Untitled (Drawings for SDI) is a previously unknown group of 21 individually signed drawings from 1986, which radically illustrate Gerhard Richter’s working method regarding large format abstract paintings. When it comes to his work process, Richter has mostly been reserved. The 21 drawings visualize for the first time how he conceived some of his monumental abstractions, in particular the 320 x 400 cm painting SDI. Each drawing builds upon a Xeroxed template, which was refined step by step using pencil, oil crayon, and watercolor. After transferring the final result onto the canvas, Richter reworked it with the squeegee.
Well, the beginning is actually quite easy, because I can still be quite free about the way I handle things – colours, shapes. And so a picture emerges that may look quite good for a while, so airy and colourful and new. But that will only last for a day at most, at which point it starts to look cheap and fake. And then the real work begins – changing, eradicating, starting again, and so on, until it‘s done. – Gerhard Richter
Dieter Schwarz: Gerhard Richter Drawings (1963–2020) excerpt from catalogue essay, 2022
The 21 drawings show in an exemplary manner that Richter was pursuing the question of how to justify the composition of an abstract painting even in the mid-1980s, when his abstractions already appeared rather powerful and self-assured. The fact that Richter signed and dated them sheet by sheet shows that he did not regard the studies as studio material, but granted them general validity. They are the only studies of this kind that he released, with the exception of those for the two murals in the Victoria Insurance office building in Düsseldorf from the same year, which he included in the Atlas. While the Victoria studies are concerned both with composition and with the relationship between works, space and public, the SDI drawings focus solely on questions of composition.
The 21 studies for the painting “SDI” dating from 1986 were a surprise. These are the only studies for an abstract painting to have survived; they demonstrate the way Richter created fictive pictorial spaces with illusionistic means, and how he played and experimented with different versions. In the end, he painted a “solution” arrived at in this way onto two large-scale canvases with the help of a projector and then worked over them with a squeegee until only vestiges of the original image could be seen underneath the multiple layers of paint. Thus, Richter was able to realize what he himself has said about his painting, namely that his “initial intention is always to achieve a complete picture with a correct and composed motif” but then he “goes through rather a lot of trouble to undermine this objective bit by bit”. - Dieter Schwarz, 2022
The painting’s title derives from the “Strategic Defense Initiative” launched by American president Ronald Reagan in 1983, which was the subject of controversial public debate at the time the painting was made. Richter described the painting as a “big science-fiction sky or something dramatic along those lines.” Regarding the spontaneously chosen title, he remarked, “it has something to do with the paining, probably more than I thought at the time, and at the same time it shows something about the fundamental powerlessness of paintings in the face of such and similar realities.”