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Gerhard Richter Painting

"We have to talk about the film," says the reluctant subject during a moment of frustration in Corinna Belz's documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting.  The filmmaker, whose voice is occasionally heard, clearly knows what talking about the film means.  It means, at least in that moment, that Richter has had enough of being observed trying to create large canvases of art in his stark, white studio, a place where neither the filmmaker nor her subject has any place to hide.  Belz responds indirectly to Richter's calmly-spoken imperative, asking questions to clarify the artist's process, not the validity of filming that process.  It works:  after a brief exchange Richter is settled enough to proceed with his work and allow the filming to continue.       

Had Gerhard Richter Painting proceeded no further from that relatively early roadblock, Ms. Belz's documentary would have had significant footage to its credit.  By that point, we have indeed seen the German artist painting, working large canvasses from blank white to maps of jaggedly-defined nations of primary color to the more muted culminations consistent with his recent work, the colors melded, buried and often unexpectedly revealed as he sweeps one of his specially-made squeegees across or down the canvas. 

Even more significantly, we have seen evidence of the doubt that seems a necessary if maddening component of most any honest artistic enterprise.  This is particularly the case for Richter, roaming these days in that land without a map (or discernible landscape) known as abstract art.  He might be regarded as the world's greatest living artist - it's a much more objective  fact that he's the world's best-selling artist -  but that doesn't make a blank canvas any less daunting when he regards it alone in his studio.  Nor does it diminish the possibility that an ill-considered sweep of one of those squeegees might ruin a painting in a matter of seconds.      

Of course, part of Richter's reservation in this case is that he's not alone in the studio, as Belz's camera and often the filmmaker herself -  inconspicuous though she may endeavor to be - are making the process even more difficult than usual. "When I know I'm being filmed, I walk differently; something changes," he says after the initial "we need to talk" statement.  By all accounts a reserved man, Richter tells Belz that what he does already involves exposing himself privately and then making it public.  With the film, all privacy is lost.  But like doubts or questions about his own work, the artist calmly considers the matter and finds a way forward.  As Corinna Belz said in a recent interview, "He has an exceptional capacity to persist with something and question it at the same time."

Fortunately, Ms. Belz possesses both the necessary trust of her subject and the sensitivity to his needs to keep the film going.  Richter agreed to appear on camera for the first time in 15 years for Belz's 2007 documentary short, Gerhard Richter's Window, about the stained glass window he designed for the Cologne Cathedral.  Both Richter and Belz currently reside in Cologne, another point in the filmmaker's favor.  She asked the artist if she could film him at work and had to wait a year and a half for the answer.  Finally, the call came.  Most of the footage we see of Richter in his studio is the result of shooting between April and September of 2009.  

With the matter of if settled, there followed the question of how best to capture the painter in action.   Belz first considered a simple, fixed tripod (we see the artist fiddling with his own mounted camera during the first moments of the film).  While the static camera was able to capture establishing long shots of each canvas and function as the Belz's eye in the studio when no crew was present, she realized that it wasn't enough to capture Richter's process.  A hand-held camera proved invaluable in documenting both the physicality of Richter's painting style with the large canvases as well as the equally significant moments when he steps back to contemplate the work before him.  

During the first shots we see of Richter at work, it appears that the sonic approach of Belz's film also needs adjusting.  The soundtrack includes music by Gyorgy Kurtag and John Cage.  Richter is an admirer of the latter's work and named a series after the American avant-garde composer.  None-the-less, as we get our first look at the great man at work, the piercing violin we hear is like an unwelcome guest in the studio, providing grating and superfluous commentary.  Fortunately, subsequent scenes of the artist at work are both close enough to observe his technique and quiet enough to detect the sounds it produces:  the sticky scrape of one of the squeegees; the slurp of thickly gathered paint as Richter guides a large brush across the canvas before making a turn down or to the side.    

One of the ultimate virtues of Ms. Belz's film is its quietness, both in terms of sound and vision.  Aside from short excerpts of past interviews with Richter dating back to the 1960's and brief interludes when he ventures out of the studio to attend openings or check on installations, it's just the artist in his studio, contemplating as much as working one of the canvasses.  What enlivens this experience, beyond the unusual pleasure of watching world-renown artist actually creating work is Richter himself.  There is a quiet charisma, a magnetism, abetted by a refreshing lack of pretension.  The artist could be a slightly more subdued, closely-shorn cousin to the late Sydney Pollock.  He both looks and demonstrates the vigor of a man twenty years his junior.                 

Belz also observes and occasionally engages Richter's two assistants.  Each man is forthcoming enough to Belz, but has worked with Richter long enough to know to withhold commentary on any work in progress.  As one says, " can’t influence the painting by saying something about it. If you say it’s great leave it like that, he’s more likely to consider changing it.”  Of course, being an artist's assistant has its mundane moments.  One such task is mixing and straining paint for the master.  As the other assistant says, Richter works mainly with “the classics – titanium white, ivory black, cadmium shades, red, ultramarine, lemon yellow....nothing exotic like Neapolitan yellow, and no earth tones."  Observing this routine task, Belz makes a rare directorial flourish.  The scene begins with a camera focused on only what looks like a green udder of paint, a stream pouring from the liquid sack of pure color.  The metaphor is reinforced as both men work a bag of black paint as if milking it.  These the  paints Richter will use on a large canvas, as opposed to the higher quality tube paints he uses for smaller, more realist paintings. 

What's striking as we see Richter take one of his large abstract painting through its early stages is how seemingly imprecise is his process.  Paint is applied with a large brush quickly to the canvas in a few (usually primary) colors, the boundaries almost haphazard.  Over this his thick brush, carrying mainly one color but remnants of other hangers-on, drags the course of imprecise lines, broad, slightly curving paths over the crude map, the paint gathering heavily as he makes abrupt turns or arrives at the bottom of the canvas.  Observing this portion of a painting's creation, one might be tempted toward the ill-advised conclusion, "I could do that."  But it does raise the questions of what is a work of art and when in the process is that decidedly the case.

These are not questions that Richter himself is inclined to address in any kind of highly verbal manner.  He says in one of those early interviews, "To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless too."  This can be a source of frustration for devotees of his work and art historians alike.  Benjamin Bucholoch is one such futilely questing individual, an art historian who tries in vain to get Richter to go deeper than statements like, "...there’s no concept. Each step forward is more difficult...and I feel less and less free -- until I realize that nothing is wrong anymore. At that point, there’s nothing more to do.”   Or even more simply, "If it doesn't look good, then it's wrong."  This obviously provides no consolation to the more academically-minded, but it has the effect of making this towering figure in the art world appear simply honest, not anti-intellectual or disingenuous.

Richter's proclivity for a simplicity and minimum of verbal language would seem to partially explain the obvious affection he has for his long-time American representative Marian Goodman.  It is Goodman, arriving just a bit earlier to Richter's studio than expected that we see get the warmest greeting of anyone that the artist encounters in Gerhard Richter Painting.  A gallery owner who speaks of art in simple terms might be an even rarer creature than an artist who does so.  When we hear Goodman discuss her shared history and speak of his work, she sounds very much her client's kindred spirit, operating with a straightforward, unassuming intelligence.

It is for exhibit at Goodman's New York gallery that the paintings we see taking shape in Gerhard Richter Painting are destined.  For Richter with these abstract paintings, the key moment takes place not as he is applying paint to the canvas in deceptively offhand fashion, it's when one of those squeegee's - small or large; scraping slowly or even adhered to the surface for a time - begins to obliterate the simple groupings and lines of color.  The culmination is as much a product of destruction as construction.  The squeegee stage might consist of several sessions of transformation, sometimes one scrape too many.  Richter is quite honest about the role of chance in all this.  Toward film's end, he remarks with surprise that a streak of yellow has been revealed in a painting.    

As with Wim Wenders' Pina, another documentary about one of the great German artists of the past half century, Gerhard Richter Painting presupposes that its audience will come to the film with knowledge of the painter's oeuvre and biography, or will perhaps be curious enough to seek it out after the fact.  While offering little to no biographical detail, Pina did provide something of a career overview in the form of loving performances of some of Bausch's most famous choreography.  With Ms. Belz's film there is little more than a glance at models of exhibits in some of the world's most prestigious venues, a dizzying slide show of styles.  There's no discussion about how Richter came to do such disparate work as his numerous photo-realist portraits, color chart paintings and his recent abstract paintings.

As for biography, a small but significant portion of the artist's story is revealed as he sorts through black and white family photographs.  The first time we see him with numerous of the pictures on a table before him, he ultimately says,  "I should just throw these away."  Like Richter's art, it's a moment in Belzs' film in which art or insight happens by chance.  Without any announcement or framing, the remark and its brief aftermath become another reflection on the purpose and value of representational images.  At what point do familiar photos, even those of ourselves from decades past, become pictures of strangers?  When do the stories of our lives meld with fiction?  When Belz returns (in the course of the film) a second time to the artist still sorting through the photographs, his move from East to West Germany is briefly discussed.  Richter left East Germany just a few months before the imposition of the Berlin Wall in 1961, relocating first to Dusseldorf.  What he didn't realize is the permanence of the decision.  He would never see his parents again. Reflecting on this, Richter seems overcome by emotion, but only briefly.  This is, after all, not Gerhard Richter Emoting, but Gerhard Richter Painting.  Both he and the film move on after the brief detour into the personal

The lack of insight into the man more might trouble viewers of Gerhard Richter Painting more than any deep analysis into the nature of his art, much as they might be inextricably connected.  Another black and white photograph, this one tacked to his studio wall, is the source another brief, ambiguous reflection.  It's a photo of a World War II death camp.  Richter notes how serene the photo looks at first glance, but how ghastly is the reality of what is captured.  The artist's aunt Marianne was sterilized and later euthanized by the Nazis.  His uncle Rudi, a soldier in the German Army, was killed in 1944.  Richter has demonstrated a preoccupation with the macabre, whether the horrors of the second world war or the victims of of Eugene Speck, who were featured in his series Eight Student Nurses.  Is all of this the product of familial loss, from the war and the Cold War aftermath?  The particular baggage of Germans who lived through that period?  A more general expression of horror at humanity's darkest impulses?  Such questions and possible answers are nearly as open to interpretation as one of the artist's abstract canvases.  

"Man, this is fun," says the artist, the last words we hear from him in Gerhard Richter Painting.  It's a typically unpretentious statement from Gerhard Richter, but it also seems an arbitrary bit of uplift from Corinna Belz in a film otherwise so emotionally neutral.  Perhaps it's a more telling remark than might first appear to be the case.  The impressive vitality, physical as well as intellectual, of the man who turned 80 earlier this year might be a product of something more than good genes.  It might also have something to do with the steady move forward:  canvas to canvas; style to style.  For an artist who essentially has storehouses full of wealth and fame, the continuance seems largely driven by the pleasure and challenge of doing the work.  Like much about the film, its subject and his work, its a conclusion that one is left to draw for oneself.  Ms. Belz's film, like Richter's work these days, is a subtle though complex canvas that can bear the projection of many interesting ideas.



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