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Gerhard Richter – Painting

June 17, 2012
Gerhard Richter - Painting

If you’re an avid follower of the fine art world you’ll know that Gerhard Richter is the hottest thing going these days. At least, that’s what I’m told; I’m not an avid follower, and I didn’t know much about Richter before seeing Corinna Belz’ documentary, Gerhard Richter – Painting. After seeing it, I still don’t know much about him. A thorough understanding of his work seems to be an entrance requirement for this movie.

Richter’s work, at least in the time Belz was filming, seems to be marked by a certain peculiarity: he takes a basic painting and then starts smearing, streaking, and smothering it almost to the point of unrecognizability, and sometimes beyond. It seems that sometimes he’s started with photorealistic renditions similar to his earlier works and has applied this “blur” to them. We see him working with abstracts works, where the base piece comes together much more quickly.

Early on, Richter stands in front of two plain white canvases with a bucket of paint in one hand and a house-painter’s brush in the other. He slops some yellow merrily onto one canvas before going to consider the other. A little later he returns with a blue bucket, which smears and blends with the yellow. Red follows. Richter paces back and forth, daubing at each piece until he decides to stop.

At this point he likes them, but he says that in some time — maybe hours, maybe days — he’ll realize that they’re absolute rubbish. He comes back with an enormous “squeegee”, which is more of a ten-foot piece of plexiglas than the rubber scraper we’re familiar with. He loads it down with paint and proceeds to smear it across the canvases. Sometimes it leaves blobs of paint in the textural imperfections of the existing painting as the blade passes; sometimes it scrapes up existing paint, pushing it forward to be redeposited later. He repeats this process with different squeegees or brushes, in different directions, over and over, until he judges them complete. At least, complete for the moment — two pieces reach an almost uniformly mottled grey-brown, only to be all but completely whitewashed later.

Belz includes some shots of Richter in his office, talking about the images on his walls, or preparing for a gallery opening, negotiating over the lighting. She even digs up some old documentary footage of him from the 1960s, shortly after his escape to West Germany.

The thirty-year-old Richter blows off questions about explanations, saying that painting is a way of expressing what cannot be put into words, and that he can’t answer what he was thinking about while painting because painting is itself a different kind of thinking. These comments seem to be held up to excuse Belz from asking the questions again of the eighty-year-old Richter, which really is her job as a documentarian.

Besides, I don’t even buy it as anything but the posturing of a pretentious twit, which it seems every artist is at the beginning of his career. It’s not that I think he’s wrong, but humans are masters of ex post facto rationalization. Even if, on some level, the Richter explaining the painting is not the same Richter who was actually doing the painting, there’s no reason he can’t look at the work and make conjectures, the same as any other critic. To not press him on this point marks this as a cinematic puff piece.

Someone is making decisions as these paintings are composed. We see Richter right in the middle talking about how loading a squeegee up with blue paint was a huge mistake and he had to walk away before he made it worse by actually applying it to the canvas. A decision-making process is taking place, and there is no attempt made to explore it.

I’m not denying that on some preverbal level Richter knows something that would be “better” or worse” depending on whether or not he used the blue paint. I’m not even saying that the results — and thus the decisions — are entirely subjective. Mathematicians can make objective measurements that clearly separate Jackson Pollack’s paintings from similar imitations, which was obviously not Pollack’s conscious intention. But if the decision-making process is really so completely internal to Richter’s own artistic mind, what exactly is the point in watching it?

If the art is in how an observer reacts to a piece, then whatever the artist did to get to that point is immaterial. If the art is partly in what the artist does — and Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning shows that clearly it is — then in documenting the artist’s process some attempt should be made to explore what’s going on, if not by the artist than by the documentarian. And if Belz isn’t even going to do that, then she’s not a documentarian; she’s a public-relations representative. We’d learn as much by watching the paintings dry.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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