Film Reveals Gerhard Richter’s ‘Secretive Business’

“Painting under observation is worse than being in the hospital,” Gerhard Richter tells filmmaker Corinna Belz, shortly after she has installed herself and a small crew in his bright, clutter-free studio outside Cologne, Germany. Fortunately, the artist agreed to endure several months of scrutiny as he went about what he describes to Belz as “a secretive business”: painting a series of giant abstracts in the spring and summer of 2009. The result is Gerhard Richter Painting, a mesmerizing documentary that made its U.S. debut last December at Art Basel Miami Beach and is now playing at Film Forum in New York. “My interest was to show Richter at work,” says Belz, who first convinced the artist to appear on camera in her 2007 short, Gerhard Richter’s Window (fingers crossed for a trilogy). “How he moves, how he applies paint to canvas, his compelling squeegee technique.”

Between shots of Richter wrestling with fresh buckets of finely strained oils and silently pondering his progress, archival footage, and the perspectives of a couple of studio visitors (Marian Goodman, Benjamin Buchloch), Belz gently coaxes him to discuss his process and even his parents. And listen closely. “The soundtrack includes such things as the succulent sputter and pop of paint being moved in large quantities across surfaces with spatulas,” said Robert Storr, who organized MoMA’s 2002 Richter retrospective, before last week’s debut screening. “In other words, it’s a very realistic, very materialistic experience of what paint actually is, and it gives you an appreciation for the work, because moving that amount of what [Philip] Guston called ‘colored dirt’ around is not a romantic activity. It’s very much of a craft, and Richter very much approaches it as a craft.”