If one were to compare Corinna Belz‘s “Gerhard Richter Painting” to music documentaries, it would fall somewhere between Sam Jones‘ “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and Grant Gee‘s “Meeting People Is Easy.” Eschewing the standard biographical framework, the film instead offers up a slice-of-life look at the 79-year-old artist that largely forgoes any context (for better or worse) as it dips into the banality of various show openings (like the Radiohead doc) and the fascinating method he uses to create his work (like the Wilco film). But unlike those aforementioned movies, if you don’t know anything about the life and career of Gerhard Richter, your appreciation of what’s captured will vary.
One of the most successful artists in the world, Richter is notable for not working in any one particular style or medium, moving from photo-realism to minimalism to sculpture and more throughout a career that has stretched more than five decades long. When we meet the artist in ‘Painting,’ he’s in an abstract phase it would seem (again, there is little dicussion about how he decides what medium to work in) and over the course of the film, we watch as he develops two canvases into finished pieces. Belz devotes large sections of the film to these wordless sequences of Richter painting, and it’s utterly fascinating. While armchair critics usually scoff “anyone can do that” in regard to modern art in general, watching Richter work gives the viewer a deep well of appreciation of the skill (and the little bit of luck) required to turn seemingly random batches of color into expressive, complex pieces.
Between these painting sequences, the viewer joins Richter as he attends a handful of openings for his work, capturing his unease at these events and the general hum and insubstantial noise they deliver that is a far cry from the intense and personal process required to create his art in the first place. Belz also conducts rather half-hearted interviews with everyone involved, including Richter, his assistants, museum directors and more, and intercuts it with vintage footage of the artist talking about his philosophy and approach. But the director’s clear desire to respect the artist’s need for privacy (he is famously media-shy, and even during the doc mentions how odd it is to be filmed as he works) runs counter to the demands required by a documentary film.
As an outsider to Richter’s work, one can appreciate what we see in ‘Painting’ to a degree but many aspects and questions go unanswered. What does he feel the role of assistants are in his work? What do the assistants get out of it? How has he seen the art world change? Does he feel his work is appreciated? The list could really go on, of the kinds of things you would want to know about Richter that are disappointingly kept off the table. And even when the conversation veers to a very specific series of works — in this case “Baader-Meinhof (October 18, 1977)” — unless you know what the filmmaker and Richter are talking about, you’ll be kept in the dark. Even a brief, moving chat about his parents — who he wound up being separated from for decades thanks to the Berlin Wall, never to see them again — is jarring because it comes at the end of the film, and Belz moves on from the topic almost as quicky as it comes up.
One gets the impression that Belz herself tried to make a movie utilizing the same mindset Richter uses when working on a painting, with impulse and happenstance guiding the creative drive, until an unknowable finishing point arrives. As a look behind the curtain at one of the contemporary art world’s biggest names, ‘Painting’ succeeds as far providing a snapshot of who he is in the very immediate moment. For anyone looking for anything more about Richter, his craft or his insights, ‘Painting’ will prove to be a half-finished canvas. [B-]
“Gerhard Richter Painting” is now playing in limited release. Click here for theaters and dates.