Squeegeeing genius’s surface
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 15, 2012
The documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting” will appeal, in descending order, to working painters, confirmed Gerhard Richter fans, and active and knowledgeable lovers of contemporary art of all stripes.
Much of the film shows the German artist working on his famous series of abstract paintings, which he creates by pulling giant paint-laden squeegees over the surface of his canvases. They make a satisfyingly sticky squishing sound.
For its target demographic, it is a singularly engrossing and provocative window into the studio practice and philosophy of one of today’s greatest painters. If there’s a shortcoming with the film, it’s that it shows Richter making only one kind of painting. Known for photorealistic portraiture, large gray monochromes and pixel-like “color charts” (among other things), Richter offers no secrets about the creation of those other works.
Of course, that’s due to when the film was made. Although director Corinna Belz includes some archival interviews from the 1960s and 1970s with the notoriously media-shy artist, most of it was shot during the past five years, with the studio footage dating mainly from 2009. It’s a real pleasure to watch Richter, who appears to be in remarkable physical condition, manipulate a squeegee that’s taller than he is. He gets little help from his two strapping studio assistants, who don’t seem to do much more than prepare and mix paint, which must be lump-free.
As absorbing as these scenes are, it’s also informative to hear Richter, 80, talk about his art, despite his own disclaimer, early in the film, about how “pointless” it is to talk about painting, which he describes as a way of thinking separate and apart from language.
Among the many topics raised -- including the tension between the desire to reveal and the desire to conceal oneself in one’s art -- the most thought-provoking ideas brought up by Belz’s film have to to do with exactly how Richter knows when a work is finished, and whether it’s any good.
When the artist’s assistant Hubert Becker turns to the filmmaker early in the movie and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they look finished?” about two canvases that may or may not be ready for prime time, the question strikes the listener as a darned good one (and possibly unanswerable). Richter himself is hard-pressed to answer it, although he tries, later, by explaining that he stops when there’s nothing more he can do. (The use of the squeegee creates an elaborate back-and-forth dance between adding paint, like frosting, and then scraping it off to expose what’s underneath.)
Richter offers multiple explanations of how he knows when a painting is done. They range from the mundane to the lofty. He talks about one piece looking “open” and “cheerful,” but also delves into notions of beauty, truth and ethics. In one interview, he attempts to elaborate on his famously ambiguous and somewhat grandiose comment that painting is a “moral” act.
“Gerhard Richter Painting” offers a convincing argument that its subject thinks about all of those things and more. At one point, Belz asks Becker why the assistant keeps his mouth shut in the studio, offering little direct feedback about the work. Becker’s answer suggests that there are hidden depths to Richter that the film can only scratch superficially. “When someone likes a painting too much,” Becker says of his boss’s response to praise, “he has a reason to destroy it.”
Contains nothing objectionable. In German with English subtitles.