In ‘Gerhard Richter Painting,’ a rare look at the German artist’s secretive process

Gerhard Richter in the studio (Corrina Belz)
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As the opening credits roll on Gerhard Richter Painting, Corrina Belz’s new documentary about the artist now screening at Film Forum, the sound of breathing is first audible, then visible as the first image presents itself.

We find the breather is Richter, in his studio, trying to mount a camera on a tripod in order to photograph some paintings in progress. Belz is not the only photographer in this film.

Richter has always been preoccupied with photographs, basing many works on them, collecting them, and, as the first scene of Gerhard Richter Painting shows, keeping records through them. The photorealist style that he has incorporated into his painting since the start of his career combines the precision of the camera eye with the materiality and presence of paint. In that spirit, Belz tries to bring a full experience of presence to her photography, shooting with a handhheld DV camera and elevating the ambient sounds of the studio.

"It's pointless to talk about painting," Richter famously remarked early in his career. In this movie, he calls painting "a secretive business." In the rare scenes of this documentary where he’s not in his studio he’s found amid such clatter and bustle (particularly at two of his openings) that one understands completely the relish he feels returning to the still and quiet of his workspace. (It’s worth recalling, though, that Richter has never been particularly reticent on the subject of painting, and has written extensively, including the collection The Daily Practice of Painting.)

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Much of the film is composed of silent shots of Richter at work. It’s only about an hour and change into the film that, looking through old family photos, he finally begins conversing with Belz about his biography and explaining how he began making art.

A few well-chosen interlocutors fill in the commentary, including his friend, the art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh; his longtime gallerist, Marian Goodman; and his third wife, Sabine; as well as, on occasion, the filmmaker herself. From the first we get some idea of Richter’s theories of art, from the second some of his biography, from the third some of his tenderness, and from Belz, queries from behind the camera that mainly summon his curmudgeonliness. Archival scenes from older documentaries are used sparingly. We see him in 1966, 1976, and 1969—the archival spots are out of order, perhaps so as to avoid suggesting a progressive narrative. The young Richter has brighter eyes, a quicker tongue, and more righteous vigor than age has left him with.

Born in Dresden in 1932, Richter fled the former East Germany just months before the Berlin Wall went up, and as a result never got to see his parents again. (In a rare break in Richter’s normally pensive, wry, protected demeanor his eyes well up with tears as he talks about them). When he got to the West he enrolled in school and soon began working alongside other leading lights of his generation of German artists, including Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, and Anselm Kiefer. Those peers largely kept to circumscribed stylistic conventions, developing signature styles, but Richter’s hallmark was always eclecticism. More than plumbing the depths of any particular aspect of art-making, he has been interested in refreshing those genres that interested him, but not to show what painting can do, but what it cannot. He moves with ease between artistic modes—his work has taken the shape of photorealism, abstraction, monochromes, color grids, photography, archival work, performance, and more. There is wide variance in the look of his work, but all of it carries a singular feel.

And there’s a personal component to much of his art that’s often overlooked. His early paintings, those that took photographs as their primary inspiration (he often traced from projected images and then blurred the paint surface), focused heavily on Germany’s awful presence at midcentury’s center stage. Subjects included his "Aunt Marianne," who was sterilized and ultimately euthanized by the Nazis because of her mental illness, and his "Uncle Rudi," a Nazi soldier who died during the war. Warplanes, scenes of destruction, and the death camps recurred through his work through the decades. In Gerhard Richter Painting, he explains the images hung on his studio wall for inspiration. One is of a classical sculpture, headless and armless. He speaks of the brutality inherent in these ravages of time, and then examines a photo of the death camps, an image he notes as appearing remarkably serene until one examines it more closely. Such are the power of captured images, and images that recall a history that seems inherently personal for Richter. Yet in another scene, looking at family photos, he notes their inability to communicate a true past, to be whole documents, to fully mean something.

Belz doesn’t seem interested in German political history, despite the fact that Richter’s most famous series, the 1988 October paintings, responded to the arrests, trials, and deaths in 1977 of the Baader-Meinhof gang, a group of young German terrorists. Their 1995 sale to the Museum of Modern art for $3 million marked the moment when Richter’s market value really took off. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently noted that Richter may be the world’s top selling living artist. When these works come up in the film they are not discussed in depth, not even explained, merely alluded to and written off in passing: Richter complains of the “cheap theater” of how they were displayed in a certain gallery. He’s noted elsewhere that he finds the high prices paid for his art absurd; perhaps impatience with the market is the reason he’s not often returned to such attention-grabbing subjects.

In recent decades, Richter has devoted most of his energy to making large abstract paintings (they are reportedly the works that command the best prices too). The scenes of him working on these paintings—moving around the studio spryly, pulling big squeegie slides across his paintings, measuring their transformation—are riveting, and reason alone to see the film. He describes the process as taking away what is “wrong” about a painting until it’s done: Literally, he uses oversized squeegies to scrape paint on and off the canvases, covering and revealing layers and striations of color, standing back to analyze, and repeating the process until satisfied. (At a few points Belz shows the paint surfaces morphing, a dazzling effect deployed with admirable restraint.) The physicality and changing faces of these abstracts is well-suited to being filmed. These works are brawnier than the smaller, more delicately rendered photorealist images he’s done, and each wipe of the squeegie reveals a new scene, a surprise of color and pattern. This is action painting for the twenty-first century.

During a number of the scenes at his studios, birdsong can be heard, heightened in the sound mix, along with the scrapings of the paint surfaces, Richter’s breathing, and the glopping sound of paint being poured and mixed. He talks about “whistling for joy” while painting and, soon after, we hear more birdsong. At one point Richter admits to being uncomfortable with the camera eye intruding on his painting process, and one can sense the joy and freedom he feels when he forgets it's there, the quiet solitude his favorite state of being.

By the end of the film he’s the one whistling, while looking at a mockup of his upcoming gallery show. “Man, is this fun,” he says. He’s just revealed, in one of his scrapings, a bit of yellow pigment that surprised him, but he also seems to have picked up the camera himself for the final pan across the gallery. He’s finally found his joy in the film, when the camera eye is again his own.