969, uses strong abstract brushstrokes that make location, weather and positioning difficult to decipher. Is it a seascape at all? Only after layers of looking does a horizon reveal itself. It’s untouchable, distant and refracted – as it is in real life – by waves, the rocking of a ship, or a squinted eye. §