Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gerhard Richter Painting, A Film by Corinna Belz

Corinna Belz, Gerhard Richter Painting, 2011

In the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in the DVD extras of Gerhard Richter Painting, Richter announces that the importance of the “Color Charts” — his 1990s paintings that resemble the same charts used by interior decorators — lies in their resemblance to reality. This, he thinks, rescues them from adulation by a reverent public. As we have come to expect from Richter’s paintings themselves, he then proceeds to muse that they are anything but a representation of reality: he sees and understands the color charts to be closer to the infinite possibilities of abstraction than they are to the everyday world. The colors proliferate uncontrollably to infinity, giving them lives of their own, placing them beyond human comprehension. And he’s right, any attempt to escape adoration is dashed in the very same moment that the paintings appear mundane, of the material world.
Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4)
I don’t like the idea of a prophet of painting, but Gerhard Richter Painting convinces me that something magical happens in this artist’s presence. Something comes to life in the air that surrounds him, his paintings, and the silence that fills the space between him and them. Richter is a visionary, in the most Romantic of senses. He is able to see the world, a world, in a way that does not exist before or without his paintings. Richter and his paintings take us somewhere beyond language, to a place where something happens, a something that invites us to know the world in a different way. Corinna Belz’s film takes us to this place, a place that can only be experienced in the daily practice of Richter’s painting.
Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4)
On one of the few occasions when Belz speaks to Richter, preferring to preserve the silence of the working studio, she asks him how to explain his “maturity,” even as a young art student. Richter is surprised, as though he has never thought of this question, as though he is still learning how it is he sees so much, so deeply. “Keine Ahnung” he replies after a period of reflection. I could have answered the question for her, but again, that’s the point of this film: Gerhard Richter Painting shows there is no explanation for Richter’s magic. Rather, in the silence that surrounds him, as if holding up a mirror to the ambiguity of his paintings, the mystery lies in the unending process, of rethinking, repainting, refiguring.
Gerhard Richter in his Studio

In the film, Richter tells us what we already know about the paintings, but perhaps, have never had the language with which to articulate it: painting is an act of destruction he says, “the basis is green, that’s why there’s so much red”. This perplexing “explanation” is the very core of what he does, of what painting means to Richter. In the film we watch him dragging paint across canvases with a giant squeegee, scraping, painting with a brush, concealing and revealing, creating and destroying the conversations of colors. And we see the contradictory narratives of Richter’s process left present on the finished canvases. On the one hand, there’s nothing secret or mystical about the journey these paintings have gone through: it is all there in the layers, the pulling away of one to reveal others, the retouchings, the scraping, the violence and love of the painter’s affair with his medium. And yet, even after spending 97 minutes inside his studio, watching him work, everything remains a secret. Belz talks about the studio as Richter’s inner sanctum, the only place where he seems comfortable and quiet. And the secrecy of what he is doing is suspended in between the layers of the huge abstract works we see him create in the course of the film. The unfathomable of the paintings, whatever it is that lifts us up to a place where we can’t help but revere is made palpable by Belz’s film. This oscillation between the ethereal and the practical reality of paint is the magic of Richter’s work.

Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (910-2)

Perhaps the most intimate moments in Gerhard Richter Painting come when Richter or his assistants prepare the paint. The near absence of voiceover, with sparse musical accompaniment draws us into the sounds of the studio. And the most seductive of all is that of paint as it is poured, cleaned, spread on the squeegee with a spatula. The sounds are so luscious, sensuous, and as the camera moved closer, I was filled with the distinctive smell of wet paint. This, together with the most exquisite moments in the film: when the camera watches Richter applying paint, and he turns on the canvas.  It is the most beautiful, lyrical moment on the canvas, giving depth and dimension to an abstract image, and yet, the turn, like a change of mind adds ambiguity, makes the paintings into a realization that never takes place.

Gerhard Richter, Selbstporträt (Self Portrait), 1996

Inside the studio we see that no one comments, let alone passes judgment on the paintings. Richter’s assistants are as quiet as he is, shrugging their shoulders, smiling wryly, holding close to themselves what it is that makes these paintings work, what makes them great. One of the assistants explains that if you tell Richter his painting is good then he will destroy it. He explains this as though the reasoning is logical to everyone “you can’t influence the painting by saying something about it. If you say it’s great leave it like that, he’s more likely to consider changing it”. Thus, those closest to the master become like the master in his presence: silent, gracious, listening as if for a wisdom they know is in the air breathed by Richter’s paintings. Marian Goodman arrives at the studio one day, and she too is enveloped by the Richter grace: listening, seeing, quietly looking at what Richter has prepared for her exhibition. And then, when he goes to openings: the Abstrakte Bilder exhibition at the Museum Ludwig, the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraits, and a 2009 opening at Marian Goodman’s New York gallery, we squirm with discomfort on his behalf as the curators, visitors and museum directors pay him every compliment in the world. It’s no compliment to pay Richter a compliment. Rather, like his paintings, he functions in the silence of listening and looking, where praise lavished in words has no place. 

For its ability to capture all that is secreted in and by Richter's paintings and the process of their execution, Gerhard Richter Painting has the effect of an exhibition: we come away in the certainty that the world will never be the same again, that thanks to Richter, we have been given the opportunity to see the world in a way we could never have otherwise imagined.  

All images courtesy of Gerhard Richter

1 comment:

Toby Lloyd-Jones said...

Fascinating, thank you.