The Documentary "Gerhard Richter Painting" Captures the Artist, Not the Man

The Documentary "Gerhard Richter Painting" Captures the Artist, Not the Man
Man at work: "Gerhard Richter Painting"

As a record of “Gerhard Richter painting,” Corinna Belz’s film of that name is hard to fault. It primarily shows the German artist creating from scratch a pair of predominantly yellow twinned abstracts that, after being all but destroyed by Richter as part of his process, were eventually exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Manhattan in 2009. Using a decorator’s brush, squeegees, and a large aluminum applicator, Richter also smears ribbons of white and green paint, cleaned by his two assistants, as he makes other paintings; it’s eye-opening that while the assistants are methodical in their tasks, Richter attacks canvas or glass with what to the untrained eye seems like recklessness.

Of course, Richter approaches each piece with an inchoate and subterranean vision in mind, no matter that he can’t articulate it. He is almost (but not quite) illuminating on this subject. The paintings “do what they want. I planned something totally different,” he says at one point, and, in an interview filmed in black and white in 1966 that Belz excerpts, he remarks, “You can’t think of anything. Painting is another form of thinking.” 

This is good, as far as it goes, but watching an artist paint is like, well, watching paint dry, no matter how great he or she is or how worthy of study. Magic happens, somehow – but watching it happen just isn’t as absorbing as it should be. It’s not about Richter. I suspect that observing Van Gogh or Picasso at work wouldn’t be that much more transfixing after the first half hour.

Despite his vigor, Richter is not the most reassuring of contemporary masters. Approaching 80 in the movie, he comes across as twinkly-eyed, but taciturn and oddly uncertain and self-doubting, and he admits to Belz, his unseen interlocutor, that being filmed while he’s working throws him off his stride. He is a private, guarded man not given to proclamations or public display. He admits to being quiet and cowardly. “Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company,” he says.

Gerhard Richter Painting,” which opens for a two-week run at New York’s Film Forum today, doesn’t attempt a penetrating portrait of Richter. Not until 79 of its 98 minutes have elapsed does Belz get under his skin. In 1961, we learn, Richter, who was born in Dresden in 1932, defected from East to West Germany, never to see his parents again. By the time he was permitted to return for an exhibition in 1987, they were dead. Belz probes a little longer than usual here, and Richter covers a half-sob with a joke and makes sure the camera doesn’t see his tears. It’s the only time in the film that he reveals any emotion other than irritation.

Not in the interests of prurience but to find out what makes Richter tick, one wishes Belz (who directed the short “Gerhard Richter Window” in 2007) had touched on other life-changing events in the artist's journey. However, nothing is relayed about Richter’s parents’ unhappy marriage (the man he knew as his father was not his biological father); his membership of Pimpfe, the preparatory organization for the Hitler Youth; his Uncle Rudi, an SS officer, who died in the war; and his Aunt Marianne, a schizophrenic euthanized by the Nazis (she was the teenager who holds the baby Gerhard in the photorealist painting that bears her name).

Richter’s close friendship with the abstract painter Blinky Palermo, who died a drug addict at 33, and his relationship with his second wife, the sculptor Isa Genzken, would have been part of a more biographical documentary. While going so deep clearly wasn’t part of Belz’s brief – had it have been, access to Richter would doubtless have been withheld – the melancholy and evasiveness in his work demands contextualization, or hints of a source.

Similarly lacking is discussion of Richter’s distaste for ideologies. The opportunity to discuss it arises when Richter and Belz look briefly at his blurred, objective photorealistic images of members of the Red Army Faction, dead and alive, in 1988's “October 18, 1977.” But, unquestioned about his attitude to the four Baader-Meinhof terrorists he depicted, and their suicides or murders, Richter merely comments that he survived the difficult process of painting them – it was better than not working, he says – and his complaints about the way the 15-painting cycle was “artificially staged” at MoMA in Berlin.

The film’s other serious failing is Belz’s overly reverent approach to Richter, which is underscored by trickles of mimimalist music, redolent of hushed awe. The hagiographic tone is endorsed by the inclusion of a press conference held to celebrate an opening. “Mr. Richter, you’re considered a master of changing styles. Are all your different work groups equally important to you, or do you have preferences?” fawns one journalist. “You’re one of the world’s most famous artists. How do you deal with fame?” asks another. Little wonder that Richter says, “I want to get out of here,” once the ordeal is over. Some viewers among the unconverted may feel the same about Belz's documentary which, though valuable as an educational tool and historical piece, is far from trenchant. Richter diehards will love it.

Below: trailer for "Gerhard Richter Painting"