Gerhard Richter Doin’ Work

03/14/2012 4:00 AM |

Gerhard Richter Painting
Directed by Corinna Belz

Gerhard Richter Painting, the new documentary by Corinna Belz, opens with a shot of Richter setting up his tripod camera. The scene’s symbolism is clear: Richter may be the film’s subject, but he’s still in charge. Not surprisingly, given the painter’s reserve. “It’s pointless to talk about painting,” he says in one of the archival clips.

Richter’s dislike for exposés complicates Belz’s task as director. Trained in art history, she nevertheless decides, perhaps out of necessity, to keep a reverent distance. The result is engrossing at times, but also strangely numb.

In his studio, Richter is a titan. He shows up in plain clothes, like a worker clocking in at a factory. His atelier is also industrial: no adornments or distractions, just cold light and white walls (though birds’ chirping infiltrates the silence). Richter uses a squeegee to scrape and smear his canvas—watching him apply force is like witnessing an Olympic athlete, albeit in slow motion. Richter’s response to Pop art and Abstract Expressionism is detached and mechanical, staking claims to objectivity. He denies emotional meaning in his works, family portraits included. His fascination with violence and destruction merit brief mention here, but are mostly suggested through the soundtrack (the eerie music of Gyorgy Kurtag and John Cage the latter of whom Richter has paid homage to).

If workmanship is Richter’s motto, and skepticism his guiding principle, he does succumb to shamanism, at times. Richter would resent the term&8212;he has set himself apart from the priestly aura of Joseph Beuys, his method is more collected. But to what end? The paintings “do what they want,” he says. “I’m powerless.” He argues that a painting’s quality has less to do with aesthetics than with truth. But what the “truth” of abstract painting may be is less than clear. Richter collects enough clippings and references to Adorno to let on that he cares deeply about aesthetics, in ways he doesn’t care to elaborate. His reluctance stems partly from genuine difficulty in capturing a visual experience in words, but it also reveals an artist whose main approach is negation. His attitude to his own work is equally antagonistic: There is a sense that he may suddenly deem any painting “kvatch” and destroy it (per his assistant, calling a painting “good” may give Richter just enough reason to do it).

Yet Richter’s output over the past fifty years has been fairly prolific. Against some critics’ earlier dismissive judgments, he has refused to favor any particular style. His works have continued to oscillate between photorealism, blurs, color charts, sculpture, and abstract paintings, without any linear progression. Most famously, he has used illustrations and photographs as starting points for highly painterly works, reversing the prophecies of painting’s demise.

And what of Richter’s life? He shares some family photographs, moved by the illusion of reality that they create. He debunks the myth of his parents’ influence; he moved West in the 60s and did not visit East Germany until 1987, after their passing. His small son peeks into the studio; his wife comments on a painting getting washed out. To offer more could be seen as pandering to sentimentality. But without it, the movie lacks a spark, or direction. It shows the process behind Richter’s “fancy free” abstract paintings, but leaves the greater forces and themes that make him not only a famous or a rich painter but an important one unexamined.

Opens March 14 at Film Forum