Helen Day Art Center - Exposed


Another Form of Thinking

By: Ethan Gilsdorf

‘They do what they want,” Gerhard Richter says early in this eponymous movie about his painting process. “I planned something completely different.”

That’s one of the many unexpected and surprising insights provided by Gerhard Richter Painting. The documentary, by German filmmaker Corinna Belz, follows Richter in his studio, largely during the period between April and September 2009, as he’s producing a series of paintings for a show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. We see Richter interacting with the paint. And with himself.

Why Richter? Why now? Many claim that Richter is the most popular painter in the world. His paintings typically sell for $3 million a pop. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2011, the total value of his works sold at auction was $200 million, “more than any other living artist and topping last year’s auction totals for Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko combined.”

But rather than focusing on Richter’s bling-factor and celebrity—although that’s clearly an issue for the camera-shy, native East German artist—Belz’s film is about process. Most of Gerhard Richter Painting is Gerhard Richter painting. We get intensive sequences of a sharply dressed Richter, seventy-seven years of age, deep in the physical and psychological muck of creation.

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Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4).
From Gerhard Richter Painting, a film by Corinna Belz
 

Belz profiled Richter for a previous film, the 2007 short Gerhard Richter’s Window, about the making of a stained glass commission for the Cologne Cathedral. This time, the portrait is more intimate and feature length. If what fascinates you is a painter trying to describe how he is feeling as he paints—“They look finished, don’t they?” he asks at one point. “Hard to say”—then Gerhard Richter Painting scratches that itch for ninety-seven minutes.

Apparently, famous painters wear pristine clothes, not smocks, as they work, because Richter wears a sweater or button-down dress shirt as he swabs fat house paintbrushes on his canvases, slops paint in buckets, and spreads color like frosting on his giant squeegees, some five or six feet long. We frequently hear the scraping sound of the squeegee. With the squeegees laden with paint, he wields them as if washing a window, wiping and dragging them slowly across the surface of his paintings. He builds up color and leaves behind striations and the effects of decay. (Observing a photograph of a favorite ancient sculpture, Richter says that the mutilation “makes it more beautiful.”) He squeegees away paint. Then, dissatisfied, he adds or subtracts more layers. Like the sped-up record of a glacier’s progress across a frozen landscape, Belz’s footage records what is at once an arbitrary and determined process. What emerges even Richter can’t predict.

In fact, the painter seems tortured by the prospect that he hasn’t yet worked the painting enough, or that he’s gone too far and ruined it. “That was an error,” he says, regretting one decision. “It won’t work.” After a quick session of brushing bright, primary colors on two canvases (he often works on two at a time), Richter wryly remarks, “These won’t hold up long here.” Then he’s hopeful. “Maybe this time they’ll stay colorful.” They don’t. In some cases, what begins as a mostly black painting ends up white.

When Richter’s paintings arrive at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne for an upcoming show, they’re not done. Richter brings his paints and giant squeegees to the museum, and keeps working the canvases. “When nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop,” is his way of explaining how he decides when he’s done. But at another juncture, he’s flummoxed: “I don’t know what to do next.”

“When someone likes it too much,” one of his assistants remarks, with what appears to be some degree of pleasure, “he has a reason to destroy it.”

Belz’s film, in German with English subtitles, breaks no new ground in filmmaking, but uses its modest techniques with success. We see handheld footage of Richter at work, as well as chatting with gallery directors and curators, and with various assistants who mix his paints and arrange miniature copies of his works on maquettes of the galleries where the full-scale versions eventually will hang. The camera lurks, lingers, and sometimes confronts the painter. There is no narration, but Belz (or some unnamed interlocutor) does pose the occasional question as Richter sorts through piles of photographs or contemplates his next move on a massively scaled abstraction.

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Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4).
From Gerhard Richter Painting, a film by Corinna Belz
 

Those seeking a comprehensive background of Richter will be frustrated. There is little of a traditional biography; only occasionally is the contemporary painter interrupted by flashbacks to interview footage from the 1960s or other periods. We don’t hear about how his career shifted from abstract expressionist and Art Informel (“art without form”) to different interests after forming a group called the Capitalist Realists. We don’t learn about his flight to West Germany in 1961, just before the building of the Berlin Wall. What passes for a retrospective of his career is a clever filmic technique: At various points, the camera scrolls across hundreds of miniature paintings that represent various phases of his work—his “photo-paintings,” Color Charts, Grey Paintings, figurative paintings, photo-realist portraits of family members, his Candles series, and so on.

Watching a painter talk about his decision-making process is a self-defeating project. Perhaps that’s the point. Richter admits as much himself. Discussing painting is, he says, “pointless.” Rather, in Gerhard Richter Painting, we see the artist at work and that’s all that matters. The evidence isn’t in the verbal rationale. The proof is found in the color and form on the canvas, which Richter works and re-works and, in a way, rewords and revises endlessly until it becomes a unique idea or emotion all its own. Just listen to the thirty-four-year-old Richter, interviewed in 1966: “Painting is another form of thinking.”

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Memoirist, journalist, and critic Ethan Gilsdorf writes about the arts, travel, and pop culture for the New York Times, Boston Globe and wired.com, among other publications. He is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com.
 


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