A Secretive Business
Painting is another form of thinking.
“We should talk about the film now.” Gerhard Richter has been painting, and now he’s paused, and talking with Corinna Belz, who is filming him painting. “It was an overblown idea to add that now,” he notes, looking to the canvas, just now transformed with blue. From off screen, Belz wonders why, whether he was “at a loss.” He shakes his head. “There’s always that. That’s not the problem.” No, he looks at the camera. “I don’t think I can do this, painting under observation. That’s the worst thing there is.”
In fact, Richter will go on, painting under observation in Gerhard Richter Painting. But he’s spoken a question that hovers over the documentary, and over art about art more generally, and over art even more generally. What can it mean, to represent, to appeal, to make a connection? What can it mean, to whom and to what ends? How is the process of making art—the painting, the filming—also art? These are the questions Belz’s film follows as it follows the 80-year-old Richter, who is, by turns, charming and awkward, thoughtful and frustrated, original and symptomatic.
“Yes,” Gerhard Richter laughs, his face twisted a bit at the effort. “Worse than being in the hospital. It’s been a while since I was in the hospital, but I felt just as exposed.”
No doubt. But Gerhard Richter Painting—which opens at Film Forum on 14 March—does not expose so much as it reflects. It shows Richter in his studio in Cologne, it shows his assistants preparing paints, and it shows paintings, in progress and in a sort of stasis, waiting to be changed or destroyed, improved or displayed. Over the course of his 50-year career, Richter has never remained mostly quiet, resisting interviews and explanations, preferring to let his wide-ranging work—photorealist and abstract paintings, photographs and glass sculptures—represent what they might on their own.
The film includes archival interviews, where a young, black-and-white and grainy Richter declares his early resistance to the process: “To talk about paining is not only difficult,” he says, pondering a canvas that remains undisclosed, “But 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.” A narrator notes his training in East Germany, his escape to the west (two months before the erection of the Berlin Wall), and also that his style (at the time) was called “capitalist realism.” It’s the sort of phrase that those paid to talk about art tend to make up and use, to describe activities and ideas that elude description.
Even as Gerhard Richter Painting remarks such phrasing, it offers little of its own, in the sense of narration or even questions posed. When Belz asks her subject to elaborate on something he’s said, say, why he’s called one painting “nicer” than another, his own language is less explanatory than observational. “It’s more open and freer, more cheerful,” he says, as the camera turns from his face to the painting, mostly yellow, squeegeed with red and green, some blue. “There’s a nice little spot in the middle of that structure,” he says. “Maybe this time they’ll stay so colorful, not just grey,” Richter tells Hubert Becker, one of his assistants. They laugh. “I don’t think so,” Becker says. “No, but it’s a shame, eh?” Richter says from a doorway. “They’d be so much more ‘in,’ out there in the world.”
It is funny, this perpetual juxtaposition of opposites, the in and the out there, the painting and the meaning, the possibility and the judgment. The scene cuts to more archival film, Richter’s brush stroking grey on canvas as he talks about grey. He tells a story for the camera, about seeing in his grey paintings, he found that “some were better than others.” The camera pans a wall of grey paintings, then cuts to a shot taken from a car, driving past grey surfaces, walls and fences, rainy streets pavement. The place is certainly grey. But it’s not clear what that has to do with the paintings. “This is just where I am, I’m used to it,” he says while driving, the camera watching him even now, in profile, windshield wipers whop-whopping in the background. “If chance had brought me elsewhere, then I’d love it there.”
Again, contradictions and questions. If Richter’s painting reflects where he is, how would it be different elsewhere? Asked about the images he keeps in the barely furnished office he calls his “mini cage,” he describes their effects: a photo of the wall you’ve just seen, a beautiful Courbet tree (“So modern, I think”), a chipped stone torso (“The mutilation, mostly likely, the contrast, makes it more beautiful,” he says, mimicking the pose), and a Picasso drawing (“The brutal thing here with its growths”). He spends more time on a photo. “It’s fascinating how peaceful it looks, how normal,” he says, then points with his pen to a figure, through a gateway, near its center, smoke billowing behind: “This is the commando that was forced to burn corpses.”
The photo, you see as the camera hovering near Richter’s shoulder, showing his shadowy reflection in the framed glass, then panning slowly back to his face as he sums up, “I can’t explain it…. He’s standing as if balancing on a log, so normal.” The photo eludes language, can’t explain its meaning or even the moment of its taking. This is true for all photographs (and again, all art), those deemed “history,” and those that seem more familiar. When Richter later looks over a collection of photos of his own life, his four-year-old self and his sister, he raises the question again. “The photos create a world,” he says, “but I don’t know what’s happening outside of the frame. I don’t eve know where it is. I don’t know that woman. It’s my mother, I know that from the photo, but not because I remember it.”
The film is another form of remembering, another context and set of frames. It grants something resembling access to his painting. The granting is its own problem, for, as Richter says, “Painting is a secretive business anyway,” and the filming makes it public, even if only to the person holding the camera (Belz made a short film about Richer in 2007, Gerhard Richter’s Window). The film creates connects these notions, of private and public, the expression and resistance that make Gerhard Richter paint. It’s an “aggressive business,” he says, in which “Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.” But it’s also creation, a process in which producer and consumer both have parts.
As Richter paints over a canvas, working on it until, “According to my standard, nothing else is wrong with it,” he finds the painting he’s making. The film too finds itself, in shot after shot of painting, in a brilliant mix of noises, brushes and squeegees scraping canvas (sounds that underline the labor of painting), rubber-souled shoes squishing on gallery floors, gallery patrons shuffling and murmuring. But as these images and sounds are immersive, others are also gestural—an open doorway or a window, distant sirens, doors opening or footsteps approaching—alluding to what’s happening outside of the frame.