If you close your eyes, it sounds like a plasterer or carpenter at work. “It” is a slow, steady, dragging sound across a textured surface, punctuated with a loud “thwack!” This is a movie, however, and your eyes are open, and you can see that it’s an older gentleman with a four-foot-long plastic squeegee working over a large canvas in a bright, clean, spartanly-furnished studio. And the “thwack” is the sound the squeegee makes when it reaches the edge of the canvas and the intense pressure necessary to scrape the thick layers of paint is released.
You wouldn’t be wrong thinking of a plasterer or carpenter in terms of the effort involved; this is strenuous physical labor for artist Gerhard Richter, who was nearing 80 when this documentary was filmed. Equally interesting is the mental and spiritual work involved, as Richter—who also happens to be the most financially successful living visual artist—painfully and genuinely wrestles with the abstract image he’s creating.
The essential point of Corinna Belz’ documentary is contained in its title; Gerhard Richter Painting is about Gerhard Richter, painting. Shot over a period of months in 2008-’09, the film documents Richter painting a series of large-scale abstracts in his Köln, Germany, studio for a major show. His assistants strain the thick paints into buckets to remove impurities. Richter, alone with the canvas (and camera) applies the bold red, yellow and blue paints with a brush. Then he takes a small squeegee and works the canvas over. He struggles with the results. Sometimes he immediately goes for the larger squeegee, applying paint to Plexiglas in thick globs to scrape across the canvas; sometimes he lets the canvas alone for an hour or a day, then paints it over completely. His struggle, Richter explains, is to know when there is nothing more to be done. (This creates tension for the viewer: Is he going to leave that big, beautiful painting alone, or will he finish it with a layer or grey.)
And that’s most of it. If you’re not interested in art or process, well, Gerhard Richter Painting is not for you. But if you give yourself over to the silences and the thought-provoking struggle, it’s rewarding.
The film also illustrates how everything that branches out from Richter’s art-making—the museum galas, the press junkets, the encounters with worshipful fans—is detached, even alienated from the act of creation (and what is meaningful to the artist). There’s a wonderful moment when Richter, walking through a large gallery space in a museum in his adopted home town, Köln, explains to the curator how he wants museumgoers to feel: like they want to get out of there.
There is just enough biography and personal detail included in the film to fill out a cursory portrait of Richter’s life, but it is mainly a film about process. And on that level, it’s a success.