An art film in the literal sense, German helmer Corinna Belz’s intelligently assembled observational docu “Gerhard Richter Painting” offers fascinating insight into the working process of the famed contemporary artist as he prepares a series of abstract canvases. Shooting over three years, Belz eschews voiceover narration, supplementing her perceptive lensing of Richter’s studios with new and old footage of the media-shy painter discussing his career with art historians, curators and the press; conversations with his assistants; and a mesmerizing survey of his complete oeuvre. Cerebral pic is a natural for the museum, cinematheque and educational circuit as well as specialized broadcast.
Although Richter, born in the former East Germany, has been one of the world’s most significant artists for nearly five decades, it has been nearly 15 years since he agreed to participate in a documentary. When it comes to expressing himself in words, Richter prefers written ones; thus, Belz focuses on his process of applying paint to canvas, observing keenly but without question or comment unless he speaks to her first, giving a whole new meaning to the old saw “watching paint dry.”
Alone except for his two assistants (Norbert Arns and Hubert Becker), who mix paint when he works on large canvases, Richter paints in a vast, high-ceilinged, white-walled studio that has the hushed feeling of a high-end gallery. Like Belz’s handheld camera, which shoots the canvases in closeup and long shot, the viewer becomes a silent observer as the artist paints, contemplates and sometimes destroys what he has done previously.
Apart from a sparely used modernist score, the main sounds are birdsongs from the garden; Richter’s echoing footsteps as he treads to and fro, considering the work from various angles; and the slap of a brush or the scrape of a giant squeegee across the canvas, the paint below forming unexpected colors and patterns. “Painting is another form of thinking,” Richter tells the offscreen Belz. Even though he may have something else planned, he claims that his abstract canvases “do what they want.”
Arns and Becker spend considerable time documenting Richter’s finished works in photos at a scale of 1:50 and making models of how they will be displayed. As the camera pans across these thumbnail shots against a white background in extreme closeup, it mimics the feeling of a viewer at an endless exhibition.
We also see actual exhibitions of Richter’s work in Cologne, Munich, London and New York. A stickler for detail when it comes to the display of his work, he is involved in almost every aspect, and pays particular attention to the exhibition lighting.
With Belz’s film itself a gorgeously rendered work of art, Richter should have no reason for complaint.