Painting’s Secrets: Gerhard Richter Painting, directed by Corinna Belz

Gerhard Richter Painting is a film that fully lives up to its name. In the course of this 97-minute-long German documentary, we see Gerhard Richter, one of the most significant living artists, actually painting for 28 minutes. Painting for him means making marks with brushes of various sizes, dragging large squeegees across the surfaces he’s working on and looking at the effect these techniques have had. Painting is also thinking and throughout the film Richter shows evidence of an almost painful intellectual process as he attempts to figure out what to do next in his constant quest to make the best possible painting. We are barely into the film when we see, for the first time, a pair of paintings he will work on for eight and a half minutes of film time. (While the actual time it took to complete the paintings was much longer, seeing an artist working on a single painting for this long is an unusual and remarkable event). These works will vex him so thoroughly that they almost become protagonists, characters in the unfolding creative drama of making a painting.

This is a revealing and insightful film. It is full of information about how Richter works, how his studio operates and how formidable is his reputation. One of his studio assistants is making scale models for a series of upcoming exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.

There are valuable facts about his use of material. From one of his studio assistants we learn that he uses liquid paint for the abstractions and higher quality tube paint for the realist paintings (“the classics - titanium white, ivory black, cadmium shades, red, ultramarine, lemon yellow”). We also learn what he doesn’t use (“nothing exotic like Neapolitan yellow, and no earth tones”). We see the various gestures and movements in his repertoire; it is genuinely fascinating to watch the changing pressures of his hand, the force of the sweep of his arm, the delicate stutter across one surface or the magic of his brush as it turns a corner on another. What is particularly riveting is the glacial slowness with which he drags the large squeegee across his paintings. It isn’t just a question of speed but of strength. For Richter, painting is not a country for old men. He is 77 years old when these scenes are being filmed and he moves with the power, agility and grace of a much younger man. Director Corinna Belz has paced the film to correspond to Richter’s rhythm, so things rarely move quickly. There are frequent pauses in his observations as he carefully considers what to say next. The comments are as thoughtful as his movements are compelling.

Belz also matches her sense of tone to the artist’s in every aspect of the film. In one archival section from Düsseldorf in 1966, Richter is talking about the revelation that came to him about his grey paintings. He claims his motivations weren’t serious but then he noticed, to his surprise, that there were differences and that some were better than others. He also recognized that while his initial fondness for grey might have come from photographs, now it is about painting. Belz picks up on the greyness like a chameleon. She shows him working on a ubiquitous pair of grey paintings and then cuts to him driving through Cologne on a grey, rainy day. “This is just where I am,” he says by way of explaining why he lives in Cologne, a city he describes as “very ugly.” Even a casual trip in a car presents a palette that delineates Richter’s mood.

But for all of the information the film gives us, Gerhard Richter Painting is a film resolutely lodged in the interrogative vein. Almost every sequence, whether Richter is making a painting or talking about making one, deals with the question of what makes it good and, more critically, when is a painting done? In a conversation he has with Benjamin Buchloh, the critic attempts to get at what are the markers Richter uses to decide the quality and completion of a work. When Richter says that the abstractions have no template and that things happen spontaneously, Buchloh suggests his method is a form of automatism, which is immediately rejected. Then Buchloh puts a question in the form of a penetrating answer: “So you paint without a plan but you know exactly when it’s right?” Richter finds this description more agreeable. “I work until nothing is wrong anymore; then I stop.”

The persistent question of when is the painting finished becomes a running joke. Five minutes into the film the director’s disembodied voice asks, “Will they stay like this?” and Richter’s answer is, “Presumably, they look finished don’t they?” At this juncture the painter re-enters the frame and makes a few small changes with a brush. We hear the director again, always off-camera, “The paintings have changed a lot,” and the painter agrees. “That’s the thing, they do what they want,” he says. “I planned something totally different. Pretty colourful,” and with that he walks out of the studio, the look on his face equal parts bemusement and confusion.

Everyone in the studio shares in this beguiling uncertainty. Herbert Becker, the second of two studio assistants, tells Belz that he is reluctant to say he admires any of Gerhard’s paintings “because when someone likes them too much then he has a reason to destroy them.”

Even the process of understanding the paintings is a variation on unfinished business. In an amazing scene in the Museum Ludwig in Köln, Richter and Kaspar König, the director are discussing his upcoming exhibition. The conversation turns to the lighting system and the ceiling grid that supports it. Richter says it is his biggest worry and that he wants cold, neutral lighting, what he calls “naked light.” König reassures him that the problem will be addressed. Satisfied with this solution the two men walk out of the gallery, the floor of which is lined on both sides with Picasso paintings. On the way out, we hear Richter adding additional weight to his request. “The exhibition is pretty ruthless, just the large abstracts. It has to be a cold light, so that the people are happy to get out. They shouldn’t feel comfortable.” Richter doesn’t want viewers to spend time with the paintings, as if that luxury would facilitate an understanding of what he has done. For him, enigma is preferable to explanation. His conviction is that “it is difficult to talk about painting, perhaps pointless, too. Painting has nothing to do with communicating in words. It is another form of thinking.”

In one of the judiciously chosen archival segments from 1966, Richter tells a television interviewer that not only is his attraction towards, “things I don’t understand” but that he actively dislikes those of his own paintings that he can understand.

This state of not knowing and the film as a show-and-tell display come together in an extended question and answer conversation between Belz and Richter. The artist is in his studio in June of 2009, and we watch him putting red paint on a large squeegee to apply to a yellow painting on which he has already done a considerable amount of work. (In the rough cut, Belz actually had included 80 minutes showing Richter working on the yellow paintings). What remains in the final cut is three minutes of this process, and it is mesmerizing. The painting is less a static thing than a shape changer undergoing radical shifts in front of our eyes. He leaves the squeegee behind and takes a wet paintbrush to make horizontal lines that cut into the still-wet red paint. Then he stops and says, “I don’t know what to do next.” He decides to load up the squeegee with a deep blue paint, but then changes his mind, saying, “It’s not working. I can’t smear that on. It’s an overblown idea and it would totally destroy the painting.” Then he says to Belz, “We have to talk about the film.”

Richter, who is an inordinately private man, has realized that the camera is watching him, and because of it he is changing. He even walks differently. “I don’t think I can paint under observation,” he says, and you can see that his distress is almost painful as he tries to explain how the intrusive camera eye is affecting him. Its presence has collapsed the line between private and public, with the result that “the nice feeling between being caught and being seen” has evaporated. Painting, he has realized, is “secretive,” and the camera has compromised that condition. “It’s an aggressive business, or occupation,” he says, and voices his admiration for the way Theodor Adorno explains the unique nature of painting. “You can’t put pictures together. Paintings are always mortal enemies. That’s the correct term. It has to do with destruction. Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.”

So while Gerhard Richter Painting wants to tell us the secret of painting and Richter wants to be a secret-sharer, both ultimately come up short, and not for want of trying. At the beginning of the film, even before the title comes up, we see Richter attempting to get a tripod straight so that he can document the pair of grey monochromes. These two paintings act like mute sentinels throughout the film, and when the camera cuts to their surface we see reflected, in a fleeting and uncatchable form, the figure of Richter moving around his studio. Belz stays on this for almost a minute. It is an image of the painter held within his painting, but he is a shape with no clear definition. It’s as if we’re watching his mind move; he is more a spirit than a man. By the end of the film, after having observed him paint and hearing him talk about painting, our sense of him is as unclear and undefined as the shadowy figure reflected on the surface of his beautiful, his inexplicably beautiful paintings.

So the secret remains, along with the evidence of something miraculous having happened, and the joy of recognizing its occurrence. In a sequence from 2009, he is working in his studio and pushing with the squeegee, seemingly applying as much pressure as he is capable. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gorgeous yellow opens up in the wake of the squeegee and lights up the surface. Richter stops and looks at the line his drag has just revealed; in his comment to one of his studio assistants he can contain neither his surprise nor his delight. “Did you see it? The yellow. No idea how it got there.” And then he adds, “Man, is this fun.”

We’re equally delighted. Suddenly painter and viewer see the world in exactly the same way, with equivalent knowledge. And Richter, unlike what he has done throughout this finely made, revelatory and perplexing film, isn’t posing a question. He’s just happily making a declaration. The mysterious yellow has improbably made an appearance and its coming to the surface is impossibly right.

Volume 31, Number 2: Arnaud Maggs

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #122, published May 2012.

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