Review: ‘Gerhard Richter Painting’ Meets the Artist on His Own Terms

By  · Published on March 15th, 2012

In one of the few times that Corrina Belz’s documentary Gerhard Richter Painting breaks its present-tense, fly-on-the-wall approach to its titular subject, an archival black-and-white interview of a much younger Richter is shown. In the interview, Richter states, “To talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that.”

Belz’s film seeks to meet the artist on his own terms, providing neither a complete, contextualized biography nor a day-in-the-life diary of her subject. Gerhard Richter Painting is as elegantly simple and straightforward as its title suggests: instead of chronicling the artist’s history or delving into his personal life, the film seeks to capture the process by which the most obvious subject that defines the artist’s life is made manifest, his art.

Belz’s minimalist approach to her subject is refreshing. In the movie, we are not given a “definitive” non-fiction account of Richter, but Belz attempts instead to let the subject define himself, both in the traditional fashion of verbal address (though this takes the form of impromptu confessionals during work breaks, and doesn’t revert to turning Richter into a “talking head”) and in capturing Richter hard at work constructing his paintings in an incremental fashion.

Belz’s non-traditional approach is welcome. Recent historical documentaries about iconic artisans, like Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s Eames: The Architect & the Painter, allow biographical material and personal relationships to often take primacy over the work produced, and other examinations of living artists, like Scott Hicks’s Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts (a film that Richter himself mentions enigmatically), can be compelling but ultimately overstuffed concoctions. Belz prefers the limitations provided by minimalism. Besides what seems like one single interview from the 1960s shown now and again, we only see Richter painting or staging gallery openings. One’s prior knowledge of Richter may enrich the experience of the film (I for one knew very little about him going in), but the universalism by which Belz approaches her “artist in process” renders cultural context and historical contribution inessential. To watch Gerhard Richter paint is enough.

Gerhard Richter Painting seems to exist somewhere between other recent “quiet documentaries” that depict artisans engaging in a specialized brand of work, like Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress from last year, and the cinema verite style of the Maysles’ Grey Gardens, in which the iconic subject speaks only for himself rather than by the filmmaker. Thus, Belz possesses an admirable faith in the power of the documentary to capture the reality of its subject.

But like Grey Gardens, the filmmaker and the very presence of the camera becomes a point of conversation and contention (Richter at the beginning expresses doubt that he can successfully paint while being filmed, and while watching, Richter’s potential approach to painting as “performance” does come to mind). And like El Bulli, Belz here uses the particular utilities available to one fine art in order to capture the intricate process of another. The film’s cinematography – here credited to Johann Feindt, Frank Kranstedt, and Dieter Sturmer – constructs a beautiful framework through which we can gaze at both compelling and confusing forms of abstract art. The visual composition of Gerhard Richter Painting is so brilliantly executed that it elevates the artisanal standard for the non-fiction art film – we are not simply given access to art through a camera, but entirely new art is made through existing art.

In a sense, Gerhard Richter Painting is the antithesis of Orson Welles’s essential is-it-or-isn’t-it documentary F for Fake (1972). Many art docs have followed Welles’s footsteps, from Harry Moses’s Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock to Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That, which interrogate the value of art in relation to identity and, specifically, the meaning we attach to abstraction. But now that abstract painting is nearing closer to being a century old (depending on its definition), it’s more than a little bit of a relief to see an art-doc that treats the subject pragmatically rather than philosophically – the worth of the art and the worthiness of the artist is a given in Gerhard Richter Painting, so much so that the true appeal lies not in the art’s meaning, but its creation.

Thus, Gerhard Richter Painting is at its strongest when the film fully embraces painting as its own language, as indicated by the philosophy Richter espouses in the archival footage. We aren’t given access to Richter’s inspiration or intended meaning, but are simply afforded the beauty of the act itself. But in documenting the act of painting, the film encounters two competing languages: that of paint and that of the non-fiction film. When we don’t see Richter painting, the film is just as pleasantly restrained and intricately executed, but can be structurally aimless. The gallery scenes that interrupt Richter’s practice jump around atemporally. Thus, the film does not always live up to the simple promise of its title (perhaps I was biased in expecting something similar to Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956)). We see Richter paint, but this is not structured in a way that leads to the expected finality of a completed art object, both maximally (in terms of the film’s structure not resembling that of creating a painting) and minimally (the early scenes of Richter painting are thoroughly cut, interrupting a sense of artistic process). Where Gerhard Richter Painting composes Richter’s finished works in the filmic frame impeccably, Belz does not ultimately prove the act of painting itself to be a cinematic one.

The Good Side: A beautifully executed, superbly framed, admirably restrained documentary that gives the viewer no-strings-attached access to the simple elegance of the artistic process.

The Bad Side: These minimalist efforts are often undercut by the film’s uneven structure and interrupted depictions of painting which confuse the film’s intent.

On the Side: If you’re a fan of Sonic Youth, then you’re familiar with Richter’s work. One of his paintings was used as the cover for the album Daydream Nation.