PAINTING, ON FILM
Gerhard Richter Painting, a new documentary on the 80-year-old German artist Gerhard Richter, takes us right into his Cologne studio. Devoting most of its screen time to the artist at work, the 97-minute-long film was shot largely between April and September 2009, while he was preparing for an exhibition of abstract paintings at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. Quiet, clean and spare, it is uncluttered by excessive interviews, dialogue or biography.
This is the magic of the film, which all but lays bare the mysteries of Richter’s method and shows him actually making his pictures, something many artists do not allow (notably Barnett Newman, who permitted a camera to witness him mixing his paints, and nothing more). For this we have the artist to thank -- as well as the film’s artful director, Corinna Belz, who in 2007 made a short on Richter’s stained-glass window for the Cologne Cathedral.
In Painting we see the artist perusing buckets of colored pigment before picking one and approaching the canvas with confidence; we hear the rustling bristles of his brush against the surface, and the hair-raising squeak of paint applied in thick swaths to large squeegees, his signature tool; we see him carefully place those stiff sheets of plastic on the canvas and push them slowly, laboriously across it, with all of his weight. Richter tends to move about his studio in fits and starts, attacking his paintings, which he says can’t be controlled by him but instead “do what they want,” with bold strokes, then stepping back to pause and observe. He eyes his work suspiciously, like a boxer in the ring.
As one might expect, Richter’s work on any one canvas is provisional. If he looks at it too long, he says, he is prone to paint over it in frustration -- and even paintings he thinks he likes at first “won’t survive long.” In one telling scene, Richter moves away from a thick, multi-layered yellow canvas with a surface like the moon. “I’ll let it be. It looks good now,” he says, “but that will last for two hours, maybe. The risk is that I whitewash it.” His third wife, Sabine Moritz-Richter, is standing beside him. “All the more reason to put it away,” she smirks.
Shy and thoughtful, Richter has kindly gray eyes set beneath thick brows and a remarkably un-creased forehead, and he works in silence with nothing but a ladder, canvas and paint. He declares early on that “talking about painting is pointless,” so Belz doesn’t include much of that kind of commentary in her movie. When the artist does speak of his work, he is simple and straightforward, favoring active words over conceptual ones.
“When I begin, theoretically and practically I can smear anything I want on the canvas,” he says, describing his process to the German art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloch. “Then there’s a condition I have to react to, by changing it or destroying it. But there’s no concept. Each step forward is more difficult,” he concludes, “and I feel less and less free -- until I realize that nothing is wrong anymore. At that point, there’s nothing more to do.”
One of the great modern painters, Richter is celebrated for bringing new life to the medium in a photographic age, not least in the Abstrakte Bilder that are the focus of this documentary. His history, biographical and otherwise, is touched on only briefly -- in one moving moment, he recalls having left East Germany as a political refugee at the age of 29, never to see his parents again, and the film includes a short cameo by his tiny, soft-spoken New York dealer, Marian Goodman, who stops in to check on his progress for her show. The two of them together, shy and polite, are a far cry from the hackneyed image of superstar dealer and blockbuster artist.
Watching Richter work, free of painting assistants or technological support and guided only by his eyes and his intuition, can feel strange and even intrusive. As the adage reminds us, an act observed is an act disturbed -- and though the artist is patient during most of the filming, the issue comes to a head in one compelling, personal scene.
Richter has been wrestling with a worked, textured canvas until finally, unsatisfied, he covers it entirely in cobalt blue, a move that he immediately regrets. “It’s not working,” he says to Belz. “I don’t think I can do this -- painting under observation. It’s the worst thing there is, worse than being in the hospital.” Under the searing eye of the camera, he says, he “walks differently,” explaining that painting is an endeavor suited for someone cowardly, “someone who would not speak up in public but then goes for it in secret.”
The tension between his public success and his private sensibility is palpable; the camera follows him to the opening of an exhibition in 2008 at the Museum Ludwig in Koln, where, when shutter-snapping photographers corner him against a wall, he whispers, “I just want to get out of here.” Despite his modest nature, however, Richter is not immune to the desire for approval.
“Painting itself is a secretive business, but sometimes I’m worried when I show a painting,” he confesses, “that people won’t notice.”
“Notice what?” Belz ventures, off screen. “That you’ve let it all hang out?”
Richter nods. “That said, it’s a nice feeling when they do, a feeling somewhere between being caught and --” a pause, “being seen.”
Gerhard Richter Painting, directed by Corinna Belz, Mar. 14-Mar. 27, 2012, Film Forum, 290 West Houston Street, New York, N.Y. 10014.