Gerhard Richter Painting

Someone around Richter has scheduled a gallery show. At the beginning of the film there are no paintings. By the end, I estimate he’s created 20 or so, enough to fill the space.

This documentary is calm. It is free of a narrative thrust. It adheres to a singular realism and is as inward as the act of painting.

It is absent of talking heads. While the filmmaker, Corinna Belz, interviews Richter’s assistants and the gallerist, she spares the audience trenchant cut-aways to art historians in warmly lit hotels, and Richter’s past lovers, and well-to-do admirers. Nor does she use visual metaphors. No time-lapse buds spreading their petals. No children.

When asked questions, Richter’s staff is working. The camera is an afterthought, they are mixing paints.

There are two paintings in particular for which Belz is a witness. They begin as fields of primary colors, applied thickly to a canvas, abstract and left there, speaking something cheerful. Richter is paces away, looking. Alone an assistant has a chuckle. I wonder how long the paintings will stay like that, he asks. Working and reworking, always, Richter.

Only once does Belz traipse into an archive. To edify us with context, there is a reel. Young Richter wearing black, in scratchy black and white, unable to cloak his mirthful eyes under black horn rims. TV people are in his studio.

An abrupt cut and Belz loses me. There are two paintings I don’t recognize. It takes a while to understand these are the ones from earlier. A tool of Richter’s is a four-foot squeegee. He pushes it to the canvas and drags the still-wet paint, folding it like dough. Not working in the spectrum of light, the colors mix into black. Slices into the top layer reveal the colors underneath. This he does sparely.

I’m actually saddened at the, what I can’t help but partially think is destruction, of the cheerful first drafts, though I know it’s of a process. Richter has the humble bafflement of an artist who doesn’t seek an understanding of his gift. When he says the paintings are finished, he doesn’t sound sure. Outside this film they are at some point deemed complete. Perhaps the deadline for the show has the final say.

Robert Hughes was right about Richter.

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