Recently, I went to a screening of the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Going into the film, I was downright scared that I would have a repeat experience of being completely bored out of my mind, which unfortunately was my experience with another recent documentary about Anselm Kiefer, a different yet equally famous contemporary German artist.
Instead, to my surprise, I was riveted for an hour and a half, much of the time just watching Richter paint, step back, and look quizzically at a work in progress. The film captures what seems like Richter’s own struggle between a sense of morality and purpose versus banality, where ultimately painting is simply a daily “practice.” As he looks with what appears to be distrust and contempt at his own creations in progress, the film in a straightforward way draws us into an inexplicable dilemma. Will Richter squeegee and scrape out what looks like a finished painting? Will he leave another be that looks unfinished? Why? What quality is he looking for? Richter can’t exactly answer. As he states in old interview footage from the 1960s, painting is not about words or language and not easily translated or reducible to such. In his words, “to talk about painting is not only difficult but perhaps pointless, too.”
This could sound like a cop out from a lesser artist, but with slow pans in the film of small scale reproductions of Richter’s past work laid out in models of museums, as he preps for shows around the world, I saw a grappling search for a visual language. The old cliché meanings attached to Richter where he is summed up as blurring photo-realism and mechanically churning out abstraction to somehow level any hierarchies or obliterate boundaries between representation and abstraction seem like boring explanations when held up against the more compelling, rawer personal quest to find (or question) whether any truth (even fleeting ones) can still be found in painting.
The film is largely about this search and the process of making. Richter’s routine is made visceral with crisp sound, and I almost felt like I was in the studio with him, scared to make a sound in my seat as he worked. The mundane does take on a heightened effect: the methodical slopping of paint with a palette knife and then the slow, deliberate scraping sound of his guillotine-like tools that appear to be specially made for his canvases. Sometimes it is almost brutal as he cuts away layers of a painting’s surface with an actual knife. At the risk of being way too literal, it all seems to fit into Richter’s doubting psyche where beauty and violence are complexly linked, or at least constantly held in tension together. The filmmaker talks with him about the images on his studio wall, and he simultaneously describes the grace of an ancient statue’s torso and its alluring “mutilation.” Another image on his wall is a small black and white photograph where German commanders nonchalantly burn bodies during the Holocaust. Richter remarks on how shockingly mundane it looks to him as commanders appear to casually chat with each other.
Aesthetic and ethical judgments may shift from historical moment to moment, but for Richter, who has lived through these shifts, they seem in flux from one glance at a painting to another. It does not amount to a casual kind of relativism that detractors (or advocates) of postmodernism might pin to Richter, but something deeper that is more about the fundamental unreliability or uncertainty of human judgment. In the film, it is portrayed as a kind of straightforward realism, an attempt to understand how our perceptions form out of disposition, chance circumstance, and immediate feeling. For example, driving through Cologne, Richter comments on how chance brought him to this “ugly” city, and how if he were somewhere else he would probably like it just the same. Richter also looks at family photographs strewn on a table and is captivated by the world they form, but not necessarily seduced by sentimentality. He knows that there is so much outside the frame that is unknowable. The photographs have shaped his memory, instead of triggering or allowing access to an intrinsic or “real” history of his childhood. Nevertheless, this does not diminish their value as he reflects on a photo of his parents who he left in East Germany in 1961 to unknowingly never see them again.
When not in the studio, the film shows Richter hopping around the globe to different high profile retrospectives of various bodies of work from portraits to abstract painting done in the 1980s. He appears accommodating, but uncomfortable with the art world’s adoration. I would guess that he is unsure what he sees in his own work and its value, let alone what others might see in him. The film as a whole seems to be a sketch of a new kind of reduced romanticism where the heroic gesture of Pollock’s drip is replaced with Richter’s skeptical scrape. Painting may not be the best tool to plunge into the psyche or change the world, but it still does something. Because he does not know exactly what, Richter is still compelled to paint, even after a lifetime of work.
Of course, my own doubting mind makes me wonder if I was too sucked into the illusion of a studio visit of Gerhard Richter with the seamless HD camera work and the very sensitive role the filmmakers appeared to play as intruders into a private space. Like Richter’s family photos, there is much outside the “frame” of the documentary, and I am sure there are many different ways his past and current success could be portrayed. Maybe he is past his prime simply pumping out saleable abstractions without much novelty or ingenuity? But I would be lying if this crossed my mind as I watched the film. The self-induced agony of the process was too palpable and compelling. As he explains in his typical, disarmingly simple way:
When I first approach a canvas, I can smear anything I want on it. Then there is a condition I must react to by changing it or destroying it. There is no plan. Each step forward is more difficult and I feel less and less free until I finally conclude there’s nothing left to do.
But if there’s agony, where is the ecstasy of the initial freedom? It might seem completely missing until at the very end Richter chuckles and says to one of his assistants, “this is fun.”