Corinna Belz‘s remarkable documentary about Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter Painting, is one of those films you can watch over and over again. Maybe I should be more direct: One of those films I can watch over and over again. Released on DVD in September, Gerhard Richter Painting has already enchanted me two times through, and don’t feel the least bit finished. Like that inexplicable experience when a particular landscape reaches out and grabs you from your very first encounter, Richter is pure resonance for me and was from that first exposure to his work many years ago.

One of the world’s most famous living artists, Richter is now 80 years old and still working. His paintings require physical strength as well as a finely tuned aesthetic. Belz captures both parts of his signatory art making—Richter dragging an oversized squeegee across the painted surface as well as the way his eyes engage with and interact with a work in progress. As a filmmaker, Belz is masterful at walking the line between being there and becoming transparent. After a while I am caught up in the illusion that I am alone in the studio with Richter, a respectful witness to a ritual that feels deeply personal, profound and inviolate.

A few passages from Kenneth Turan‘s thoughtful review in the Los Angeles Times rang true for me:

A serious man but playful, deeply thoughtful with a bit of a leprechaun quality, Richter pointedly wonders if “to talk about painting is perhaps pointless. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. Painting is another form of thinking.”

As if to amplify that thought, we see Richter working on a series intended for a New York City gallery opening. We watch as he first applies paint in broad yet meticulous strokes and then uses an enormous metal squeegee, so big it looks like a piece of aluminum siding, to confidently scrape away parts of what he has painted on.

Unlike his figurative work, Richter considers his abstractions to be more instinctual than planned. “Something just happens” is how he puts it. “They do what they want,” he adds, smiling. “I planned something different.”

Continuing with this theme of personification, the artist quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno about individual works of art being mortal enemies. “Each painting,” he says, “is an assertion that doesn’t tolerate company.” So how does he know when a painting is finished? “When nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop…”

One of this film’s most intriguing moments has Richter quietly confronting Belz and wondering whether giving her this kind of carte-blanche access was a good idea. Painting under observation, he says, is “the worst thing there is, worse than being in a hospital. The camera makes everything different, you feel so exposed.”

“Painting,” he says finally, “is a secret business, something you do in secret and reveal in public.” It is the achievement of “Gerhard Richter Painting” to shine a light on that hidden, private act as few other films have done.

At first I assumed that the seduction of this film was just my Richter thing and the long standing connection I have to him and his work. But when I encouraged my studio assistant Brandon—an artist from a completely different generation and orientation—to watch it as well, his email response that night was heartening: “That documentary was amazing. I will probably have watched it three more times by the time we meet again.” Yes!

And one more homage to Richter, this one by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian:

Gerhard Richter is a great artist. I don’t mean that lightly. The German painter is sublime, profound, and authoritative in a way that invites high-flown comparisons and invocations of art history. And yet, his own utterances on art would suggest he finds such hyperbole repulsive, and is suspicious of anything that romanticises the creative act…

Reality is profoundly ambiguous, modern physics tells us. An electron can be in two places at once. These paintings describe a world of uncertainty, without surrendering to despair. Richter is alive to the play of chance, the randomness of nature, the complexity of experience – yet proves that art can still bring something serious and beautiful out of the chaos. He towers above the artists of today.

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Richter and his work:


Reporting In on the Other Coast

Luc Tuymans