Richter, Gerhard: 1024 Colours (1973)

The Independent's Great Art series

Also in this article:
About the artist

One should never underestimate the power of meaninglessness. Late 20th-century art certainly didn't. The painted void, the wholly meaningless, utterly indifferent picture, became a quest. One common solution was extremely minimal: the "monochrome", the single-coloured canvas. Another, still more powerful, was a bit more maximal. It involved a multitude of colours.

Gerhard Richter's 1024 Colours is a great wall of indifference. It consists of a regular grid of 1,024 coloured oblong units, divided by a network of white lines. It's 32 units high by 32 units wide. Each oblong is a double square, and the picture itself is approximately a double square.

Formally, it's an overtly overwhelming painting. It's very big, for one thing, almost five metres across, with a panoramic format that fills your field of vision. With its layout of repeated flat units, it faces you unremittingly. Its multiplicity is excessive: the number of its distinct bits appears as a sheer ungraspable proliferation. And its all-over grid makes it a completely full canvas, evenly occupied from top to bottom, side to side, without any slackening of visual pressure. But what exactly is there to see?

Put out some preliminary probes. Perhaps there's an image in there? For centuries, Western picture-viewers have learnt how to deal with a chaotic-looking, bits-and-pieces painting: stand back, blur your vision, and wait for something to materialise. But 1024 Colours yields nothing of that sort. These aren't pixels that resolve into a picture, or into any other kind of abstract shape or decorative pattern.

So, what about the colours themselves, do they have a sense? The painting obviously resembles a commercial colour chart. But equally obviously, its colours are not grouped together as on one of those charts. They lie scattered and mixed up, apparently at random. Nor is there any bias in the choice of colours that would establish a particular colour scheme. At a glance, it seems that all the colours in all their variations are present.

What you suspect is in fact the case. The colours have not been selected. They are a "complete" set, 1,024 different colours, devised according to a programme, and covering the full range of hue, strength and brightness. Each unit is a different colour. The large number of near-blacks are simply the darkest shades. There's no arrangement either. The colours are distributed across the grid at random. There are, of course, gazillions of possible permutations. (1,024 x 1,023 x 1,022 x... x 3 x 2 x 1 is the formula for how many.) Richter painted 1024 Colours in four different random versions. This one is the third version.

1024 Colours is, in other words, a painting all made up of colours where the choice and disposition of colours are matters of total indifference. Human design has no role in it. It might as well have been composed by a machine. It might as well have been painted by one, too. It's executed in enamel gloss, the least flexible of paints. The paint is put on uniformly, with no trace of handiwork.

The network of white lines prevents one unit of colour from touching, chiming and blending with another. Even the possibility of chance harmonies occurring among the random colours is eliminated. Colour, famous for being the most passionate element of the art of painting, is reduced to a sequence of separate neutral samples.

1024 Colours seems designed to be mute and blank, a grand negation of painting and its traditional satisfactions. Surely, whatever interest we try to take in it, it will not respond or resonate. But, strangely, this isn't so. Its very indifference becomes a kind of perfection and a kind of force. Its defiant negatives turn out to be almost indistinguishable from painting's traditional qualities.

Random distribution, for instance, is an excellent way of making a balanced composition. A chance scattering of a compendium of colours across a regular grid will generate automatically the kind of equilibrium that hand and eye would struggle to achieve. At the same time, the completeness of the palette, with every colour represented, gives a sense of great abundance, while the unpredictability of arrangement prevents this from becoming a mere glut, produces an impression of inexhaustible variety.

There is a constant dialogue between parts and whole. Presented with a variegated surface, your eye naturally seeks patterns in it, subdivisions, some kind of internal order. With 1024 Colours, it can have a transient success, as it latches on to, say, the undulations and knots made by some of the lighter units. The field of multicoloured bits is endlessly generative of these configurations.

But these patterns can never be fixed on securely. Your eye is always likely to be thrown outwards towards the picture as a whole, with its firmly sustaining structure of rows and columns. Alternatively, your eye falls inwards, upon the individual oblongs of colour, which may be picked out, one by one, each one transmitting its singular identity.

Thus, this wholly indifferent composition performs like a great classical masterpiece. It achieves, without trying, the classical virtues of balance, plenitude, variety, unity-in-multiplicity, inexhaustible richness. Though constructed on the model of a colour chart, it comes to feel like a real painting.

In fact, it's a much stronger work than any actual classical masterpiece. Next to it, every handcrafted, human-designed painting is going to look vulnerable, flawed, wonky. It will be making gestures, having ideas, trying to do things that almost certainly won't quite come off.

1024 Colours has no purposes that can fail, no impulse within it that might disturb its performance. It works by itself. Its magnificence is 100 per cent reliable, 100 per cent risk-free. In fact, it's more like an exposing parody of those classical virtues (balance, abundance, unity etc), demonstrating how they can be delivered, in pure form, with no struggle, just by applying a programme and throwing a dice.

The artist

Gerhard Richter (born 1932) hasn't stopped painting. Though suffering a total loss of belief in his art, he kept going. He has been compared to the Christian theologian who said, "I believe because it is absurd". East-German born, trained in Socialist Realism, he came West and practised a form of Pop Art he called Capitalist Realism. He has painted images transcribed from found photos. He has painted abstractions generated by chance and mechanical operations. He has painted pure grey pictures and colour charts. He tries to detach painting from its traditional values: observational truth, expressive handiwork, creativity. He is a technical wizard, with a genius for self-effacement, so his work acquires the mystery and authority of something that's appeared from nowhere.

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?