Creation should be solitary. A collaborator may help, although their input does not stymie the process. What matters is most is the lack of observation, which is why a documentary like Gerhard Richter Painting is so rare. Director Corinna Belz has unparalleled access to the prolific painter, a prolific, abstract minimalist who still creates massive works at age 80. In one way, the documentary unfolds as a slow pace and seemingly little happens on the canvas or in Richter’s mind. But for those who cannot imagine how an artist transforms a blank canvas into a masterpiece, there are few documentaries so fascinating.
Belz tries to be unobtrusive as she watches Richter and his assistants in action. There is virtually no dialogue as he works on his latest painting. Given how otherworldly his work can look, his process is remarkably simple. He uses striking colors – an assistant notes he never chooses earth tones – to swath paint in a seemingly random pattern. He then uses transparent material, possibly plexiglass, to distort the pattern with bold lines. Occasionally he’ll take a brush to touch up a small section. He says he’ll know the painting is done when “there’s nothing wrong in it.” If something is wrong, he waits a day or two for looking at the painting again.
Admittedly, this kind of filmmaking requires patience. As an interviewee, Richter is cagey and reserved; he seems more comfortable with a funny anecdote than a serious discussion of his work. So Belz supplements the long takes with interviews from a younger Richter, as well as from those are closest to him. Richter also prepares for a gallery opening in Germany, using a 1:50 scale-model to determine the precise location of every painting (he is demanding about the lighting, too). The main narrative of the documentary, however, is the two paintings Richter develops from their beginning. By the end, they look stunning – full of brilliant colors, like a volcano – and it is clear how experience refined his process.
There is only one time Richter lets his guard down, and it happens late in the documentary. Talking to a longtime friend and art historian, he’s comfortable verbalizing the broader context of his work, and what he feels about it. His answers are initially vague, then his concessions reveal his belief in the power of art. It’s a lovely scene, one that’s surprisingly thoughtful, particularly since so much of Gerhard Richter Painting is wordless. But because Belz invites us to analyze the exact moment where chaotic color becomes art, the conversation is unnecessary. Like the ubiquitous definition of pornography, Richter’s process teaches us to know it when see it.